'Truly, Madly, Deeply: Exploring The Relationship Between Fandom & Mental Health' was originally written for the 2016 EMP Pop Conference, an annual music writing and academia convention in Seattle each April. It was presented on a panel called 'Fandom & The Internet,' a conversation focusing in on modern-day boy bands while exploring the influence and power of digital fan communities, touching on psychology, sexuality and social media.
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing and studying fandom—specifically, boy band mega-fandom—is looking at how this unrivaled passion and dedication affects the people expressing those emotions. This essay hopes to examine the intersection of extreme pop fandom (with specific focus on a young female audience) and mental health. From the history of hysteria to online communities of support and others of delusion, I hope to unpack some greater questions surrounding this very particular enthusiasm, the positive and the concerning.
Before we get into the very real chronology of this mostly unexplored topic, we must agree and recognize that, historically, teen pop and boy band fandom has existed in a weird space of cultural celebration and critical marginalization: One Direction’s records aren’t treated with the same weight as something hip on Top 40 radio like The Weeknd in the media—the experiences are obviously different, and a lot of that mentality boils down to what is considered “cool.” By casting this particular pop fandom aside as something “uncool,” those who enjoy it feel a certain dismissal, which is a form of isolation, which can foster feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.
“Teen pop and boy band fandom exists in a weird space of cultural celebration and critical marginalization...a certain dismissal, which is a form of isolation, fosters feelings of inadequacy.”
Merriam-Webster defines “hysteria,” as “a state in which your emotions are so strong that you behave in an uncontrolled way.” The word, historically, has been gender-specific: Plato compared a woman's uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout her body in his dialogue Timaeus. Later, this concept of the “wandering womb” gave birth (no pun intended) to “hysteria,” the Freudian notion that ladies are crazy in a diagnosable way. While the word has been shed of this particular pathology (thankfully), in certain capacities, the way women express emotion is still demonized—especially in this world of fanaticism.
Let’s look at the history: In the mid-1800s, composer Franz Liszt was essentially Justin Bieber, if there was only one pop star deemed swoon-worthy. On April 25, 1844, approximately three years after women started losing their shit over this dreamboat, German essayist Heinrich Heine described the fan frenzy surrounding his performances as “lisztomania,” pathologizing a typically heteronormative-female excitement.
To Heine, lisztomania occurred in bursts of ecstasy when women saw Liszt in concert. Since this was pre-Internet, pandemonium occurred mostly in the physical space: women would grab at the guy, trying to score a glove or handkerchief off his person. There was a culture of collection, too: fans would wear Liszt likenesses on brooches and cameos, long before the days of band t-shirts.
In Alan Walker’s three-volume biography, Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, one report of lisztomania reads, ”Liszt once threw away an old cigar stump in the street under the watchful eyes of an infatuated lady-in-waiting, who reverently picked the offensive weed out of the gutter, had it encased in a locket and surrounded with the monogram 'F.L.' in diamonds, and went about her courtly duties unaware of the sickly odor it gave forth.” It’s no “monument erected in the spot on the side of 101 in Calabasas, California where One Direction’s Harry Styles threw up that one time” (which you can see here), but it’s close.
If we’re continuing on in history, the next stop is Beatlemania. The “mania” in the phrase is a direct descendent from lisztomania a century prior, and the behavior exhibited by young female fans is similar—excited, obsessive—but with the vulgarity of a new generation, the backlash to ‘60s sexual repression: let’s call it the underwear-throwing years.
It, too, was maligned as mental difference. Paul Johnson famously sneered in the New Statesmen in February 1964 of the mostly female audience who made up Beatlemania: "Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures." A study in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology two years later disproved Johnson’s mostly misogynistic comments by noting that Beatlemania was caused by “the passing reaction of predominantly young adolescent females to group pressures of such a kind that meet their special emotional needs.”
“[Hysteria has been] shed of a particular pathology but in certain capacities, the way women express emotion is still demonized.”
Fast-forward 30 years, and we’re blessed with the next boy band renaissance: N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Similarities in behavior to Lisztomania and Beatlemania continue: There’s swarming, and instead of cameos or brooches, we have band tees. There are differences, too, in the effect of modernization: new teen magazines offer a more centralized, focused culture of fandom. The early Internet also offers interactive communities for this new fandom: online forums let music lovers engage about their passions on a global level.
The process is intensified a decade later after a Lou Pearlman-sized lull, when boy bands become trendy again with British quintet One Direction. Social media almost completely supplants those forums and becomes the dominate space for fan conversations, with Tumblr and Twitter at the forefront. In the public space, swarming still exists. The supremely devoted go much, much further than the brooches and t-shirts of the past and tattoo their odes to the beloved boys. Likenesses are common; lyrics more so.
In the social media/One Direction era, conversations about fan mania have shifted. While there remains the unwelcoming ideology that boy band fandom is uncool, unhealthy, excessive, and something for only young women to enjoy (and if you are not a young women and enjoying it, something must be diagnosably wrong with you), the people within it are dedicated to writing their own stories.
Twitter and Tumblr manifest communities in a really interesting way: They’re orbited around fan accounts—profiles run by a few fans that regularly post updates on the object of affection’s whereabouts. Everything from photos of the band’s show that night to updates on their everyday goings-on, where they went to dinner and where their parents were spotted the night before. The most successful accounts are the ones with real personality behind them, which is why conversations usually extend past just minute-by-minute detective work. These blogs and Twitter accounts take the time to share individual fan stories and bolster each other in an attempt to encourage self-esteem.
#WhatMakesHerBeautiful is a trend (named after the One Direction song “What Makes You Beautiful”) that appears every so often, usually on something of a slower update day—the band’s off tour, off album cycle, etc.—and the focus shifts wholly onto the fans as opposed to the object of their fandom. Girls submit selfies to these popular fan accounts. The folks who run them retweet and reshare the portraits with a compliment, sometimes “shipping” the ladies with a member of the band. (Shipping is the process of supporting a celebrity relationship. To ship a fan means to chose who in the boy band they would best be suited to date. If someone were to ship me and Harry Styles, that means they would want to see us together. And they'd be correct.)
Selfies are a major proponent in personal interactions—they serve as tools for engagement. In Rachel Syme’s Selfie book for Medium last year, she defines selfies as something that “must be shared—or at least be taken as part of a series with the intention to share at least one — to be considered selfies.” She goes on to detail the social stigma that surrounds the selfie gesture, one that uses dismissive words like “embarrassing” or “selfish,” before concluding with, “Every human is given a body and a face and then spends the rest of his or her life trying to feel at home there. Worthiness is part of the basic package.”
By sharing selfies or a simple compliment with a One Direction-related hashtag such as #WhatMakesHerBeautiful, these girls are boosting each other’s self-esteem while teaching each other a very powerful lesson: Putting yourself (or in this case, your face) out there is a brave and vulnerable act, and there’s something empowering about that vulnerability. It also teaches them to feel at home in their face, as Syme said, a certain comfort that allows these girls to share “crying selfies,” too. These are moments of heightened emotional response that are celebrated instead of degraded to a word like hysteria. In a sense, these (mostly) girls are taking control of their passions and writing the dialogue themselves.
One Direction is currently on a break, one that stings of indefinite hiatus. It’s recent enough that these fan accounts haven’t seemed to slow in fervor, but there is a sort of post-1D movement happening. Australian pop-rock band 5 Seconds of Summer were birthed from One Direction’s super-fame, getting their start opening for the British babes; it’s easy to position them as some sort of next iteration, with one big difference. Where One Direction lyricism is predicated girl-worship (the whole “What Makes You Beautiful” thing), which allows their largest fan demographic to feel secure, 5 Seconds of Summer pen songs about the girls’ feelings and experiences themselves. It’s the next stage in this fandom: One Direction wrote songs to make fans feel good about themselves, 5SOS are writing songs about why they need those songs in the first place.
This is especially true with the band’s second album, Sounds Good Feels Good, and the single “Jet Black Heart.” The song (and the entire release) deals with insecurities typically associated with adolescence: depression, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy. The video does a good job of it too, serving to democratize the fan experience by placing the band and the fans on the same platform, all teary-eyed, singing the same somber song at the same time in the same way.
Other moments, like in the song “Broken Home,” attempt to connect with children of divorce, while “Outer Space/Carry On” promises a brighter tomorrow. Instead of just cheering up the despondent youth like One Direction before them, 5 Seconds of Summer (5SOS for short) tried to connect to the internal issue. Unlike any of the artists mentioned prior, their guitar player Michael Clifford has even discussed seeing a therapist (while performing, on the physical stage) and in the band’s Rolling Stone cover story from earlier this year, he said he suffers from “self-esteem, loneliness, a bit of depression," the same sort of stuff that plagues his audience. It’s a certain level of open communication that hasn’t really been seen before. It’s an important, new level of connectedness.
Before we get into the mental health stigmas surrounding this kind of fandom, we should break down some of the language used to describe it. More often than not, the rationale for modern boy band obsession will circle around phrases like “One Direction saved my life” or the slightly (delightfully!) misandrist “They’re idiots but they make me feel better” (that one is courtesy 19-year-old Jonas Brothers super fan Eliza Sharp from a recent Teen Vogue piece on fan culture). There’s a specific teenage hyperbole to the phrasing—the connotation probably feels more extreme to us than those who live with it.
These words translate to the physical space, too: “Insiders” is a word used to describe loyal and active members of online fan accounts; they’re given special privileges like additional whereabouts of the band. The act of following up on this information, such as going to the airport after receiving their flight information, is called “stalking.” The word has been co-opted in a way where it’s no longer seen as the criminal offense of actual stalking, but the action of waiting around for your favorite artist.
You can see where this starts to flirt with a line that’s concerning. Obsession has always been a close friend of depression: In psychology, fixation is used as an avoidance of other things. At its most extreme, it's ruminative—it can take on a life of its own. Obsession/fixation becomes identity—there are studies that show it’s not too far off from indoctrination and brainwashing. It’s as simple as the idea that when someone is so exposed to something, it shapes his or her persona. That’s the very reason why peer influence is strongest in adolescence: insecure people with low self-esteem are the most susceptible, and puberty is a catalyst.
“Obsession has always been a close friend of depression. In psychology, fixation is used as an avoidance of other things.”
We’ve explored how Twitter and Tumblr communities help fans, especially young female fans, to express themselves and find personal empowerment, but there’s a certain danger in these spaces, too. There are real ties to the latter platform, Tumblr, and depression—escapist behaviors, warped ideas of reality—but a certain awareness to it, too. There are a handful of popular blogs that overlap with boy band fandom, like Tumblr Suicide Watch and Suicide Is Preventable. You’ll find posts from those sites shared alongside Harry Styles paparazzi shots. They exist in the same space.
There’s a relatively new theory, not one that can be fully pathologized, but one worth exploring called Celebrity Worship Syndrome, first coined in 2003 by the University of Leicester cognitive psych professor John Maltby. It’s an obsessive-addictive study that argues for a certain hierarchy of an individual’s involvement with a celebrity’s personal life. Unlike straightforward fandom, these are the folks who believe in a certain delusion: an illusion of access, or that the objects of their affection owe them something.
Let’s break it down. There’s simple-obsessional, which is more common fandom, but one that places self-worth on the person or boy band being obsessed over. There’s love-obsessional, which is a bit more paranoid, and one that believes that there’s a personal relationship that doesn’t really exist. There’s an erotomanic form, which is where the fan believes the subject is actually in love with them (this level of reciprocation is almost exclusively experienced by heterosexual men and is most common with a female solo artist).
Then there are three other stages. Entertainment-social is where conversations would exist, like, “My friends and I like to discuss what my favorite celebrity has done.” Intense-personal is the intermediate, where you’d hear things like, “I consider my favorite celebrity to be my soul mate.” The last is personality-disorder level, the borderline-pathological of, “If someone gave me one thousand dollars, I would consider spending it on a napkin used by my favorite celebrity.”
When One Direction announced its hiatus, and when member Zayn Malik left the band, fan reaction mirrored the grieving process. It’s because of that fanatical identification with the band—Directioners lost something that makes them, them. It’s especially hard when fans are consistently mocked for liking the object of their affection. When 1D announced its hiatus, a screenshot of a morning program in Australia made the rounds online, outlining how parents should react to certain behaviors in their kid post-1D.
Soon after, CNN ran a similar step-by-step guide: 1.) Never underestimate the depths of adolescent emotion 2.) Look for signs of self-harm and don’t ban your child from the Internet (that removes fans from the collective grieving process, isolating them further) but encourage them not to spend all their time online. 3.) Encourage them to self-talk themselves through the process: No one has died. What could happen next for the band? Will they all pursue solo careers? Offer optimistic future-thoughts. Use this loss as a teachable moment.
It was truly an instruction manual on how to walk your child through the grieving process of losing your favorite band, but also of experiencing grief in general—validating the sort of emotional response inherent in fandom. It could be a sign that we’ve moved on from the Lisztomania days into something much healthier.
It’s safe to say that most boy band fans don’t suffer from some borderline-pathological mental difference, but the fact that there’s now more openness towards conversations about psychological health is undeniable. From being diagnosed as hysterics to taking ownership of passion to eventually transforming the object of desire (as in, inspiring post-One Direction group 5 Seconds of Summer to write songs about the depression and anxiety they feel), fandom has proven itself an impenetrable force. It’s fascinating to watch this enthusiasm manifest itself in new niche communities online and in person, and it’ll be interesting to see how it continues to develop and shape conversations surrounding mental health in the future.