LOLA KAEPPELIN explores what it means to be a music ‘fangirl’ through her consideration of Hannah Ewens’ book Fangirls.
Dear reader, in your childhood or adolescence, you probably did not escape the experience of often-unconditional admiration for a singer, actor, artist, sports team, or some other extraordinary figure. Perhaps even today, you still feel emotionally carried away at the thought of this unusual figure who resonates with you in a special way. In the end, it does not matter whom you were a fan of; in the fandom world, what has connected us all to varying degrees is this feeling of emotional attachment – a feeling so all-encompassing that for many, it feels a lot like love. It is this universal vibration that runs through masses of captivated people that Hanna Ewen’s book is concerned with.
In 2019, journalist Hannah Ewens released a book titled Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, published by Hardie Grant, which she dedicated to ‘all girls who ever had an obsession’. The book is an open investigation, somewhere between an autobiography and a sociological study. Ewens uses simple and personal writing to speak respectfully of fangirls of all ages and incorporates academic references that give her accounts depth. It allows us to delve into the formation of these para-social relations; in other words, the relations formed by the mediatization of public figures to such an extent that anyone can have the impression of knowing them personally. This theme is, without a doubt, more topical than ever.
This fangirl subculture is shown to exist at different levels: the book begins by delving into obsessions from early childhood, then exploring the hysteria of some teenage girls, to reach the more moderate aspect of the adult fan mindset. Indeed, the book is not intended to scorn the hysteria and the sometimes-strange feats of the fans, nor to reduce them to a simple pop culture fad. On the contrary, while the author does not forget to point out the often unusual nature of the devotion that some fans may show towards their (often male) idols, the focus is primarily about how they feel.
Ewens deals with many subjects, which at first glance seem to be very distinct from the topic of fandoms, but turn out to importantly underlie the testimonies of the many fans interviewed. Thus, the reader moves between topics that are dealt with intimately, such as depression and feelings of rejection, and the awakening of desire. But Ewens also covers more universal ideas, such as a sense of community, grief, politics, and, of course, love – all of which are frequently derived from fangirl groups. From Amy Winehouse to My Chemical Romance, through Courtney Love and One Direction, the reader is invited to revisit feelings they have experienced, either personally or through their peers’ experience. In reading, some may rediscover the transient state they once felt for a star, others may recall periods of teenagehood when mental health was lacking, while all of us will remember the powerful bond that seemed to unite the public at the concert of an artist.
This book is about that almost indescribable feeling that our favourite music makes us feel, and the closeness we feel with the author of that music. However, beyond the raw feeling, Ewens allows us to understand the complex organisation of these fangirls. They are an economic force, as they will faithfully pay for concerts and events (not forgetting the cost of transport to get there). They will buy the merchandise, and they will advertise for free on their social networks. They are the target of all the PR we are bombarded with on Instagram. Likewise, the fandom is an infinitely dynamic sociological group, which communicates continuously within itself, creates public media content and constantly informs itself about their object of desire. Celebrities as we know them would not be such an important part of media culture if it was not for their loyal and most active fanbases.
Ewens’ book is straightforward and interesting, resonating with a large number of musical omnivores. It is a pleasant read, offering a gateway to other psychological concepts. Going through the book, I was quickly reminded of the idea of limerence, which I had encountered in my studies. Theorised by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov in 1979, she describes it as ‘a state of involuntary adoration and attachment […] involving feelings and behaviours ranging from euphoria to despair’. This aspect of infatuation is not selfish; on the contrary, it is necessary to be open to others to show such devotion to these figures. Indeed, these fangirls accept to be vulnerable, both in their private sphere and in their community, and to show many feelings, all generated by their idols. They use each other’s emotions to feel close to each other and create this fanbase. Although often the desire of meeting and getting to know the celebrity is at the heart of the fangirls’ approach, somewhere inside them, they know that this relationship is not substantial. In this sense, this book shows us that they know they are nurturing an adulation that will always remain unilateral, and that, ultimately, this is not the most important thing.
The concept of limerence, however, demands reciprocity of feelings, so what do the fangirls receive? In return for their love and support, their artists give them love-songs with which they identify, songs they dance to, songs they cry over, songs that will remind them of their youth all their lives. In the end, it is really touching to see these women develop a connection with Ewens and the singers she mentions, through contemplation of such songs — however ecstatic this connection may be. The idea of blissful community was at the centre of my pre-teen fangirl years, and Ewens manages to recreate this sense of community: no longer around an artist, but around the common memories of an old shared passion.
It would be possible to offer a critique of this rather Western book, both in terms of its subject matter, its concerns, and its form. Indeed, only one chapter steps out of the occidental context to look at Korea’s k-pop; all the chapters remain close to the Eurocentric norms of journalism and case study we are used to today. Still, my guess is that what readers will retain from this book is how it addresses our sensibilities to music and art. Although as we grow older, our past obsessions may appear increasingly inconsequential, this reading delves into our deepest guilty pleasures to remind us that we can always retrieve the sensations they made us feel.
Featured image by William Lovelace. Image source: Buzzfeed.