If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130, paraphrased
I know you've never loved the sound of your voice on tape
You never want to know how much you weigh,
You still have to squeeze into your jeans
But you're perfect to me
One Direction, Little Things
Boybands, uniquely in popular music, are overwhelmingly consumed by women and girls despite the fact that that demographic is barely represented in the creation of their product. From songwriting to management and performance, it is mostly men trying to appeal to an audience of women. Arguably the three bands with the most vocal and ardent UK female fandoms have been The Beatles, Take That, and One Direction, and through them we can see band and follower relationships which move from adulation to romanticism, to symbiosis. Let’s examine how these three bands in particular have managed their respective relationships with their audience of women and girls. I’ll be looking at this in three ways: 1) Public opinion from the perspective of boybands and their approach to female fans 2) Public opinion of boyband fans in the media 3) Boyband fans’ opinions and reflections upon themselves as fans.And I Love Her - Trading off Chastity for Loyalty
Despite male musicians being objects of affection, the image of the lothario pop star who is beset by groupies sits uneasily beside that of the ideal romantic partner. And just as male celebrities have often been encouraged to play down, or just plain lie about their relationship statuses, it is in the interests of pop stars with a majority female audience to show respect and gratitude for their fans in interviews - to the point where there is an almost unsettlingly anodyne response from almost every interview where boyband members are asked about their fans. Trawl The Beatles interview archives and you will find from Sydney to Singapore they are asked by interviewers what they think of the local girls, and the answer comes back invariably as ‘they’re very nice’.
Most young men are subjected to at least a measure of behavioural censure by family, wider society, or institutions, but boyband members are set apart from this, sent on tour as teenagers without parental supervision and introduced to a lifestyle where their needs are met at every turn. It’s inconceivable that they would not have multiple sexual partners. Mark Owen recently confessed to having ten affairs during his current marriage, including one which lasted a number of years. Yet there is barely any inference of this behaviour in their lyrics. Contrast this to the young men who perform in the hip hop and R’n’B genres - whose lyrics can be explicit in their details of sexual conquest, because their audience is perceived as male. While they are bragging about their sexual exploits with the boys in the locker room, the boybands are texting their girlfriends telling them they stayed in all night because they missed them too much. And the women listeners wouldn’t have it any other way. The way that boybands are consumed as a form of escapism by women would not work if they were hearing about how many girls their idols slept with last week.
The direct form of address which is used in songs written to appeal to women and girls enables the listener to place themselves at the centre of the male singer’s attention. The centre of their love and affection. Even in the few songs which use direct address and also have negative sentiments, it is easy for the listener to interpret this as the boy talking to the ‘other woman’, the love rival or the one who has hurt him in the past. These songs which direct negativity at a female subject are so few and far between that rather than alienate the girls listening, they represent another way of raising her up, by drawing a favourable comparison. But they can be manipulative in a way that subtly dictates to women how they should behave if they want to be a ‘good’ girlfriend. Take One Direction’s Back For You from their 2012 album Take Me Home in which the girl is told to still hang around waiting even though her pop star boyfriend is jetting all over the world.
I've never been so into somebody before
And every time we both touch I only want more
So tell me nothing's gonna change yeah
And you won't ever walk away, yeah
Cause even though every night you'll know what I'll say -Goodbye.
In a 2016 interview for Another Man
magazine, Paul McCartney and Harry Styles are asked, “What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever done to get your attention?” Paul, very much post Beatles at this point, gleefully recounts the time a Playboy Bunny broke into their hotel room. Harry, still very much under the watchful eye of PR people even during the band’s hiatus, or perhaps genuinely protective of their fans, ignores the question completely. One Direction’s respect for women is being well adhered to. When asked if they ever called ‘dibs’ on their throngs of female admirers, Styles replied, “We feel like that objectifies women and that’s not what we’re about”. In an interview with GQ
when the topic of porn comes up, Niall Horan and Liam Payne respectively describe it as ‘objectifying’ and ‘derogatory’.
Perhaps the self-described feminist ideals of One Direction are a cunning PR ruse. Or perhaps they’re genuine? This band, after all, has a lot to be grateful for. One Direction more than any other boyband, owe their existence, their fame, and their riches, almost entirely to the guerilla marketing done by fans online. The early days of all three bands have been well documented; The Beatles dogged it for three shows a day in the Hamburg red light district; Gary Barlow’s demo tape was discovered by Nigel Martin Smith who happened to be manufacturing a boyband at the time. But One Direction may well have followed in the less than auspicious footsteps of others X Factor runners-up, if it weren’t for the fact that Twitter went from 18 million active users in 2009 to 54 million by the time 1D appeared on X Factor. The female fans understood Twitter, and used it to great effect to promote the band at every opportunity. They made One Direction using their phones and keyboards, and the band continually spin a line of worshipful gratitude and humility in their interactions with fans, ensuring their continued support.
How Deep Is Your Love? - Media Criticism of the Female Pop Fan
“Anyone else absolutely sick of seeing the worldwide trends consistently clogged up with bollocks relating to One Direction? It is incredibly rare to look at the trends and not see either "Harry" "Liam" "Louis" "Niall" "Zayn" "1D" "Directioners" etc somewhere in there. I can understand and tolerate things like "Congratulations 1D" if they get a number one or something, but when things like "Morning Zayn" trend when Zayn tweets good morning, or "#lastchancetocallonedirectionallteenagers (genuinely, this trended yesterday) start trending EVERY ****ING DAY it really pisses me off!”
Digital Spy forums, December 2011The representation of female fans of male pop stars in the media often takes this tone of irritation and intolerance. A writer in Berlin described fans’ frenzy as “a depressing sign of the stupidity, the insensitivity, and the aesthetic emptiness of the public”. It was 1842 and he was describing fans of Liszt. Journalist Paul Johnson infamously described screaming Beatles fans as “the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures”. The fans were not taken seriously, as in this comment from The Nation about The Beatles show at Carnegie Hall in 1964.
Even more startling to the male music commentators of the time was the primal nature of the girls’ love for the band. They screamed, yelled, climbed fences, charged the stage, broke the law. They acted like men do at football matches, but they did it in mini skirts and eyeliner. Female football fans are often accused of supporting a team only because they’re attracted to the players, and similarly we have the trope of the ‘Fake Geek Girl’, who doesn’t really like comic books but just wears her Batman t-shirt to get boys’ attention. Their love is dismissed because it is ‘polluted’ by lust, and therefore is invalid. This perhaps says more about how men experience love than women. In saying that being sexually attracted to someone negates any true appreciation of their more complex self, methinks the gentlemen doth protest too much. But still, the idea persists. Female Beatles fans have been sidelined because they both loved and lusted. The Beatles, having proven themselves to music critics to be a serious band, have been quietly moved away from women, and now if you are after a Beatles ‘expert’ for your documentary talking head, you can only choose from a number of men.
When Take That gave a 1996 press conference announcing they were splitting up, a journalist asked if they would be providing any kind of counselling to the throngs of girls who would be devastated at the news, to which the band replied in the affirmative, taking the comment seriously. Soon all of the news networks were running with the line that The Samaritans were setting up a special Take That hotline for despairing fans, which parsed their reactions to the split within mental illness. However, there is no evidence that a specific helpline was ever set up, though the general Samaritans number was printed in Smash Hits magazine’s Take That split special. The idea that female fans are so fragile and would require specialised pastoral help if their favourite pop group split was certainly a great publicity stunt, but the fact that this myth has persisted, even in the information age, says a lot about how easy it was to accept this story as fact. Even so, Take That fans have escaped any real grilling about their obsession, with virtually no articles, documentaries, or even mentions in prominent books on fandom. It seems the real ire about female pop fans was being reserved for a worldwide phenomenon.A one hour documentary, Crazy About One Direction, was produced in 2013 as the band’s third album was released. The laughably po-faced documentary fails miserably at understanding the tone of the fans’ ardour. In an almost exclusively teenaged female arena, the discourse is marked by hyperbole, language disruption, one-upmanship and real dry humour which seems lost on those outside looking in. Flashing up various images of One Direction photoshopped to be overweight, toothless, or ginger, the doc describes these dryly as ‘fantasies’ when they are clearly jokes. It cannot seem to rationalise such a young group of women as being funny and creative, and instead takes every comment or action as profoundly serious, eliminating any light and shade from their group discourse and relegating them to the level of the hysterical mob. As with the Beatles’ fans, the fact that they lust after One Direction, means they are not taken seriously as critics. Try to find a review of One Direction’s last album in the ‘serious’ music press - the NME, Billboard, Spin, Rolling Stone, which is written by a woman. I’ll save you time, there isn’t one. The closest we get is Tshepo Mokoena in The Guardian. It’s almost as if editors decided that a woman writing about One Direction might be dismissed as being in love with them if she rated the album highly…
Something which can still be learned from Crazy About One Direction, is that if women fans love the bands they follow, they perhaps love each other even more. Linda Ihle, who was 13 when she first saw The Beatles at the infamously loud Shea Stadium show, told Dorian Lynskey;
"You're not by yourself. Individually, teenagers are isolated and worried and scared all the time of whether or not they're doing the right things and wearing the right clothes, but everybody liked The Beatles so everybody was equal. It didn't matter what your clothes were or where your parents worked; we were all in it together."
In one of my favourite pieces of writing about fandom ever, Tumblr user ‘buttercreamdicks’ said this about 1D fans at their shows in 2015;
“I liked the shows I went to. But the thing I remember is the girls. At the Meadowlands they turned the men’s rooms into ladies’ rooms, just hung ladies’ room signs over all the men’s room signs. "Oh my god,” I said, walking in. "They turned the men’s rooms into ladies’ rooms, because they knew it was going to be all girls.” "This must be what it’s like to be a guy,” Isabel said. And that’s what I thought, the whole rest of the show, and all of Philadelphia: This must be what it’s like. To be the default. To be treated like what you care about is worthwhile. To not be looked down on, or told what to do. And then I thought, well, it’s because we’re all gathered here, in one place. This is happening. They can’t stop us, so they have to go along with it. In New Jersey, Liam stood on the catwalk talking about how amazing it was that they were playing stadiums, how amazing it was that the fans had done this for them, and then he laughed, like you do when you realized you just hit the heart of something: “I really think if you wanted to, you could take over the world.” I looked away from him, at 82,566 seats filled with girls and thought: You’re right. And you’re the only person telling us that.”
Perhaps there has always been a profound misunderstanding of why girls react to pop bands in the way that they do. The feeling that the writer talks about, of being the default, of being catered to exclusively, is one which groups of young women rarely feel. If empowerment means anything, then it means that sheer numbers, and sheer will, can force society to cater for you. That feeling of a crowd of people, the same gender as you, screaming out in love and excitement and fervour as one, the feeling that I imagine men have at sporting events, is only replicated at concerts, and in the gaze of the boyband. In so many other arenas, women and girls are treated not as equal customers, but as also-rans. With steadily growing respect and recognition as a movement capable of influence, The Beatles might have rolled their eyes and hoped for more boys to show up, but Take That and One Direction catered only for women and girls. Boys in the fandoms are few, far between, and pretty irrelevant.
The changes in opinions of pop fandom since the 1960s have seen fans go on a journey from being seen as screaming hordes of knicker-wetters, to fragile flowers in need of bereavement counselling, to hacker-level obsessives who treat their favourites as prey to be hunted. In reality, they were women and girls who found in them a release from the shackles of respectability, the chance to express themselves loudly and rawly, the chance to be a part of something unerringly positive and fun, and to be part of a group which has shown time and time again, that what you love can take you places you never dreamed you’d go.