Lay off teenage fangirls; all feelings are real. Photo: Getty
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Why do we mock teenage girls who love One Direction when Top Gear fans are just the same?

The online mockery of fans of Zayn Malik, who left One Direction the same day Jeremy Clarkson was fired, would never be levelled at grown-up sports or Top Gear fans.

The rumours and speculation had been flying for days, but last week it was made official: a beloved British group was losing a member. This group has been one of the UK’s biggest cultural exports, a fact eulogised by a fan who wrote that, “the best thing to ever come out of Britain, perhaps even the entire entertainment business, is gone...” Another fan wrote, “I want to cry... :´(” The departure was met by extreme emotion: raw feels were on display across the web, long stories from fan after fan about how these boys saved them from depression and gave their lives purpose - and more than a million people signed a petition to bring this man back.

But Jeremy Clarkson is still a bigoted asshole who drunkenly punched a subordinate in the face while tossing out ethnic slurs, and, thankfully, even a billion signatures won’t bring him back to host Top Gear. If the same description could have been written about Zayn Malik, the member of One Direction who announced his departure from the band the day Clarkson was fired, the synchronicity wasn’t lost on the meme-creating internet: they superimposed Malik between Richard Hammond and James May on the test track and popped Clarkson’s head onto Malik’s body in 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful” video, with results that are sort of hilarious but mostly horrifying. (Malik is totally free to grab his crotch; Clarkson is not.)

Drop into any Top Gear thread online right now and in between bouts of vitriol for the BBC and the left’s stranglehold on the media and some obligatory off-topic immigrant-bashing, there’s a genuine outpouring of emotion for the Top Gear that was: these fans, mostly (grown) men, are offering up their vulnerabilities, talking about how the show was always there for them - a comfort, something to look forward to every week.

You might hate Top Gear’s presenters, but you can have compassion for the people who will miss the show. Drop into any 1D thread right now and you’ll notice that even though the language is different, maybe even incomprehensible to you, the sentiment is the same: these fans, mostly (underage) teenage girls, have flooded social media with that same outpouring of emotion, for Malik’s departure or for the end of the group as it’s always existed. It should be easy to have compassion for people who love something and lose it. You’ve probably experienced it yourself.

It should be easy - but then, how often are we easy on teenage girls? A high-profile departure, heartbroken fans, and an avalanche of media coverage. So guess which group has been met with a barrage of abuse from the adults of the internet - and then maybe take a stab at guessing why. I mean, a teenage girl probably is too stupid to understand the difference between someone leaving a band and someone dying, so it’s lucky there are kind commenters who write things like, “HE DID NOT DIE MORONS,” one of a few dozen similar sentiments I read in a Buzzfeed article. “What a bunch of pathetic losers. Grow up!” wrote one commenter at the Telegraph.

Many of these grown-ups felt compelled to tell these young people that 1D are “not the Beatles”; one of them eschewed the Beatles completely and wrote, “Frankly, ABBA disbanding was a bigger deal than one little millennial leaving a band no one really cares about. Toughen up, KIDS!” But one commenter did heed a call for compassion: “The most compassionate thing for these morons is a bullet through the head.” (This was met with, “Thank you, Mr Clarkson,” so I really felt like we’d come full circle at this point.)

And as expected, the Guardian was there with snarky false sympathy in full force:

Tumblr, presumably, is even worse. I say presumably because who has the emotional stamina right now to check it? This is a sad day, and it will only take one enthusiastically drawn piece of glittery fan art depicting Zayn as a naked Jesus on the cross, bleeding rainbows from his wrists, to collectively push us over the edge.

Good prompt! I’ll get drawing.

Why do One Direction fangirls bother people so much? Why do their emotions, and the way they perform that emotionality, seem to anger complete strangers? Why do adults parade their ignorance of a staggeringly successful pop act—and why do they feel the need to scold, mock, or offer the girls who love it “a bullet through the head”? Why are screaming girls, overcome with excitement for a group they love, considered a punch line, the pinnacle of immaturity, and something extraordinarily shameful, when the largely male, adult crowds at sporting events openly weep, bellow, paint their naked bodies in bright colours, clutch each other, and even commit physical violence due to emotion, both when their teams lose and when they win? There might be a lot of screaming and crying at a boy band concert, but when was the last time someone punched a fellow fan at one, or set fire to a car out of joy?

High emotionality (fan studies scholars call it “affect”) during the match is part of the pleasure of being a sports fan - I know, I’ve been there, too (my beloved American football team lost the Super Bowl four years in a row). But I’ve also gone to pieces over fictional characters and celebrities; so many girls do. I actually got teary just last night thinking about a character who was killed on TV six years ago. We are emotional creatures, and these emotions come out in groups, bolstered by the like-minded and equally enthusiastic. But there is a sports section in every newspaper in the world - and I have heard men hold forth at length about the importance of sports, on a psychological level. So what’s the difference here? Boy band or football team, you’re still a group of people screaming in some kind of stadium.

If you scoff at the parallels I’m drawing, you need to question why. Because the disparity here is directly related to gender, and being a girl is used as an insult more often than it’s celebrated. Look at the advert that caused a stir at this year’s Super Bowl, Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, in which adults asked to “run like a girl” and “throw like a girl” did some floppy and flailing parody of those actions—and then young girls, not yet taught to doubt themselves and their bodies, ran and threw with graceful strength and confidence.

Screaming and fainting girls are often said to be overcome with “hysteria,” a concept with a long history that is explicitly gendered. Hayley Krischer’s recent piece in The Hairpin, “Hysteria and Teenage Girls,” does an extraordinary job breaking this down: she traces the historical roots of women freaking out over things—and men freaking out in response and trying to diagnose the causes. “In Ancient Egypt, hysterical disorders were said to be caused by ‘spontaneous uterus movement within the female body,’ she writes. From Hippocrates all the way up to Freud, highly emotional women were considered out-of-whack because they weren’t getting enough sex—their uteruses were “not satisfied” and spread toxic vapors around the body. In 1883, a French physician wrote, “all women are hysterical and…every woman carries with her the seeds of hysteria.” Or, in Krischer’s words, “Women don’t need a reason to be hysterical. We just are.”

A lot of it is about control, something Krischer and other feminist scholars have outlined. A screaming mass of girls feels uncontrollable—even when it’s a thousand times more controllable than a stampeding crowd at a sporting event—and to see that emotionality played out on social media, hundreds of thousands of retweets every time a member of 1D strings a sentence together, puts the full depth of feeling on display. These same comment threads were dotted with sympathetic recollections of Robbie Williams leaving Take That or other devastating pop culture moments from peoples’ childhoods. But it’s impossible to know what that would have looked like transposed onto the shape and pace of the modern social web. John Lennon certainly would have gotten hundreds of thousands of retweets every time he strung a sentence together.

It’s worth stating that there are some behaviours I’ve seen in the past week that should not be condoned. Crying over a band is completely fine (and natural); harming yourself because of them is not. The #Cut4Zayn hashtag has been used more than 174,000 times in the past week, some accompanied by pictures of bloody arms and messages threatening Zayn, things like, “Stay in 1D or I will cut myself.” Cutting is a deadly serious problem - if anyone should be met with compassion, it’s these girls, who should seek professional support. No boy, in a pop group or otherwise, warrants that.

It’ll take Jeremy Clarkson’s fans some time to adjust to life without Top Gear as we’ve known it; it’ll take One Direction’s fans some time to adjust to the band as a foursome, follow Malik to his next project (which he’s already announced), or both. Falling in love with a show or a band can be alarmingly easy; we shouldn’t be surprised that a break-up is hard.

I saw more than a few commenters insisting that when 1D fangirls grew up, they’d know what real problems were. This is a massively presumptuous statement, one that suggests these girls don’t have real problems right now, that they can’t be torn up over a boy band while simultaneously struggling with family troubles or mental or physical illness or poverty or bad relationships or any of the other million things young girls struggle with daily. All feelings are real; all problems are real too. You might not like what someone loves, or the way they show their love for it, but if it doesn’t harm you, then what’s the sense in condemning it?

 

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.