Hannah Ewens’s Fangirls shows how fan culture runs deeper than the euphoric thrill of teenage girls

From Elvis to Justin Bieber, pop idols provide a powerful buzz; but fandoms also hold a social and emotional significance to those involved. 

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At Johnny’s Shop, a pop music fan’s haven in Harajuku, Tokyo, hordes of teenage girls browse boards covered with tiny photographs of pop stars. The girls – many of whom are dressed in their school uniform – squeal with delight at the artists’ devilish good looks and mark on forms the photos they wish to buy and take home. They’ll keep the photos – which are available exclusively at Johnny’s – in albums or files, much like football stickers or Pokémon cards.

Johnny’s Entertainment is the talent agency with the monopoly on training and promoting the biggest boy bands in Japan. It is responsible for many of the country’s manufactured pop acts, including Hey! Say! JUMP – a group with nine male members  – and Arashi, who have released a studio album almost every year since forming in 1999. In Japan, being a pop fan doesn’t just mean going along to the odd gig. “You need one copy of a CD to keep on your shelf and never touch, you need one to actually listen to, one for the car, one as a spare,” Alisa Yamasaki, a music writer, tells the author Hannah Ewens, who has travelled around the UK, Europe, America and Japan to interview obsessive music fans for her first book, Fangirls.

It’s rare, Ewens argues, that the passions of teenage girls are “treated as though they’re of consequence”. Usually, they’re patronised. Fandom and womanhood are inextricably linked: as Ewens points out, the word “hysteria” comes from “the Greek word for uterus, hystera”, while “fans of all genders [have] reclaimed the somewhat derogatory label of ‘fangirl’ online”. Ewens’s focus on girls brings with it, too, the thrilling compulsion of a subculture that has always sought euphoria, ever since Elvis Presley “thrust his way into every TV set and radio” in 1950s North America and policemen tapped the cheeks of girls at Beatles concerts to stop them from fainting.

Ewens, who works as a features editor at the millennial bible Vice, grew up alongside the ageing population of the Isle of Wight, an experience that fed her desire for the “proud identity” that music fandom offers. Her journalistic curiosity and willingness to camp overnight outside concert venues gives Fangirls a vibrancy. “I’ve often thought the people around the spectacle as curious as the spectacle itself,” Ewens writes, “and worthy of proper investigation. The question being not just what is captivating these people but who are those captivated?”

She is true to her word, listening to what the fans have to say and letting them guide her narrative, which she divides into chapters dealing with different music scenes and the multitudinous ways in which fans idolise their heroes. “Fandom is a portmanteau of fan and kingdom,” writes Ewens with a typically thoughtful dissection of language. “There is, as that would suggest, a king or queen regent but also a territory and community of followers.”

The stories she uncovers are exhilarating: there’s the girl whose lung collapsed after she screamed too hard at a One Direction concert in 2013; the two businesswomen whose dull work trip turned into the ride of a lifetime after they bonded over a Courtney Love tattoo; the Justin Bieber fans who started queuing 50 days before his concert at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro. It’s easy to become enraptured in the thrill of these fans’ unending desire to get as close as possible to their idols.

This incessant buzz is the driving force of fandom, and it reverberates far beyond gigs and signings. The media scholar Henry Jenkins credits pop fans as early adopters of digital technology, using the internet to mobilise and crowd-fund since the early Nineties. Online communities share detailed analysis of music, personal news and artists’ social media posts. Beyoncé fans swarm together as the “Beyhive”, a group of majority black women in their mid twenties to late thirties. The singer’s refusal to adhere to release schedules, give standard media interviews or even post regularly on social media (“The way she communicates is like a god, dropping tablets from the skies, with no explanation,” writes Ewens) has spawned a legion of disciples who scramble to consume every new piece of information. The most dedicated deposit bee emojis – their stamp of loyalty – on the social media posts of those who are rumoured to have done Bey wrong. A gang of devotees is a force to be reckoned with.

Some of the book’s most resonant moments come at the point where euphoric obsession meets fandom’s ability to counteract tragedy. The resolute determination of 14-year-old Caitlin to return to Manchester Arena for Ariana Grande’s One Love concert, only weeks after she was present during the terrorist bombing at the venue in May 2017, goes some way in showing how an openly feminist, LGBTQ-supporting artist such as Grande can instil resilience in young women. “When people say, ‘Oh, you were at Ariana Grande’, I want to say, ‘Yeah, she was amazing’ not ‘I didn’t get hurt,’” Caitlin tells Ewens, defiantly.

Back in Johnny’s, where photography is forbidden, security guards are suspicious of Ewens, who stands with her Dictaphone out. With it she records stories that capture the hopefulness that having an idol brings. Ly, a pharmacist, is 25, older than many of the fans Ewens speaks to. But still she follows the aspirational messages that her favourite artists offer. “I feel I can try hard every day when I see them shining on stage.” 

Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture
Hannah Ewens
Quadrille, 256pp, £14.99

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation