Written by Zoe Tevyaw, Photo by Josh Sorenson
You know them; you love them; you might even be a bit fearful of them - fangirls have been around in the music industry for as long as there have been stars to fangirl over. From the teen idols of the 50s to Beatlemania to Justin Bieber, it is young women driving music consumption and subscribing to the idea of artists as icons. Why, then, are these girls often the first scorned? Too often associated with the extremities of obsessive stalkers or crazed hecklers, this community tends to get a bad reputation for all the heavy lifting they actually do.
In a world so heavily reliant on the digital space, social media has become the main stomping ground for artists to connect, promote, and remain relevant. This dependence has only rung truer throughout the quarantine and post-COVID era. The barriers between our favorite musicians and us have never been thinner and even now have the potential to get knocked down further by an answered DM. The most famous names in music staff teams of digital marketing strategists paid for the content creation the masses yearn for – nobody more so than the fangirls. They are the true determiners of what and who the next massive trend online will be and have been for the last decade.
It would be incredibly hard to overlook One Direction in this discussion given the impact that modern fandom had on the band’s astonishing success. Focused mainly on Tumblr circa-2013, the developing internet culture surrounding the band set in stone a myriad of the practices applicable today on sites like TikTok and Twitter. Subcultures emerging out of music scenes are nothing new, but the One Direction fandom was able to build such an immense web for a single group that they changed the face of artist consumption and interaction.
The Tumblr platform has developed a large roster of some of the world’s best-known artists who broke through by gaining traction and curating passionate fan communities on this site. The aforementioned One Direction, Arctic Monkeys, Lorde, The 1975, and Lana Del Rey are all big name artists whose Tumblr infamy went on to create larger ripples throughout the industry with the help of their fangirls. It was in this space many of these artists also began interacting directly with their fans and participating in their own communities. The direct connection, though fueling the contradictory needs of fans to both put artists on a higher pedestal and while also insisting on relatability, is incredibly important in shaping how artist teams would strategize in the 2020s.
Since Tumblr’s heyday, other sites like Twitter and Instagram have housed various fan communities built upon what Tumblr established. On Twitter, especially, artist fan subcultures have grown to immense numbers creating waves big enough to effect the platform and even create change within artist/label strategy and structure. It is important to differentiate fangirl culture from the “stan” and “cancel” cultures running rampant online as of late. While there is a measure of overlap, the defining difference between a fangirl and a stan is aggression. Where fangirls are self-sustaining and community-oriented, oftentimes stan communities exhibit infighting and the tendency to ostracize one another.
Nowadays, TikTok is king in terms of hosting the fan communities doing the most for artists, as well as artists doing the most for their fans. Being audiovisually formatted, TikTok seems predisposed to housing artists and fans. With such a vast user population, it remains outstanding that it is still the fangirls driving the platform’s musical trends. For as many months as Harry Styles, Matty Healy, or Lewis Capaldi have been on tour, they’ve been in every other clip on the video feeds. During Styles’ and Healy’s most recent tours, neither presented a particularly comparable online presence. Nothing either frontman could’ve posted would have been as fantastic publicity as the droves of fan-shot videos going viral after every show.
Capaldi, on the other hand, has rolled with the new format and taken to posting raw, hilariously uncurated content that fuels his fans even further. Giving away next to nothing about his private life, he has managed to wield TikTok in a way that satiates audiences’ need for direct content and the “real Lewis” without compromising anything particularly vulnerable. Artists now are just figuring out how to return to the ideals of Tumblr on this new stage. Balancing content delivery is tricky: too much encourages dangerous parasocial relationships, while not enough could upset the fangirl quid-pro-quo (you give me fan interaction and I’ll help break your name).
Consider an artist who not only found a core fanbase on the Tumblr platform, but who began as one of those fangirls. Ashley Frangipane was at one point a One Direction fangirl entrenched in the online community under the screen name se7enteenblack. Now, she’s better known as the award-winning, pop singer-songwriter Halsey. Active as a fangirl, Halsey was able to co-opt bigger artist communities in which she participated into her own and use her identity as a fan to her professional advantage.
Halsey’s fan-to-industry success story is one of few throughout the music industry, much to the confusion of everyone who gets it. The brightest up-and-coming A&R personnel are the ones who can predict the next big thing online or are actively hearing whispers in the fan communities as to who might stand out. If it weren't for such a stigma surrounding the idea of the fangirl, it would be one of an aspiring music industry girl’s greatest strengths. However, the association with “female craziness” often paints a picture of mutual exclusivity between being a fan and being professional. While not every woman in music faces the issues of being a fangirl, every fangirl faces the issues that come with being a woman in music. The gender inequalities of all fields of the business remain starkly noticeable and staunchly underexposed.
What kind of musician wouldn’t want their team filled with the kind of loyalty, passion, and willingness to go to bat exhibited by these women? The maintained esteem of nonchalance in the music industry only serves to hinder the excitement intrinsic to such a naturally creative field. “Playing it cool” can’t foster connection. Meanwhile, fangirls are hard at work driving the industry and building communities through shared dedication and support.