The Groupie Problem: Harry Styles and Combating the Toxic Language Used to Disrespect Female Music Fans
“I’m a journalist. … I’m not … I’m not a … you know.”
As far as pieces of art that have dramatically influenced my life go, “Almost Famous” ranks pretty high up on the list. It imbues you with this sense of destiny and luck and inspiration—all falling into your lap. If you are just precocious and industrious enough, you too could be flung into the fray. But I slowly realized why Penny Lane has her place and William Miller has his own.
William is able to become a writer for Rolling Stone because he is instantly taken seriously when doling out the dribble of fan compliments to Stillwater at the stage door. They embrace him and take him under their wing as someone who will shower them with praise in a non-threatening way, a backstage pass so easily won. The female fans wait at the top of the ramp.
Recently Rolling Stone revealed its interview with May’s cover star, Harry Styles. The interview was conducted by none other than Cameron Crowe who, of course, wrote/directed/lived “Almost Famous.” Many interesting things happened in this interview, but perhaps the most interesting moment was when Styles was asked whether his boy band past and his predominantly young female fan base worried him and whether he’d be taken seriously as a solo artist moving forward despite this fact. As if these mobs of screaming girls were the thing blocking Harry Styles from a “serious” career in music.
In my many years as an avid and ravenous music fan, who also happens to be female, I have developed a strong hatred for what I not so lovingly refer to as the “G-word.” Any time a female music fan shows excitement or passion for a male musician the word “groupie” is invariably and unoriginally thrown around. The word undermines female fans and assumes that they are not seriously interested in the music but rather just want to sleep with the musicians or only enjoy their art because they are attractive. We cannot possibly understand the complexities of the art, it’s all about the dimples, the long hair, and pillowy lips. For the younger female fans which Crowe was referring to in this instance, the term “fangirl” is often used. But “fangirl” is just the PG term for groupie. God forbid we sexualize girls too early; thanks for the bone.
As a younger person, I was never shy meeting artists I loved. I was never calculated. I never practiced what I was going to say, never weighed my words or fought for composure before releasing them. When I met Cobra Starship or Johnny Flynn at 16 outside The Middle East in Cambridge, I told them which songs I loved, why I admired them, thanked them profusely for their work and made sure to mention what it meant to me. A sweaty teen confession, it was the purest love I could feel and share, and they’d respond to me as the child that I was with warm smiles, gratitude, perhaps a hug, and we’d pose for a photo.
As I got older this exchange became more and more complicated when I was told that as a female fan I needed to be careful not to come off as a “fangirl.” I was told once that I needed to maintain composure when expressing my appreciation to artists so I did not come off as “hysterical.” But I was also warned not be too composed and come off too confidently and appear flirty. It became a ridiculous tightrope balancing act of reining in my excitement and toning down my femininity so I could be taken seriously as an intelligent fan of someone’s music.
A few years ago I attended a show at Shea Stadium. Of the five years I lived in New York and the hundreds of shows I saw, this was the most raucous, painful, and intense show I had ever been to. And I spent most of my free time getting spit on and kicked in the head at shows so this was no easy feat. Later in the week I saw a certain photographer from Rolling Stone had posted photos from the gig. One was a shot of a dozen hands reaching for the setlist after the show (my hand was in the center as I was the winner of that particular setlist dive who took home the cherished tattered sheet which now hangs on my wall, barely taped together and illegible). The caption of his photo pointedly called out “female fans scrambling” for the setlist; the comments reminisced about Beatlemania. Another photo showed half a dozen female fans on stage mid-show and the caption labeled it a “#fangirl stage invasion.”
This show was by no means the tween scream-a-thon these captions seemed to smugly suggest in an attempt to undermine the intelligence and image of these women. The show was oversold, or at least felt like it was in terms of how much energy and aggression filled any empty spaces. There was a forced stage invasion as the pressure on the front row of people grew so intense our shins were bleeding from being pushed into the lip of the low stage. I sat on stage at the bassist’s feet for much of the set as I couldn’t stand anymore from fear that my legs might snap if I tried to. We all left beer-soaked, bruised, and battered, and it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. The savage return of one of my favorite bands and exactly the scene I had signed up for. That is why when I got home to shower the beer out of my hair and tend to any wounds accrued I was so angry to see that this show of devotion and release of chaotic energy had been reduced to “#fangirls.”
Thus far I have found no answer for what we can do to express our dedication as fans and still be taken seriously. Being on the front lines taking the hits, knowing all the words, knowing the chords, the drummer’s birthday, who produced this record what else they’ve done; no amount of knowledge is enough until it is too much. The worshipping fans of 1D—those who know every detail of the band’s lives—are insane young fangirls, boy-crazy, obsessed, silly. The devotion of these young fans is labeled some type of mania. But the man who spends his kid’s tuition on rare first pressings of Zeppelin albums and allows no one to breathe on them is seen as an intelligent collector and enviable dedicated fan.
The bottom line is that the language surrounding female fans has always been a rotting tree stump full of misogyny that we have to scrub out of our discourse in the music world. The battle isn’t won just because we are seeing more women on the bill, it has to extend to both sides of the stage.
In 2014, Rolling Stone wrote another article about Harry Styles being the “Boy of the Year of the Girl.” The article is incredibly funny and insightful and touches on something vitally important: “He knows he serves at the pleasure of a girl audience that absolutely cannot be bought, scammed, condescended to or taken for granted. (It’s been tried.) If you’re a girl pop fan, you are the only power player in the music business. Everybody else is scared stiff of you.”
If this same magazine recognizes this fact and this power and artists recognize it as well, why in media are women still being made to feel shame for their devotion as fans? Why is it acceptable to assume if a woman or young girl loves a piece of music or band she cannot be taken seriously, or is only listening to the music due to the sexual appeal of the artists? It is entirely possible to respect an artist and not have the main focus of your respect hinging on their sexual appeal. I have felt this same shame as a female hockey fan. Men have said to me, “Oh, you only like those hockey asses, all those hot guys.” Of course. Hockey players are hot. No one is disputing this fact. But you are calling into question my intellect when you assume those things. As if a girl couldn’t be otherwise stimulated or interested by something men do without sexualizing the activity. Perhaps this is an insecure reflection of men’s own experiences enjoying entertainment or art created by or dominated by women.
Cameron Crowe’s recent Harry Styles interview disappointed me because he felt the need to even still be asking the questions about whether Styles was worried about young female fans standing in the way of him being taken seriously as an artist. Styles’ answer however, so authentically and enthusiastically offered, gave me a great deal of hope for the future.
“Styles is aware that his largest audience so far has been young—often teenage—women. Asked if he spends pressure-filled evenings worried about proving credibility to an older crowd, Styles grows animated. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right?—have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans—they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Crowe seems to be shirking away from the fact that he asked the question himself (“when asked” … I see someone’s been in this journalism game a while, language is a beautiful thing) and that urge is understood after the genuine appreciation Styles expresses and his validation of the intelligence of young female fans and the weight of their opinions and voices. His rejection of the question highlighting its disrespectful undertones. Styles respects these young girls, and what’s more, he takes them seriously, which is something that is sadly a luxury for most young women. Based on the internet’s response to Harry’s comments, I am hopeful for a future where female fans can unabashedly show appreciation for art they enjoy for any reasons and on any level without shame or ridicule or assumptions as to their motives and are free to “truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” Isn’t that what Crowe told us being a fan is supposed to be all about?
About the artist: Giulia Sagramola studied visual communication at ISIA Urbino and illustration at Escola Massana. Her work has been published in The New Yorker and the NYT. Giulia now lives in Barcelona where she shares a studio with fellow illustrators.