To be a female music fan means constantly fighting to prove you’re a “true fan,” often answering the meme-able question, “Yeah, well, name three of their albums,” lest you be pinned with the demeaning label “groupie.” But girls and women don’t need permission to enjoy music and the shared experiences that come with fandom. In fact, for many, it’s a way to forge new friendships, new skills, and a stronger sense of self.
Even before gaggles of teenage girls fainted and cried at the sight of The Beatles when they made their American debut in 1963, the word “hysterical” has undermined the passion and excitement of female fans. Before the Fab Four, in the mid-1800s, the Hungarian composer Johannes Liszt was known for his uncanny ability to inspire scads of female concert-goers to swarming ecstasy, a phenomenon termed “Listzomania.” In more recent years, female music fans have been referred to as “groupies” or “fangirls”—at best, frivolous and incapable of truly appreciating the music, and at worst, golddiggers who are only interested in getting knocked up by rock stars and rappers to gain access to their earnings.
The support of female fans is vital to an industry beleaguered by declining revenues in the age of streaming. Women and girls are also driving forces behind less stereotypically “female” genres, like punk and metal, despite the prevailing issues those genres have with including women on stage and off. While alternative rock festival Warped Tour continues to have a male-dominated lineup, 53 percent of attendees are female. According to Vice Media music blog Noisey, the site’s internal analytics show that most of the site’s metal and rock fans in the 18–34 age group identify as women.
The sexist view of female fandom also discounts all of the female pop and rock stars that have devoted followings. A thriving fan culture follows Haley Williams, the lead singer of emo-pop-rock band Paramore, which recently released their fifth studio album. Female fans of the band feel a kinship with Williams, whom they witnessed come into her own as an artist and performer after making her youthful debut at 14.
24-year-old Lidia Pirilä, from Helsinki, Finland, is one of them. Pirilä says that the community has brought her lifelong friends, and even a roommate. “Having been a fan for about nine years now has made me feel like I’ve gone to school with these other fans, and have grown up with them. I’ve seen some of them graduate high school, college, and now have children of their own,” says Pirilä.
She’s also traveled the world with them. Capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the Haley Williams fan cadre, Paramore hosts its own “Parahoy” cruise to give unprecedented access to the music stars while bringing fans closer together. Fans spend days together out on the open sea, sailing from Miami to Mexico, getting closer not only to the band, but to each other.
“The people in this community open up their homes for you when you’re in their city, they help you find a job, they proofread your cover letters, and listen to your rants. It’s more than a community—some of these people become your extended family,” Pirilä says. “Even when the band no longer exists, when they’ve moved on to other things, I am positive that these relationships will still be going strong.”
Being a music fan can also spur musical, artistic, or even business endeavors. Pirilä created her own fansite for the group, which has led to opportunities to write about the band for money. “Thanks to my fansite I’ve gotten free tickets to their shows and have been able to write articles and sell them to magazines,” says Pirilä.
For 27-year-old Alex Tyson of Washington, D.C., teenage solace came in the form of message boards for the female-fronted band Metric in the mid-2000s. More of an outside observer than active participant on the forums, she read everything she could about the band’s guitar tabs, bass lines, synths, and more, absorbing all she could to use for her creative projects. While other boards seemed exclusionary and sexist, she says she always felt comfortable on Metric’s pages. “My experiences improved my research skills and taught me to be more self-reliant,” says Tyson. “I think being a music fan enables me to have richer conversations and friendships. I’ve met friends at Metric shows I’ve had for almost a decade.”
For Tyson, being a fan of Metric or other bands serves as a kind of “shorthand” for who she is as a person. She’s found that having a love for Metric in common with other people also increases the likelihood of seeing eye-to-eye on other issues. If they both connect to the same group, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll connect to each other. Whether that was “spending four hours to identify what pedal they played during this little bit or what they really meant in verse three” instead of doing her AP English homework, fandom was also a way of connecting to a higher order and escaping the drudgery of high school.
Using what she learned from the message boards, Tyson brought her music skills to her professional and artistic pursuits as an adult. A technology manager by day, Tyson was one of 14 women cast by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson to appear in his piece “Woman in E” at the Hirshorn Museum of Art, in which she stood on a podium in a gold lamé dress and played the E minor chord on a Fender Telecaster. “Hilariously, one of the other women also lurked on the Metric forums as a teenager and learned to play [lead singer] Emily Haines’s music on piano,” says Tyson. Having both come to music via Metric forums, they found a kinship as adults in a uniquely artistic setting.
But being a fan, particularly as a girl, is not without its risks. In the book “Truly, Madly, Deeply: The Relationship Between Fandom and Mental Health,” Maria Sherman writes that “obsession has always been a close friend of depression” and notes how fixation can have negative effects through escapist behaviors and avoidance of reality, which can happen when fans go too far. Message boards and online communities are beneficial in certain circumstances, but girls run the risk of limiting all of their socializing to online friends, who may or may not be who they claim. What’s more, individuals can find themselves identifying so strongly with the feelings of the group that they act in ways they never would on their own. After Beyonce surprise-released her visual album “Lemonade,” rumors abounded that Jay Z had been cheating with stylist Rachel Roy. Beyonce’s fans were quick to target Roy online, as well as innocent bystander and cooking show host Rachael Ray. Diehard fans can seem all too ready to participate in an online tweetstorm without confirming the veracity of their claims, nor thinking of the person on the receiving end of the vitriol.
There’s also the depressingly real risk of musicians taking advantage of young women who aren’t experienced enough to say no, or to understand that a seemingly benign relationship can quickly spiral into unwelcome territory. Long after the still-unsettled rape allegations against R. Kelly entered the public eye there have been claims against Jake McElfresh, the pop-punk singer-songwriter known as Front Porch Step, of sexual misconduct with underage girls in 2015. The singer has faced few, if any, repercussions: he was back playing Warped Tour that same year and releasing new music.
Despite the media and music industry’s slow response to such behavior, fans are starting to take matters into their own hands by demanding to be treated better. Several organizations have emerged to protect women against abusers in the industry, including Girls Against and Bands Take a Stand. They talk to venue owners, touring bands, and other fans to make sure they know how to spot and prevent harassment; they’ve also worked with security to remove offenders from shows to ensure all people can enjoy the music safely.
Especially as our understanding and appreciation of female fandom evolves, and as more and more women speak out against abusers in the music industry, the beneficial aspects of fandom seem to outweigh the bad. For evidence, I need look no further than my own mom. “Being the youngest of seven, I grew up with a lot of 50s and 60s music … because that’s what my older brothers and sisters always played,” says Carrie Harding. One of the main voices in the house was that of Neil Diamond. Diamond has been a unifying force for my mother and her sisters for more than four decades, punctuated by five live performances. Just put in a Neil Diamond CD and their memories take over, with specific songs bringing back memories of the time they hit airwaves, as only music can. “Now, if Neil Diamond is on TV, I pick up the phone and call all my sisters … It just brings us so much closer together.”
While female fans often face a frustrating fight to be seen as legitimate, fandom has its rewards: community, shared memories and nostalgia, belonging, and inspiration. Even our understanding of female “hysteria” is becoming more nuanced, as we start to appreciate the ways that fandom has also served as an outlet for sexual expression during more puritanical times, and continues to be a conduit for young women seeking the similarly minded. Most importantly, for many girls, fandom is just the start of their own creative and professional pursuits—perhaps the ones that will one day put them on the stage, playing for a packed house.
Read also: The Problem With Fangirl Shaming.
This feature originally appeared in the Madness issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Madness issue here.