My friends Anja Lobert and Dr Tim Wise were busy last week putting on a double-header exhibition and conference on Take That, designed to coincide with the band’s triumphant home run of several reunion dates at the Manchester City football stadium.
For American readers who don’t know them so well, Take That were a boyband from the North of England who had phenomenal success before splitting in 1996. In their heyday they had a string of chart-topping singles in the UK, but only one hit in the USA. After the break-up, all went their separate ways. The incomparable Robbie Williams went on to have a successful solo career. Gary Barlow became a credible singer-songwriter with a career in his own right. Some of the others – who were called Mark, Jason and Howard – released albums of their own. Then about four or five years ago they reformed as a four-piece without Robbie. Last year he rejoined for a carefully controlled reunion that extended the band’s reach to encompass the quality press, giving the Take That reunion mass phenomenon status.
As might be imagined, the Making Things Whole Again conference was rife with discussions of fandom and gender, generational memory, and Take That’s in-group masculine dramaturgy. My own contribution explored how we constantly frame boybands and their followers with four interlocking discourses – youth, exploitation, gender and fandom – that collectively function to allay anxieties about us loving music that is undeniably created for the process of commercial marketing. Even in the liberate age of social media, boybands still come in for a kind of mass culture critique.
Anja’s exhibition, called Take That Fandom before the Internet is also fascinating. I never realized the extent to which she was a 1990s Take That fan herself. Held in the Northern Quarter, Anja’s installation is based on her research contact with around 500 fans. What it shows is that the girls who loved Take That formed a living social culture. They sent each other penpal letters, traded stickers and candid photos of band members, and some made “FBs”. Many of the girls would receive pen pal letters on a daily basis.
The “FB” (or “friendship book” to give it the full title) is a hand-made compilation of fans’ addresses, circulated between enthusiasts. FBs were often just a few sheets of paper folded or stapled together. Yet they were chocked full of mini-appeals in felt-tip squiggles for girls seeking new pen pals – the one page or less ads frequently featured text-speak teen acronyms for things like which bandmember the girl liked and whether she would accept corresponds from other countries. FBs also contained pictures, doodles, stickers and the like. As Anja shows, there were three types: Slams (get-to-know-yous that feature repeated answers to the same set of questions), Crams (that cram in lots of addresses) and Decos (ornate, heavily decorated lists – in effect, homemade portable “shrines” to the band).
Beyond the FBs and their ephemeral culture of performed self-representation, the currency of the fan community included real life amateur photos of the boys in the band, taken by girls who waited by stage doors or followed them round the country. While presenting a less glossy image that Take That’s publicity stills, in effect these candids offered a vicarious back-stage pass to anyone who wanted to see what the boys were like in ordinary life. For most girls, the photos were the only evidence that the Take That boys were “real” lads who goofed around off-duty. Sometimes the photos were also evidence that the pen pal you were corresponding with had actually met a band member and could claim to have got nearer and known about them. Girls would write “no copies” on the back of the pictures to stop others copying them into oblivion as the pictures circulated through the fan community. Take That Fandom before the Internet shows that the 1990s were an eventual, social time in the lives of adolescent female fans from different countries. Before the days of Facebook there was indeed a communicative, living culture of active, producerly Take That fans invigorated through their engagement with what might have appeared to be, on the face of it, the glossy yet glossed over end of teen pop culture.