Them and Us: Bros Fans Negotiate The Mass Culture Critique


I was trawling through YouTube recently and came across an interesting clip from a documentary on Bros. For those who are too young to remember, Bros were a pop combo based around the Goss brothers (Matt and Luke) who had hits at the end of the 1980s, starting with the prophetic ‘When Will I Be Famous.’

Unfortunately, the details of this UK documentary are rather hard to find, but what interests me about this clip is the way that it negotiates the mass culture critique as a kind of discursive resource in which everyone is – in various ways – a stake holder.

First, the narrator – a voice of supposed (adult male) objectivity – discusses the girls’ motives in terms of their self-esteem. For him, the girls have no life horizon (no day is complete without a glipse of Matt Goss). He also notes the ‘pecking order’: the originals, the regulars and the ‘hussies’ (a label which positions some fans as boy band groupies).

Second, the talking heads of adult non-fans provide external verification to the mass culture hypothesis. These local adults dismiss the girls as stooges (sitting there like dummies) or uncivilized vermin: running, screaming, fighting, throwing litter and going to toilet in the wrong places. The latter is notable as it reflected another image of youth which was prominent at the time: rave party goers.

Although the girls are partly framed as anonymous and naive, grasping and exploited, the documentary goes further and adds other tones to colour its portrayal. The first of these is the voice of Matt Goss himself, who comes in with a relatively neutral assessment. He explains that the girls have accumulated knowledge about where he lives, and that they come to see him – to tell him their problems and to socialize. I’m intrigued by the idea that Goss might have found himself in a strange position as the unexpected recipient of the girls’ confessionals. What it means is that he is, at least, a listener to them: a predicament which inverts his role as a singer. Their comments are “embarrassing” (perhaps sexual, unusual, offered in confidence); they tell him their problems in order to achieve greater intimacy with him. His listening role also suggests that he has a responsibility of sorts: that – as minors – Bros fans are, in a sense, accidentally entrusted to him.

Goss is a relatively neutral intermediary in the film and in a sense this verifies his celebrity position. If we follow one mechanism from Durkheim’s notion of totemism, he is a kind of active figure head: someone who transfers affective energy from the collective (his fan base) back to his individual followers, both notionally through the gesture of his music and ideally in the intimate process of a one-to-one personal meeting.

When the female fans themselves speak, they implicitly locate the Durkheimian mechanism as something that is a reason for what they do, but is also only one part of their lives. Their world is that of Bros fandom, where getting closer to Matt and Luke is a way to be seen as a privileged person in the eyes of other fans. Consequently, we hear stories and ideas about a range of things: expressing commitment (waiting 15 hours); having the excitement of meeting their hero (sometimes framed as lustful attraction); developing a personal friendship with Matt; understanding what he is really like; being recognized by other fans as a person that he knows individually; and finally pursuing a social life with other girls (who do not just talk about Bros). The documentary is therefore not just saying that the girls are the wretched detritus of mass cultural mechanisms. It rounds them out more as characters and builds up its oppositions as if to open up the possibility of us actually taking their side. We might find these teen pop fans a bit green, but we can celebrate their dedication in the face of cynicism and misunderstanding. They have something of their own. Their sense of ownership and autonomy in the face of adult misunderstanding is itself a regular rite of passage.

By the time that Bros hit the charts, of course, their fan phenomenon was part of a long tradition of teen pop fandom stretching back to Elvis and the Beatles. It wasn’t new, but its audience was new. The process felt fresh to them. They loved Matt Goss. (And twenty five years on, of course, they can look back nostalgically on their passion.) What is as interesting, I think, however, is that the mass culture critique was not a monolithic obstacle to understanding fandom. Instead it was the only available means of talking about fan passion. It acted as a kind of umbrella paradigm or arena within which diverse explanations – the girls as adolescents, as stooges, as lacking self-esteem, or as subjects with rational motives for their emotions – jostled and did battle on a constant basis. Each faction of society drew on the paradigm as a discursive resource. Fandom therefore represented something that was accepted but prompted a kind of familiar anxiety in the public sphere.