Perceptions of Female Pop Fans – Interview with Mark Duffett, Part 2

At the end of 2013, the Huddersfield university student Johanna Maria Mangel came to interview me for her study on perceptions of female pop fandom. She transcribed the interview as part of an appendix for her project. I asked her if I could reproduce an edited version. This is the second of two parts…

How do you imagine the male musician’s themselves see their fans?

From what I gather there’s very much a mixed complex reaction there, because I think, a lot of musicians are grateful to their fan following. Fans are the frontline of their marketing. They are the people that feed the musician’s ego. They are the reason that the performer is carrying on in a vocation. A few performers may also have a certain dilemma, thinking that people only love them for their image. Yet that love is real and palpable to them, and it is important – it signifies their social role. On the other hand I also think that a few of them have a certain fear that the fans will just devour them. That relies on a certain set of stereotypes and concerns, but some fans certainly express their desire in very strong ways. Ordinarily, though, I think musicians have a sense of affection for their fans, and can also express a kind of a distance and jokiness – a sense of ‘Once you step into this life this is what you get.’

I think that from Elvis onwards, the idea of young female fandom itself increasingly became a stereotype. It became something that was socially recognised and accepted as both kind of weird and yet not weird, because everybody went through it. By the time things got to glam rock, you get this ‘Oh well, that’s just what they do’ attitude. Some in the music industry are quite cynical about that, they’ve said things like ‘You can set your watch to young girls going through puberty’ and that kind of stuff.

What are the different areas of debate over teenage female fans or ‘groupies’?

There have been various areas of academic debate about young female fandom. One is the idea of teenagers and bedroom culture – an academic interest in fans being social with each other. Then there’s a whole area of debate over very dedicated fandom and music, and the idea of fans being ‘extreme.’ What this concerns with is what if these young girls go and act on their desires, get closer and maybe have sex with these guys, who has agency there? Are they vulnerable, or are they making their own choices and being smart about it as writers like Pamela Des Barres have claimed? Rock and pop are quite different in that sense. There was a famous Rolling Stone issue about ‘groupies’ and it’s writing had connotations, like ‘Great! Here are some sexually available women, who will do anything,’ and that kind of thing. Whereas a lot of the literature around this from former ‘groupies’ has explained encounters were monogamous and romantic, or if it was just about sex then they still felt that they had some kind of agency. For example, consider the Plaster Casters… I think it still connects to stereotypes about pop fandom, because the idea is that female desire is not just mysterious, but it’s also repressed, so if it’s unleashed, all hell will break loose – anything can happen. I think the idea of ‘groupidom’ captures those kinds of anxieties.

The argument that is made in the film Groupie Girl (Ford, 1970) is that this girl wants to get closer to the band, but eventually – it’s a ‘rite of passage’ film – she’s disillusioned because once she gets there, it’s all a bit sleazy and it’s not just the band: she has to sleep with people around them and it goes a bit horrible and nasty. Finally, I think it would be misrecognising everything to sexualise a lot of those fan desires and encounters, because they’re not always like that.

Do journalists write what they think or what their editor tells them to?

I’ve heard that stories have been set by the editors beforehand. Some journalists are sympathetic to fandom, though. I ended up doing some quotes for a story on Justin Bieber fans that came out as an ebook that was called OMG! Justin!

The journalist who wrote that (Shawna Richer) went on tour with the fans and she was relevantly sympathetic towards fan culture, so that’s worth looking at. Justin Bieber and 1D are the current people who seem to have the sort of ‘massification’ of audience that attracts unproductive stories.

Has boy band fandom really changed a lot since the ‘60s?

There is absolutely a similarity, I think, in some ways. The Beatles were sort of offered to audiences almost like a boy band. They were all dressed in the same suits. They were paraded around as four lads who kind of joked about. Glam rock was slightly more knowing in terms of… when Elvis did that kind of stuff, and the Beatles, it was all relatively new. Capital Records definitely marketed the Beatles as a totemic act. The label didn’t talk all day about their music. They talked about how popular they were. It was that sort of marketing that evoked that kind of pop audience. One of the interesting things about Beatlemania was that it eventually marked a certain turning point, where art rock started. So the Beatles were able to use that critique of mass culture in their own marketing. They effectively dismissed their pop fans and said ‘We’re better than that now, we’re more adult, more artistic. We’re going after a more mature market. We’re going to do more serious music.’ That is interesting because, when you go back and listen to songs, they had titles like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ Ironically, the Beatles used to be a tight little rock’n’roll band, and were very much inspired by Elvis. Both Paul and John Lennon were huge Elvis fans, and they saw Elvis movies.

What kinds of things happened in early Elvis fandom?

Already in the ‘50s there were instances where Elvis had his clothes torn off, where fans drew with lipstick all over his car – that became a scene in one of his first films, Loving You (Kanter, 1957), which explored ideas about female fandom. 

Elvis became a famous singer in it who couldn’t go out in public without prompting trouble. It was almost a parody of his own life, really. Celebrity following was seen as part of the social process of country music, but actually I think the interesting thing – especially in the South where he performed for two years before he became a national figure – was that the audience was all ages. There were older people in the audience and young kids. It wasn’t just young females, but marketing agencies spotted teens at that time and it became a big thing. When you look at young women at that time, they were dressed very adult, because the idea of adolescence was only just taking off back then.

Do you think back then when Elvis and the Beatles emerged, fandom meant more, because of the repression of female desire and all the taboos surrounding it?

I don’t know if female sexuality was actually repressed – maybe it was simply ‘produced’ in a particular way – but yes, I think it was seen as less acceptable for women to express their sexual desires in public. But yeah certainly…there are stories of jealous boyfriends trying to beat Elvis up and boyfriends saying he’d stolen their women, and all this kind of stuff. I also think that ‘rockism’ is more of a male thing, so when rock discourse got hold of the idea of female fandom, it kind of made it into a question of ‘groupies’ suggesting that those women were enticed and sexually available, and that was the end of it. Look at Elvis’s representation. This is why Elvis was so controversial, even after rock and roll when his critics said ‘You’ve sold out.’ What had happened was actually that social rebellion was kind of a cause and that expression of female desire was unusual, but then – by the early ‘60s – it had become normalised, and therefore Elvis didn’t really need controversy to appeal to the audience. So the whole thing of him ‘selling out’ is just him embracing the female audience in a different way, because in rock and roll it was about a game in which the performer on stage played with the audience. Into the ’60s, however, in the new teenage culture, Elvis was marketed as a teenager. Even though he was a little bit older that some of those other guys like Fabian, he was in girls romance comics that ran at the time, as Cliff Richards was too. That was the way those guys were marketed. It wasn’t so much like rock’n’roll happened, and then that happened and then rock happened. Rather it was a series of different phases, each melting into what was next.

It is interesting that – depending on how you see it – you can position Elvis as sort of this exploiter of women or you can position him as a commodity designed for women. Ultimately I think ultimately he was really marketed as a commodity designed for women. That was the reason he became so popular. He really made the most of that opportunity and then he witnessed the 70s and did a lot of records for those female fans, like ‘Love Letters.’ There is evidence that he wrote back to one female fan in about 1954 or ‘55 actually saying something like, ‘I can’t marry you. Even though I know you want to marry me, I’m sorry but I can’t.’ So he took it seriously initially that they were saying these sorts of things. You’ve got to remember that fan mail is designed to attract people’s attention. It’s hard for us to understand the late ‘50s; it’s a different world now I think. The ethics back then were strong like that. I don’t think that the bands and musicians were fully responsible for the sexual revolution. Things are not that simple, but there is evidence to suggest that there were some shifts, and they played a part in what was happening. I mean even guys would talk about how attractive they found Elvis, and it was a sort of bonding conversation for a generation of people. So, if even if people like Elvis didn’t cause the sexual revolution alone, they were certainly reflections of what’s happening. I don’t necessarily think that all of a sudden Elvis stepped on stage and the entire world changed. We know that things aren’t normally that simple. But he did play a part.

What are the connotations of the word ‘fan’ now? Does the age of Twitter and Lady Gaga spell the end of the parasocial relationship?

One thing about recent years, I think, is that the term ‘fan’ itself has begun to colonize different things and the celebrity mechanism has been extended to politicians and other people. I was talking to one of my colleagues a few weeks ago and he said he really liked Neil Kinnock, who was one of the leaders of the Labour party. He met Kinnock one day and said ’I’m you’re biggest fan.’ Neil Kinnock suddenly started acting kind of wary. If he had said ’I’m your biggest admirer,’ Kinnock might have though, ‘Oh he likes my policies,’ etc. The word ‘fan,’ historically, has been overly associated with parasocial relationships. Fandom has these historical connotations. There’s now a new generation of scholars writing about stuff like Lady Gaga and celebrity formation on Twitter. Some are saying things like ‘the parasocial relationship has now come to an end.’ I’m very suspicious of all of that on multiple levels. First of all, the parasocial relationship was never an empirical phenomenon; it was a theoretical one that was devised to express elite anxieties about the era of mass broadcasting. Also, we are now in an era where if Lady Gaga speaks to her fans. That’s just quite similar to fans speaking to Bob Dylan or somebody when they meet him backstage, today it’s more public. Lady Gaga is interesting, in the sense that she very much recognises her lack of privacy, and she uses artifice to explore it. We all live in a culture where we’re losing privacy rapidly. Celebrities are used as part of the debate about whether that is going too far and whether the change is a good thing – and fandom gets caught up in that debate as well.

Do you think that contemporary pop stars communicating with their fans via social media like Twitter has affected music fandom? Does this sort of communication give fans false hope?

It’s not false hope. It’s just that an elite of fans are interacting with that person, and such fans are then given a special status within their community. Those interactions themselves are taken as totemic, because other fans sort of see it as ‘Right, if those lucky few can talk one to one with our hero, it’s possible for all of us to do this.’ There’s this sort of an ‘American Dream’ of fandom there – almost -suggesting, ‘These people have ‘made it. They’re interacting, so it’s possible for me to too.’ Yet it’s not possible for everyone – and stardom rests on that inequality. Lady Gaga is following, I think, about 140,000 people on Twitter – which is impossible for one person to follow anyway – so she’s probably got a team of people working on that. In turn she has 40 million followers on Twitter. People take these twitter followings as equivalent to fan bases, which they’re not, but they are a rough indication of what interests people. The statistical part of Twitter therefore reproduces both stardom and fandom as resting on a form of social inequality. Inequality is a big part of what’s thrilling about much fandom. If fans were completely equal to their stars, the magic would be gone. There was a Gregory Peck fan, who went half a round the world to see him and she shook his hand and said something like, ‘I’ve come to find out what you are really like.’ In reply he said, ‘Oh, I hope I’m like what you think I’m like.’ Then he asked, ‘What about you?’ She said, ‘I’m your biggest fan.’ That was all she wanted to be known as. People want that moment, where they are close to their star yet also unequal to them, and that’s part of the magic of fandom itself. I think that for a lot of people the emotional possibilities start out as very thrilling but they might end up somewhere else. There are a lot of people who end up just collecting the records of a certain person or going into a different kind of fandom. It was really enjoyable and part of the reason why I wanted to study fandom, because I’ve been a fan of different things and I wanted to become much more self-aware about what that meant, because it seems to be such an important part of social life.

Why do you think female fans act like they do? What goes through their mind?

‘This is the guy for me, I love this guy, this is a really important guy in my life. OMG – I really want to be with him, I want to know what he’s all about, I really love him’… That’s the sort of thing that may well go on in some of their heads, but the question is how did it get there? We could psychoanalyse it, but I don’t like psychoanalysis much in studying fandom. I think the issue with it is that you can talk about individual texts, and you can talk about individual people quite well with it, but when you try to talk about whole groups of people, it tends to pathologize them. It tends to generalize in a way that I don’t think is very beneficial.

I think what goes on is that fans become emotionally convinced by the performer, so there’s something about the performer they connect with and that they like. Also they get a lot of signs of the performer’s popularity. When those two things come together, it’s like those magic eye puzzles: first you couldn’t see and then you see.

One of my friends at the moment is quite into Harry Styles. We all know him as a singer in a manufactured band and he’s there, but we know that fans like him because, above and beyond his role, there might be just a little thing that he does, just the sort of thing that could make someone attractive to a normal person, just a little thing that he does, maybe the way he wears his hair, or his sense of humour – and then bingo, you’ve got that connection. In a mediated age, when a person is extremely famous and you have that connection, it can be very powerful. I can remember reading Kerrang years ago and there was a woman who wrote in and said, ‘I walked past a shop window and saw a picture of Jon Bon Jovi, and oh my, what an amazing guy! I was really into him.’ Then of course then you get a thing of other fans saying, ‘You’re not legitimate, you only fancy that guy, we like him for the music.’ Now with boybands that’s not always an issue, because many don’t write their own songs, but with other fandoms it could be quite a serious strategy to marginalise and separate groups of fans. Gary Numan married one of his fans, so you do get these different kind of circumstances. I think it’s quite nice, it’s just the way they met. They could’ve met under other circumstances. I think it depends on the mental flexibility of the two people involved as to whether fandom enables or damages an ongoing relationship or not.

I think for some of the British fans, Elvis fandom was partly about empathizing across geographic distance. Even the poorest of the British fans were richer than the poorest people in the South in America, so what happened with Elvis and with quite a lot of other artists was that they become experienced as contradictory. There is one side of them that’s very glitzy and looking like they’ve achieved everything, and then there’s a another side where you can pity them or find a way to feel better off, and that contradiction then encapsulates people in the middle. You can see that when an artist dies, because everybody seems more fortunate than that person. The emotional currency around that person then shifts and their legend kind of grows. A colleague and I are writing a piece on the Manic Street Preachers and Richey Edwards – the guy who disappeared from that band – and Ben Myers wrote a novel about him. The fans responses to the novel were quite interesting in terms of fans saying that Myers was ‘stealing’ Edwards’ image, almost.

When women objectify men, do you think it is a revenge against their own objectification and a bid for equality, or is it something just natural that happens?

I don’t want to use the word ‘natural’ because I’m not sure how ‘natural’ any sexuality is, but it’s a kind of response that is already there and gets hijacked and inflated. People who study male sexual attraction talk about the concept ‘social proof.’ That means, when somebody is the centre of attention, even if they’re conventionally ugly, they start to become seen as more attractive. Power is the greatest aphrodisiac, because the most powerful person is the centre of attention, probably. Popular music hijacks and exploits that, and the social shift that Elvis made was to set that process more fully in place. Frank Sinatra was evidently in a similar position, but the music he made wasn’t up-tempo music. Elvis made music that was more exciting. Then got him associated with race, etc. Elvis inaugurated an extended phase of mainstream popular music culture where male sexuality was commoditised for the benefit of a female audience. Within that there’s been complexity, because there have been different types of masculinity to offer – various types of nice guys and bad boys, etc – but they are all part of a tradition od men offering themselves up as erotic objects for women. The question is: Who’s in control of that? What does it mean? If you have to buy commodities in order to pursue your desire, then who is in control? There is complexity in there. It’s the continual openness of the two ways that you can answer this question that generates the debate. Journalists would like to say that the debate has been won, and the consumers are the losers, but as we know people use consumption to pursue what they’re really interested in – which is not normally consumption! It’s something else and it’s not necessarily sex with Mick Jagger or somebody. I think it’s sometimes a sort of a shared pleasure and desire for greater closeness – but every time I read a media story, I’m always aware of and suspicious about some of those stereotypes.

Tell me about ‘extreme’ fandom. Did the Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins just take advantage of his own fans?

I don’t think that an otherwise normal person can go down a ‘slippery slope’ and suddenly become an insane fan, but I do think that ‘extreme fandom’ is sometimes a place where mentally unbalanced people can kind of excuse their behaviour. And also it seems now that we have a certain amount of evidence from the opposite side, that celebrity paedophiles can use popular music as recruiting ground. On one level, I do believe in totemism. I think it’s powerful in people’s lives and people seem to respond to it in a very emotive and strong way. But on another level, I don’t believe anybody is insane enough to give their children to a paedophile, on the basis of them being a fan. You can’t go from sane to insane just because you’re a fan. I think the Lost Prophets case is an interesting example of the media trying to make that out. That sort of set an absurd new standard in media stereotyping: the idea of that extreme fandom stronger than motherhood. It actually has nothing to do with it; this is about very sick people who have just happened to get together through fandom, they might have found each other through any other online or offline community. Also, a lot of Watkins’ dedicated fans tried to blow the whistle on him, and now the Lost Prophets’ fans that have found out about his deeds are reconsidering their fandom and struggling with it. It’s quite interesting in terms of totemism and fandom.

Can you elaborate on totemism and celebrity following a bit more?

What I mean by totemism is when fans become fascinated by a performer they’ve got to be convinced by that person’s performance. Once they’re convinced, they somehow believe, deep down, that their hero is socially worth the amount of people they’ve convinced, which results in that person becoming a completely absorbing centre of attention. There’s just something about him or her. We often discuss that as an ‘aura’ but the aura is an audience projection. Our projection is on the basis of our estimation of their social worth. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that celebrity following and fandom are not exactly the same. Some people are pure celebrity followers. There have been guys like Gary Boas who have taken photos of hundreds of celebrities. So whenever Bono, Joan Collins or whoever comes to town, they’ll take a picture. Whereas fans are not like that. They have to be convinced by the worth of that person. They have to be convinced by their performance. They have to be fascinated by their image, or their personality, or something about them, and then they have a strong connection to them. I therefore think fandom gets confused with celebrity following. Considering this notion of female fandom and vulnerability – not just as a stereotype but as a discursive resource that everybody uses, even if it’s an imperfect discursive resource – everyone uses it as best they can, but actually, like any ideology, it benefits some people and not others. That’s probably the best way to think about it.

… If you missed part 1, click here.