Beyond Beatlemania: how technology has changed modern music fandoms

Sometimes I sit and think about my embarrassing boyband crushes, and sometimes I just sit.

Art: Vincent Lee

When Apple released its first iPhone in Australia, it was met with much fanfare. The 3G bore the look (and name) of the future — it was sleek, and black, and ergonomic in all the right places; the wet dream of a technological early adopter who had already been lusting after the phone for a year, ever since the release of a previous model to our American cousins. It promised to change the mobile experience of a user like 16-year-old Aimee, for whom the prospect of a touch screen was enough reason to endure a night in the cold, spent queuing outside the glass façade of an Apple retail store in anticipation of a new device.

Sadly, Aimee’s experience was not to last. Her iPhone broke little more than a week later when it slipped out of her hand in a flash of carelessness, and as she examined the unsalvageable cracks that now splintered across its screen, she wasn’t sure which was worse: having to live in a world without Apple products (at least until she’d saved enough from odd jobs to afford another one), or begging her brother to lend her an iPod Classic to tide her over.

“I ended up choosing the latter,” she remembers, “and the rest is history.”

As it turned out, he was reluctant to hand over his treasured Classic — after all, he’d just downloaded a smorgasbord of tracks onto it, amongst them the self-titled debut from preppy rockers Vampire Weekend — but did so anyway out of brotherly guilt, or maybe some celestial coincidence that destined Aimee to an adolescence of fandom. Like her beloved iPhone, Vampire Weekend were rule-breaking. They were the new kids on the block (without any similarity to the cheesy ‘90s boyband of the same name), having just unveiled their first full-length offering to an 8.8 rating from Pitchfork and similarly positive responses from an assortment of critics.  They were in vogue, and they knew it.

So it was that Aimee’s devotion, to these four men clad in Oxford shirts who waxed lyrical about the United Colours of Benetton and, in the same breath, the act of rushing across a college campus, blossomed. She found herself entranced all the way from the three punctuating notes that opened ‘Mansard Roof’ to the melancholy strings that faded out to salute the end of ‘The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance’, and before long she had tiptoed into Tumblr in an attempt to find like-minded enthusiasts. And find them she did: “I went from casually listening to their music to spending hours a week, a day, making GIFs and image edits dedicated to them,” she says about the Vampire Weekend ‘fandom’.

“It’s not how I spend my time anymore, but it still played a huge part in who I was growing up.”

By all accounts, fandoms aren’t a novel phenomenon. Youtuber and self-professed ‘fandom nerd’ Saberspark suggests that the very first modern iteration arose from Sherlock Holmes — “fans of the series held public demonstrations where they mourned the death of Holmes,” he says in an explanatory video from 2015. This concept of crazed obsession over certain cultural icons soon found its way into music, and the musical landscape of the second half of the 20th century quickly became defined by frenzied followers of bands from The Beatles (‘Beatlemaniacs’) to The Grateful Dead (‘Deadheads’). Puns aside, fandoms like these were incredibly influential in determining the success of an artist and more than anything, they were dedicated. They screamed and cried about their chosen musicians with reckless abandon and followed band members around countries in the hopes of catching even a glimpse of their favourite. They were labelled as groupies, and wholeheartedly reclaimed the term.

Decades later, the advent of social media would usher these groupies into a digital frontier, replete with billions of users readily able to disseminate their passion. No longer was participation in a fandom predicated on physically attending every single band appearance to the point of exhaustion. Now, one could simply sign up to Tumblr or Twitter and engage in online expressions of support for their preferred artists.

I first discovered Aimee’s account online sometime around 2013. I was 16 (the same age as when she had first chanced upon Vampire Weekend) and possessed a particularly embarrassing crush on frontman Ezra Koenig; the sort of crush that would leave me googly-eyed after too many hours spent watching his interviews, reading his past literature, and analysing his dog-print chino shorts. Modern Vampires of the City had just been released, and the fandom was busy debating whether the band was better suited to the sombre, cerebral ‘Step’, or the witty and beat-driven ‘Diane Young’.

Aimee and I agree that, for the most part, the Vampire Weekend community was a positive space where we could trade rapid-fire banter with other enthusiasts, and where we often went to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the band, thus deepening our appreciation for their music. It wasn’t until the end of 2014, when we had both exited the fandom (Aimee, with grace; me, with a slow disappearance into the void) that cracks began to show. A 30-year-old Ezra Koenig had long been rumoured to be dating the 18-year-old Tavi Gevinson; a success story in her own right who founded Rookie Magazine at the tender age of 15. Fans had become factional, arguing over the appropriateness of Koenig’s choice to pursue a woman so much younger, more ‘innocent’.

In the aftermath of their relationship, Gevinson penned a piece titled “The Infinity Diaries”, where she declined to refer explicitly to her ex-partner. But hardcore fans were able to interpret her inferences, as she described her manipulation at the hands of an older man who was a “sex addict”. That was the final nail in the coffin for a community whose death knell had rung months ago, and had been troubled by in-fighting ever since.

The fate of the Vampire Weekend fandom was sealed.

“The Holy Roman Empire waits for you,” Koenig sings on ‘Walcott’, a track from their debut that still serves as a closer in their live gigs. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy when just like their Roman counterparts, Vampire Weekend’s support base crumbled in such spectacular fashion. But such a demise isn’t necessarily common across the board. Most fandoms simply reach an age where tracking the every move of a musician transforms from being “acceptable” to “creepy”, or peter out after a disbanding.

Then there are others who manage to sustain themselves even after a band’s separation. The legacy of one internet generation is passed on to the next via a virtual reserve of images, memes, inside jokes, and fanfiction. Luke — whose Tumblr blog vas-happenin-down-under was followed by 50,000 other users in the prime of the One Direction boyband fanbase — knows this all too well.

The blog “was named after a catch-phrase of [band member] Zayn from his video diaries, coupled with the words down-under to show my Aussie pride,” Luke explains, before reminiscing about the craziest action he ever committed out of his love for the band.

“Probably … my 25-chapter fanfiction that I wrote, or the hours I consumed scrolling and posting on Tumblr,” he says. “Yet looking back, I also can’t believe the amount of money I spent going to every single concert held in Sydney, and concerts in other cities. $500 for tickets, days in a row.”

He trails off as he searches for examples of the stories he authored, imagining romances between different bandmates, as well as between his friends and their preferred members. When he discovers a fragment, it’s rife with overzealous description and dialogue that sounds like it’s pulled directly from the screens of a Spanish soap opera. It’s the perfect example of the manner in which young fans are so deftly able to insert themselves into narratives, and create a listening experience that is infinitely more intimate. But it’s also the same token by which fandoms are so often criticised; this sort of self-insertion, of prying beyond the public personas of musicians and into their private spheres is often labelled as gratuitous and invasive.

To this, Luke is defiant. “I never dwelled on the idea of privacy,” he proudly proclaims. “If waiting for hours outside the hotel they were staying at in Sydney makes me radical, then yes, I’m radical.”

More recently, One Direction’s own Harry Styles issued a defence of teenage fans who are so readily dismissed by musical elites. “Who’s to say that young girls who like popular music have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” he asked in a Rolling Stone interview. It’s the perpetual question; young listeners have been mocked since time immemorial, and denounced as fad followers (never trendsetters), despite their huge influence on the music industry.

So perhaps the greatest gift that fandoms have bestowed unto their participants is the feeling of ownership that accompanies their devotion to the artist. No longer are millennials passively accepting their denigration as poor musical appreciators; they’re empowering themselves by harnessing the collective identity that a fandom affords them. In 1983, media theorist Benedict Anderson wrote of something called imagined communities — the way that portrayals of culture, of figures, of events were manipulated to fit a specific sentiment of patriotic pride for one’s nation. “The nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them,” he postulated, “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” And fandoms operate in much the same way. Whether a user exists in one as small as the Vampire Weekend fandom (which comprised roughly a hundred active members on Twitter), or as sprawling as the Directioners, it’s the sense of shared zeal and pride that’s key in the day-to-day functioning of a group that celebrates the achievements of their bands, and by doing so, creates its own idiosyncratic voice in a crowded musical arena.

Despite many other vast distinctions between the bands of our affection, the experiences of myself, Aimee, and Luke share a common core — that is, the significance of the fandom in informing our own identities. “I can honestly — and sappily — say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for the One Direction fandom,” Luke says after cringing at his own mawkishness. “I don’t think it’s attributed to One Direction at all — it was the fandom that did it for me.”

Aimee agrees, reflecting on how the progressive values of the Vampire Weekend fandom made her “more aware of [her] impact on the environment, and more socially conscious”. For her, it’s been almost a decade since she first heard the album that would form the basis of much of her youth.

In that decade, Apple has announced and retired 15 cycles of their first iPhone, and are set to present yet another new version this year: their 16th model. Meanwhile, Vampire Weekend is gearing up for the release of a long-anticipated 4th record with the typically confusing working title Mitsubishi Macchiato. When I ask Aimee what she expects from both of these events, she merely shrugs her shoulders — she’s moved on.

And therein lies the transient beauty of all fandom, one that’s especially true when it’s affixed to music. Fandoms that provided spaces of solace for participants at one point become nostalgic memories as members gradually shed their skin and turn their interests towards other things. Posters are taken down; online accounts renamed, or deleted; merch t-shirts worn proudly in the past are stuffed away in closets as bands that once occupied a fan’s whole cosmos shrink into nothing more than distant clouds of gas. But a fandom-shaped dent in the music industry still remains, and serves as a haunting reminder of the power of young audiences.

I think I’m long overdue for a re-listening of Vampire Weekend.