The scenes of teenage delirium that greeted boy band du jour One Direction when they visited Australia recently for a whirlwind promo visit were terrifying. I know this is probably a gross exaggeration but it felt to me like a taste of what it must have been like to weather the awesome storm of Beatlemania in the early sixties.
Even before the band actually touched down on our shores, the nightly news reported scenes of hysteria as hormonal teenage girls wept at the chance to own a piece of merchandise from a lucrative pop-up store set up in Pitt Street mall. Like the body of Christ, the transubstantiation of the five boys was complete in the eyes of these girls when their mothers handed over several hundred dollars and blessed their grateful progeny with a symbolic piece of Niall, Harry, Liam, Louis or Zayn. Be it badge, t-shirt, poster or doll, it mattered not, as long as the items were somehow associated with the blessed quintet.
I personally discovered how easily a twenty something year old could feel twinges of nostalgia for her not so recent teenage past when I inadvertently watched an acoustic version of the boys performing ‘One Thing’ and was swiftly hooked on their sweet melodies and unthreatening pastel outfits. For me however, this was mixed with a healthy dose of guilt for enjoying a band who are barely legal, and a good sense of distance from the fan behaviours that I used to become so easily absorbed in.
As far as I can tell, the main difference between my own dalliances with boy band fandom and that of the current crop of teenage girls (and boys) is that there is a significantly different level of proximity and access which allows their obsession to become all-consuming.
The proximity factor is fairly straightforward. I’ve experienced the high of being in the same room as my favourite band countless times before, relishing the sweat and exhaustion that comes with being among likeminded fans, absolutely loving the fact that I am sharing a space with the musicians I admire so much. But the reaction from the girls in the Hordern Pavilion (where I was brave enough to attend the Sydney leg of the promo tour) went beyond what you would expect. The mood in the room was pure hormonal rapture. The occasion seemed to call for endless screaming at simply hearing the boys talk and sing and seeing them move about in the same space occupied by the fans.
The access factor is encouraged by the bands themselves. Each boy has his own personal twitter account, on which he directly interact with fans. These twitter feeds are incorporated into the live shows, with apparently real questions from the audiences flashed on screen as the boys act out requests in real time, such as “can you dance the Macarena?” Needless to say, the crowd eats it up.
These girls exist on a higher plane of fandom that I don’t remember existing when I was their age. And this is of course because of the internet. Never before has it been so easy to access the boys they love, because the minutiae of their (highly managed) lives have been on display through countless candid photos, twitter updates, video diaries and so on and so forth from the very beginning of their career. The fact that One Direction were created on a reality show adds another aspect of assumed access that is not always possible for other bands geared towards teenage girls. This is a somewhat unique phenomenon. Even Justin Bieber, on the same level of teen stardom, is not as accessible. Sure, he tweets regularly and became famous via his self-uploaded youtube videos, but he is also American. The fact that the boys are British adds a certain candour and rough and ready value to their personas, and an honesty to their interview responses. Whereas Justin was coy about admitting to dating Selena Gomez, even though she is an Disney-fied pop singer who shares a mutual fanbase with her boyfriend, Harry Styles happily made innuendos when questioned about his infamous relationship with a woman almost twice his age, and infamously whispered into a winning X-Factor contestants ear, “You are going to get so much pussy after this”. It is hard not to admire the lack of pretension in the face of such constant scrutiny.
So to me the appeal is obvious, and the ingredients for success for this particular group of boys are quite clear. But at the end of the day, their story is not unique, despite the contextual differences between One Direction and predecessors like The Backstreet Boys. Even though the fans today fans might seem more rabid, and more involved in the boy’s lives, I think there is a common thread linking them to the girls in horn-rimmed glasses who screamed as The Beatles touched down on the runway back in the day. These fans might profess their undying love for members of the band and talk about marrying/having babies with them etc., but there must always be an understanding (however nascent that might be whilst they are trapped in the preteen bubble of boy band fandom) that this dream is far removed from the reality of their lives.
They can look and never really touch, but there are emotional highs and and communal rituals to be explored in all their uninhibited adolescent splendour instead, and maybe that’s all that really matters.