Dissecting fan culture and what we can learn from the girls who travel the world for bands

Something about teenage adrenaline and the hard-pressed desire to travel has made the long-standing tradition of the “groupie” possible. Over time, the word has come and gone, but the sentiment always remains. Now, rebranded as “fangirls”, this community is just as strong as ever, each fan reflecting a different artist or group.

In the minds of many, groupies tend to come along with the hard hustle of the 60s through the 80s rock scene. Following a rock group was the highlight of many teenagers’ summers while other shrieking girls were stereotyped as having pop musicians’ glitter posters on their walls. There seems, however, to be a renaissance in this mindset in the resurgence of this culture and community and a strange mingling of the two stereotypes. It’s slowly subsided into something that is just a bit different and perhaps merged by the prevalence of internet communities.

To fully understand the reality of fangirl culture, it was best to zoom in on a microcosm of the whole, beginning to dissect it from the inside out. A newly emerging fandom is the self-titled “Limelights”, fans of American boyband Why Don’t We, which only formed about two years ago. Their dynamic can be eerily cult-like to an outsider, but within this world of a fangirl, there’s a clear familial aspect.

A Family Built From an Army of Fans

One of the first things that come to a fangirls mind about being involved so heavily in these lives and careers isn’t even their obsession at all. It’s often times noted the unexplainable bonds that they find with other fans. The fandom itself seems to operate as an underground society all over the country. Thanks to social media, the ever-growing presence of fan accounts can be seen giving a way to communicate to fangirls who before had to face their obsession alone. One Direction and Justin Bieber fans established the concept of “Stan Twitter”, which is just the collection and interaction of these fan accounts.

The internet is connecting these fans globally to each other and it’s allowing them to create a sense of community built entirely from a single common thread of their idols. Slang words accelerate into a language and dialect that they speak with each other. They share jokes and laughs, but that slowly turns into sharing their hearts and souls as well. Best friends are resurrected out of nothing. However, that also means that cliques quickly form and mortal enemies are marked.

While this can be said about anyone who logs onto the internet and chooses to talk to strangers, there’s a dynamic deeper with these fangirls in a way that’s almost unexplainable. Even when preparing for this article, I knew quickly that my quotes, interviews, and profiles wouldn’t come from those in my immediate life. I almost feel that I’m trying to tackle this in a far too scientific way, but the whole thing is really quite personal.

Real Fans Tell Real Stories

Zach Herron, who is only 17 years old, performs to thousands in Cincinnati, via Ali Fitzgerald @alftizpics

As I clicked on to the Facetime with Maya (age 22), I realized how commonplace this had become to me as a fangirl; I’m constantly onto the next phone call or the next group chat, always finding ways to connect with those who are just outside of my circle. We hold a shared experience that no one else can quite mimic.

Maya says “if I wasn’t a fan… I wouldn’t get to meet these incredible people.” Not only can this be said about the relationships forged between friends, but also the almost necessary bonds between the musicians (in this case) and the fans. Maya goes on to explain to me that these relationships are different than how the outside world sees them. The truth about fangirls is that: “they’re not all trying to marry [their idols]. It’s a different kind of love. It’s a very pure different kind of love and I don’t think people get that.”

Court, who’s also been a fan of the band since they were established, explained to me “The music is good, but I just enjoy the friends I’ve made and the memories I’ve made and the relationships I’ve made with the boys.” It’s important to note that while anyone can be a fan of a musician, a fangirl goes beyond this and finds an emotional bond with the lives of their idol and with their fellow fangirls.

WDW member, Daniel Seavey, with Court, via @courtneygulu

The difference in these friendships is the extremes fans go through together which bonds them forever. Why Don’t We’s show in Pittsburgh was even a bit much for myself, who is used to this sort of lifestyle. After taking a 10-hour bus ride from New York City I met up with my own friends. Our plans for the weekend were simple and all focused on Why Don’t We. So, when I woke up at ten o’clock the morning of the show in the tent, which was meant to shield us from the freezing December air and rain, that we had pitched at three in the morning, I took a moment to process where we were and what we were doing. I felt just about crazy having abandoned the hotel room we had booked to instead bundle together outside of a concert venue.

Just as crazy as I felt though, I also realized how loved I felt. At first, I panicked, thinking I was alone in the tent, not seeing anyone and having assumed they had left me to go find coffee or food. Quickly, however, my friend, seeing I was panicking said kindly to me “you didn’t think we’d just leave you here alone, did you?” She had stayed behind to make sure someone was with me. In many ways, this canvas became a makeshift traveling home for us to build wherever we needed.

When you start to break down the reality and complexity of this world that fangirls live in, you can see that it’s not quite so insane after all, despite how it may seem on paper. All the traveling, seeing the same set night after night, scheming, planning, and what seems to be investigative work cannot be easily explained away. “For me, the experience of traveling and like, not even the show itself, but the whole thing… the venue, the different cities. It all changes and gives it different energy to it. Even if the set is the same, the different crowd makes the whole thing different. Something changes every single time.” Maya explains this in detail. How the whole energy shifts from night tonight. Seeing the same set on replay can never get boring for her and so many others.

The Unbelievable Dedication of These Fan Armies

Court stresses how those who pass judgment don’t even seem to take the time to understand it. “They don’t understand the concept of waiting in line or spending all the money I spend. They’ve never done it… if they were to actually go to a show…” she remarks.

Court and I were in the same boat– claiming the wildest thing was sleeping on the streets of Manhattan for the band. However, Maya noted how she had booked a one-way plane ticket to London to see them. She’d have to figure out how to get home eventually, but at that moment, she was living in the moment.

After all, the statistics can’t lie. Court has attended over 15 performances all across the nation by Why Don’t We, who only has about 30 original songs (not including a Christmas EP). Over the same two year period, Maya has attended over 35 performances across the globe and plans to attend every show of the American leg of their upcoming 8 Letters Tour. Court admitted to spending well over $3,000 on the band over the past two years, but Maya struggled to even find an estimate. When it comes to the sheer finances, you have to envision exactly what this encompasses for these girls. It’s concert tickets, airfare, hotels, and merchandise… plus any unforeseen costs.

Destiny, who’s attending over fourteen shows of the 8 Letters show explained to me that she balances this life with work to pay for the shows. She pays for the shows and travels all herself, taking time off to accommodate her schedule. While not every fan is able to do this due to socioeconomic statuses, many fans, including Destiny, have been able to take advantage of these opportunities. Before the show that Why Don’t We played at the Highline Ballroom in New York City for KTU103.5, Destiny explained to me “I have to request off for them and this upcoming show in December they denied, but I’m still going so I’ll get in trouble but its WDW so I have to.” This incessant need to be at all the shows is incredibly beautiful, but can also be incredibly overwhelming.

Why Don’t We at Hershey’s Show of the Summer with Destiny, via @destinyskarupa

When Simple and Fun Turns Cruel and Unkind

Given the way so many fans travel for the band, there becomes a sense of needing to do the same to be accepted by the in-crowd. When you understand this reality, it’s easy to see how the peer pressure of it all can build up until fans start to go into debt for the band. In many ways, it becomes a competition of who can meet the band the most or get the most concert upgrades. It keeps adding up until people will go to any means to make themselves known in the community.

Daniel Seavey, a former American Idol contestant, takes the stage as a member of Why Don’t We, via Ali Fitzgerald @alfitzpics

And that, my friends, is when these mobs form. That’s when we get the stereotypical idea of a fangirl breaking down and fighting each other for attention. Until that point, they are all loving and supportive of each other. However, tell them that only 20 of them can have front row, and you’ll surely see them froth at the mouth and turn on each other. That’s where the toxicity and reality sets in. Because as much as I would love to “paint a perfect picture about us”, the truth is there’s a dark side to all this as well.

From the outside,  it seems beautifully unreasonable. Why would anyone care what someone online thinks? But these girls don’t just exist behind a computer screen, they are real and more likely than not, anyone who’s heavily involved in the fandom will wind up right next to each other one day at a show. Or you’ll come brushing elbows with that one girl’s best internet friend and be subjected to ugly glares. You get recognized in person, for better or for worse.

Coming Face to Face with those Contacts on Your Phone

At the Pittsburgh airport, waiting for the boys to arrive, my heart just about stopped when I heard someone shout my name. It could have been anyone from the Twitter world, friend or foe. It’s almost sad that we’d come to that point. “Most of it is jealousy,” Destiny explains. “because there are people who can’t see the boys or don’t have the money to afford a ticket to see the boys.”

And these dangers go just beyond that beyond each other. There are the obvious mobs that seem to come out of nowhere and the invasion of privacy that the boys in the band have to go through. Some people may think of this as the “price of fame”, but its so much more than that.

Consider how inside JFK Airport for most people on October 27th was a normal day for anyone else waiting to pick up their loved ones. However, passersby didn’t realize the small gaggle of girls that started to accumulate slowly, slowly, and then all at once as if a dog whistle had been blown that only fangirls could recognize.

And once they found their prize, they swooped in and attacked. If you’ve ever seen a mob form around a celebrity, you’ll know that it’s dangerous for a variety of reasons, but mostly because there is little escape for the celebrity. When it comes to boy bands, there’s an added layer of a mess.

From the outside, these girls seem like vultures waiting for an opportunity to strike. Stigma is built around them, and unsurprisingly so. Their purchase decisions appear to be fiscal irresponsibility. Their constant obsession with a given person or group seems to be borderline mentally unhealthy. That is until you find yourself slowly falling down the rabbit hole that they all had tumbled down once themselves. Fangirls don’t decide to become this invested in something, it just sort of happens. Court explained “I liked [Jonah Marais] as a person, but he was super duper sweet with really good music. It progressed from there.” It progressed to the point where Court began to travel the country following the band to various shows.

How Fangirls Makeup the Soul of the Entertainment Industry

Fangirls. An often mocked and heavily misunderstood part of the overarching entertainment industry. Yet, they make up the backbone of the whole organism and dictate how the industry operates as a whole.

It’s all just a mob mentality. Or is it?

Making the “Fangirl” Title a Profession

Maya mentioned something interesting to me. She noted that “Fans are the most talented hard working people” that she knows. When you dive deeper into the lives of these girls, you see that despite the front that they’ll put up on Twitter, there’s so much more to them. Maya herself plans to make a career out of this adopted lifestyle. Her plan is to work in fan engagement and VIP experiences.

“I want to focus on fans instead of artists,” she says. Again, there’s that overall sense of looking out for the community from which you come.

Her justification for spending thousands of dollars is simple. “It’s almost a business investment in myself. I’m gaining experience and I’m learning,” she excitedly explains.

Why Don’t We with Maya, via @bluemymindd

Court has a different idea; she’d rather focus on going into the CSI. She’s studying hard at college and has to often forgo adventures with the band to focus on her studies. She also makes it extremely clear that she wouldn’t travel out of the country for them and that she’s put certain limits on herself.

Somehow, as Court explains her career path to me over the phone, I’m not surprised. I flashback to when One Direction was the boyband of the time and how the fans were often compared to the FBI. The same skill sets are involved. Back in that day, fans even hacked into airport security cameras to watch the band wait for their flight and hotel CCTV cameras to watch them in the hallways… it was even broadcasted online.

“Why Don’t We Just Love?”

Like most things in life, fan culture can’t be encapsulated by just one article. It can hardly begin to be dissected because unless you’ve lived it you’ll never be able to fully appreciate it. Underneath all the hysteria, fans are… we are… just people who are truly just seeking out what they love in life, no matter how crazy it may seem.

It doesn’t need to make sense, but to see the passion in these girls’ hearts. We can freeze frame on the mobbing and the obsessing, but taking a step back to see the true love in their hearts is where it will all click. There’s a love for the band and a love for each other. There’s a love for the traveling and a love for the safe home they have forged together. Why Don’t We sings “Why don’t we just love?” and these girls embody that every day, despite it all.

We can keep hoping to comprehend it, but unless you’ve been there you simply can not. Until you are moved by music, literature, television, movies… until you’ve felt that calling, it will all seem pointless, but to them it is real. To them it is everything. To them, it is a path to their best friends and a path to their future.