Have Fandoms Become 21st Century Religions?
Due to advancements in technology and changes in mindset throughout the past decade, celebrities and their fans have acquired an inseparable connection. Social media, live-streaming and other on-demand online content, such as music videos on Youtube, allow these two parties to engage in ways that were once not possible. These fan-to-celebrity connections are especially prevalent when it comes to the music industry. Passion has evolved and dedication has increased due to the endless possibilities of connecting with pop-culture icons.
Can fandoms become a way of living, comparable to religion? Psychologists and sociologists are raising questions about how the experience of being a fan has dramatically changed in recent years. Fans are able to form communities online, also known as fanbases, and follow their favorite bands with random strangers across the globe. Despite the fact that fanbases have been around for generations, the phenomenon continues to grow and evolve rapidly. The internet is able to connect more fans at a higher rate and develop new methods of communication that were once not possible. Regardless of time zones and differences in cultural or economic backgrounds, countless individuals make up these “fanbases” and with just one click, they are able to connect with each other. They share the same type of dedication for their favorite celebrities and that shared passion has developed into something unstoppable.
Each fanbase has its own name. Fans of Justin Bieber are known as “Beliebers,” while fans of Demi Lovato are known as “Lovatics.” The list goes on. There are rivalries between groups and some fans even take part in the drama that ensues online. In fact, a fan’s devotion to a certain band or artist is often the reason another artist or band is “canceled” on social media. Although “cancel culture” is a major trend, it generally does not ruin or even slightly affect an artist’s career. This is mostly because it starts with one fan creating drama without evidence or on purpose to start a “fan war.” Hashtags such as #ArianaGrandeIsOverParty have trended online and can take the internet by storm within minutes. That’s the power of certain fanbases when they come together. Regardless of a global pandemic or natural disaster, hashtags will remain on top of trending topics for several hours or even days. Regardless of anything else that was occuring on October 14, 2018, Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande’s very public break-up stole the number one trending spot on Twitter and continued to trend in lower-ranking spots days after.
Fans’ passion can become extreme in certain scenarios and dedication can be put to the test. Some may compare these tightly created and fixated communities to be similar to those who value religion over everything else in their lives. Fans will go as far as threatening individuals, including celebrities, online who do not support their favorite musician for a reason they deem “invalid.” They spend their life savings on a plethora of opportunities, such as concerts and meet-and-greets, that involve the artists that they follow.
Fans of Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas have spent upwards of $10,000 to attend a backstage tour and meet-and-greet.
Popular culture has been studied as a parallel to religion. People of all ages value musicians and movie stars over the relationships that are physically present in their lives. And as a result, sociologists and psychologists have raised important questions. Their analysis and conclusions continue to develop as fandoms and the act of being a fan changes with advancements in technology. Dr. Clive Marsh, Director of Lifelong Learning at the University of Leicester, explored this comparison between culture and religion in an article, “Finding Faith? Fandom and Religion.” He argued, “Like religion, fandom is time-consuming, life-shaping, energizing and often provides a social network. Like religion, it provides a structure that helps people meet ‘needs’ such as finding friends, being affirmed and having a sense of self-worth, wanting to find a system of values, beliefs or symbols within which to live.”
“If Harry Styles was turned into a religion, I’d drop everything and become a member,” Samantha Grossman, a fan of the former member of One Direction, said.
Fans, such as Grossman, are extremely dedicated. They are invested in their favorite artists’ achievements, relationships and personal struggles as if they are their own. Through celebrity interviews that are accessible online, as well as their social media posts, some fans genuinely believe that they know pop-culture icons and have a personal connection with them. It goes beyond supporting and enjoying their creative craft. And it’s without any shame.
“Harry Styles has been on my mind ever since One Direction formed. Would I marry him tomorrow? Absolutely and under any circumstance,” Grossman said.
These fandoms and obsessions are no longer “phases” or “fads” as older individuals, such as Grossman’s grandmother, would have explained and expected them to be in the past. Before social media and the expansion of the internet, older generations also found themselves loving certain artists and bands. They attended their concerts, listened to their albums on repeat and supported them from a distance. When asked about these prior “obsessions,” most will explain that it was a phase in their life and that they sometimes still listen to the music because it is still enjoyable. Their strict dedication and fan phase, however, has come to an abrupt end. At least that is what my mother told me when I joined the Jonas Brothers fandom back in 2007. She informed me that the phase would end and in a decade, I wouldn’t care about them anymore. But fast-forward 12 years, and I attended their reunion tour with the same passion I had at just seven years old. My mother was surprised and admitted she was wrong, but I always knew that my connection with the group would never just die out. Clearly, the investment has changed and become something greater for Millennials and Generation-X.
In regards to One Direction, the connection between them and their fans is undeniable. Nicole McGovern, a fan from New Jersey, has also followed the boy-band for the past decade. She values Harry Styles’ music over any other band or artist that she could be listening to instead. Her dedication remains a bit more conventional and similar to fans several decades ago. Despite not having a fan account or feeling the need to find the icon outside his hotel, her dedication remains incredibly strong.
“I listen to Harry’s latest album, Fine Line, at least three times daily. It’s all I listen to when I do my homework. I can’t wait until he is able to go on tour. I’m prepared to pay any price to see him,” Nicole McGovern said.
Fans of the boy-band did not drop their dedication or move on when the group announced an indefinite hiatus. They had invested countless hours, emotions and funds on the band. In fact, McGovern’s cousin, also named Samantha, has worried her family as a result of her current obsession with each of the former members. Between watching videos, interviews and waiting countless months to see them perform, it became evident to Samantha’s family members and other outsiders that this was more than just a phase. With Twitter notifications on and a very active fan-account, she has taken advantage of social media to its full extent.
“I am concerned for her well-being,” McGovern said. “She’s my cousin and I care about her, but my mother and our extended family know that this is becoming a little too much.”
This passion and dedication that was once for the collective group never disappeared. It simply transferred over to each of the former members’ solo careers. The arguably most popular member of One Direction, Harry Styles, has clearly faced little issue creating an even stronger and more devoted set of followers since the split.
“She goes to concerts and these meet-and-greets with people she meets online through social media. Samantha is even planning to rent a van with these other fans over the summer to follow Harry [Styles] on tour,” McGovern explained.
Julianne Stein, a friend of McGovern’s, has a similar perspective on the pop-sensation Harry Styles. She recalls her first memory of seeing Styles through her computer screen back in 2011 and has followed his career ever since.
“I have loved Harry Styles from the moment I first saw a One Direction video. In 8th grade, I wrote a creative essay about him for a class and still have it. Everything about him is perfect. He is literally the love of my life. He has the voice of an angel and is a musical genius. I would do anything for him,” Stein said.
The comparison between fandoms and religions can often become a circular argument. Some individuals will recognize the similarities and others will fight to defend the differences. It’s a subject that can go back and forth. One major difference is that pop culture icons like Harry Styles do not claim to be a God, although fans will argue that he is, in fact, one. Other artists, however, such as Lady Gaga, will compare their tours and concert experience to a “religious experience.” Some fans and artists see the connection and others fail to do so.
Gaga’s “Little Monsters” accept the comparison. Many of her fans have admitted to feeling as though they don’t belong in society. However, the community Gaga created embraces fans of all backgrounds and gives them a place to find common ground with others. Connecting and sharing thoughts with other Little Monsters on social media allows the community to continue to flourish.
According to an article on VICE, it stated that the icon would talk “about feeling like an outsider, sharing personal stories and preaching about tolerance and the importance of equality, consistently vocalising a system of beliefs that she stood for. And so, the Little Monsters had both a name, an ideology and a universal symbol to unite them. By outlining exactly what a Little Monster should be, and accelerating this sense of community among her fans, Gaga basically created a cult. And all of this was able to snowball online.”
All photos above credited to Alessandra Guarneri
Similar to how religion gives individuals a place to come together and belong, fandoms do the same. Gaga’s Little Monsters are not only fans of her music, but they are fans of what she stands for both as an artist and a human being. Instead of feeling like outsiders and societal outcasts, these fans have a community that welcomes them with open arms. They are able to relate to others and genuinely be themselves without fear of being judged or shamed. Religion provides the same type of space for others. Religious individuals share the same beliefs and values as others who follow that same religion. It’s comforting to be a part of a community and share similarities with a large group of others.
A Lady Gaga super-fan, Hayden Manders, opened up to Refinery 29 about her experience becoming a Little Monster. She said: “I felt a sense of belonging for the first time in the Monster community, like someone out there gets me (even though I didn’t really get me then).”
Fandom is defined as “the fans of a particular person, team, fictional series, etc. regarded collectively as a community or subculture,” according to Lexico. And while being a fan can be completely subliminal and not take up absorbent amounts of time, it can be the quite opposite experience for others.
Fans are willing to risk their safety, well-being and even sanity at times for certain experiences. While religious icons, such as Jesus and any sort of God, are not able to be seen by human beings, celebrities that are put at the same sort of status or importance are attainable to super-fans. This allows these fandoms to unite together and take part in activities that may be considered borderline-stalking or crossing the line even if it’s not clearly labeled illegal activity. Between following a celebrity’s whereabouts and researching their private information on the internet, as well as spreading it online, they may be playing with fire. In fact, it’s not unusual to hear that the most deeply invested fans take part in illegal activity and willingly accept the consequences. They sometimes even see the experience as worth it.
In 2015, artist Chris Brown had his house broken into by a superfan. “She threw out my daughter’s clothing as well as my dogs’ stuff,” Brown told The Guardian. “Then had all these crazy voodoo things around my crib.”
Will Heffernan, a music superfan, has met dozens of celebrities in a plethora of ways. By waiting outside their speculated hotels, purchasing meet-and-greets or attending premieres, his dreams of meeting his idols have become a reality more than once. However, despite his allegiance to specific singers, such as Kelly Clarkson, he knows when fan behavior starts to cross the line.
“They are human beings. Sometimes they don’t want to take a photo or are just going through something personal…like we all do. As fans, we have to remember that they’re just like us,” Heffernan said. “Do not go to their house or try to find them at the airport. That’s just awkward and creepy. I have heard of incidents where fans go to David Dobrick’s house, but I think he moved.”
Some fans, however, don’t see going to a celebrity’s house or waiting outside as strange or threatening behavior. If other members of their particular fandom, also known as a subculture, have done it before, they are blinded to the boundaries they may be crossing. Similar to religion, the followers and supporters of a specific musician all have one strong and common passion/interest. They value that person’s opinion and thoughts over everything else. This is comparable to a religious person valuing God and God’s beliefs and rules as well as abiding by them.
Swiss musicologist and psychologist, Maria Spychiger, recognizes the similarities between music and religion.”Music and religion have the same roots. They can unleash feelings that are difficult to capture in words. Experiences emerge that go beyond the everyday.” And for those who are not keen on following a certain religion or believing in one, they find a sense of community within fandoms instead. Their “leader” becomes a particular musician or artist that allows them to join a community and feel a sense of belonging. Religion, similar to music, is a commonality and distraction for human beings. It allows people to escape what problems they are experiencing and share a space, either physically or spiritually, with others who share the same values and beliefs. Similar to going to church on Easter or the synagogue on Yom Kippur, music fans gather for an annual concert or tour to see the person that their spirituality revolves around. They then share this content on the internet and allow other members of their fandom around the world to enjoy the experience through a screen.
The topic of fandom has become more prevalent every year technology advances. With livestreaming, new social media platforms and intricate ways to connect with your favorite artists, it becomes much easier to get attached, not only to the music, but to those who create it as well. Music psychologist, Heiner Gembris, has also analyzed the comparison between the two subjects. She says: “Music is like the flap of an angel’s wing. It touches us and lets us sense the momentary presence of something that transcends the boundaries of our captivity in the world.”
The feelings that rituals and prayers produce can be comparable for some to the emotions and connection to music and the words spoken by music icons. Fandoms have started to pop up and evolve more and more with the advancements in technology. Social media allows supporters to track the whereabouts of celebrities they follow devotely and connect with them on a deeper level. While going to church or the mosque brings people together who have similar interests, concerts do the same. New communities and fandoms are formed every day as more singers and bands begin creating music and sharing it with the general public. It becomes pandemonium. Artists need the support of their fans to maintain a strong financial status in order to continue making music. After all, being a celebrity and making art is a job. The emotional connection to their supporters simply becomes an added bonus cherished by some more than others. But what happens if a singer doesn’t want that type of status or responsibility? Some argue it’s now just a part of the job.
Click here to read “Fan-to-Artist Interactions Advance Due to Social Media” by Alessandra Guarneri
Photo Essay: “The Art of Dedication From The Perspective of Music Fans” by Alessandra Guarneri