The following is an extract from Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture by Hannah Ewens.
In the back of a 20,000-capacity venue that smells like Pepsi and body spray, young girls are shouting PG-13 smut. Fans' faces are as visible five or six people away from you as those you’re rubbing shoulders with. The lights from the stage shine on every forehead, cheeks and grin with the same luminosity. It’s hard to tell the age of the pair of girls standing next to me. If I were still a teenager I’d know the year group instinctively but once you’re out of your twenties every very young adult becomes about the same age. It’s the last day of March 2018, during a Fall Out Boy show at the London O2 Arena, and as if everyone’s breaking through into that first days of spring mood – everything’s heating up. One of them howls 'Fuck me, Pete!' The other girl laughs and does it too. None of the girls around them notice or at least seem to care.
At the end of the show, I walk out and see these two girls bound over to their mums, who have been watching safely at the back of the show. 'Did you enjoy that, darling?' says one mum, placing a hand on her daughter’s bouncing shoulder. 'Weren’t they good!' adds the other mum. 'He’s so hot,' one girl responds. The mum, clearly used to her nonsense, ignores this.
Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy is an objectively attractive man. He’s also the bassist who outshone the frontman – unheard of – to the point that, as one Fall Out Boy fan tells me, her friends who don’t know much about the band think he’s the singer. I’ve interacted with him a few times and seen him up very close, once, our faces not much more than thirty centimetres away from each other, when interviewing him in broad summer daylight. His smile crinkles, his eyes glint blue and you can almost hear a dozen girls’ hearts throbbing, reverberating on the wind. His painfully white teeth are distracting but the real distraction is his face. Unprofessional to say, but to deny it would be absurd. When I was thirteen and obsessed with the band, he was one of my many husbands. I am now in my mid-twenties and he has three children and a current wife and ex-wife, neither of whom are me. Testament to the band’s career and Wentz’s longevity – ageing like a fine wine, one fan told me – he has continued to be a heartthrob for a new generation of teenage girls.
Conveniently for these new fans, Pete enjoys taking photos of himself and he posts a lot of them on social media; sometimes close-up videos of his face with eyebrow raised or curling a lip to show teeth. Often they’re topless shots, showing off the tattoos on his chest. Written underneath his selfies are comments by dozens of his other 'children', chirping like little hens. Calling people 'daddy' or its variant 'zaddy' is an internet joke that got out of hand and became part of popular culture by 2016 – now no longer a reference to your literal sugar daddy or your other half in a sexual real-life relationship, but a meme, a pet name to jokingly refer to older attractive masculine people, especially celebrities. And so, these comments to Pete: 'Dad' 'daddy' 'Shaddy' 'Zaddy' 'father pete' 'still daddy material' 'I AM CRYING THE DADDYCATION IS STRONG TODAY'. Funnier still: 'woah there cowboy', 'heavy breathing w r o w', 'cause of my death: Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz II', 'look at this four course meal', 'SNACKKK', 'I’M PREGNANT'.
The commenters are near-exclusively in their teens, mostly early teens, twelve to fifteen. One sixteen-year-old girl is a daddy commenter. She says most of the time they mean it in a sexual way, but there are also people who post it for 'jokes and trolls' meaning 'sometimes it’s hard to tell'. In the way that teens do when a month goes by and they feel full of wisdom and weathered by the world, another lifetime of experience under their belt, she grew out of this endeavour 'ages ago'. She pre-empts the paranoia around the sexualisation of young girls by telling me: 'Adults think it's inappropriate and crazy what kids are saying these days. But honestly it seems like a phase every teen goes through but they grow out of some time or another. Plus, I don’t think teens understand it sometimes – I only figured it out a while ago.' Which is to say, they don’t necessarily understand the sub/dom context of the word 'daddy', or even really want the sexualised experience. They are not imagining it, or meaning it with any more depth than that of just being attracted to a man.
I started messaging more of the teens who had posted some of these things under Pete’s photos. 'No I’d never sexualise Pete, that’s not fair,' writes one young girl bluntly. 'It’s kind of awkward to just randomly comment things the boys won’t ever read…?!' writes a different fan. Another girl tells me, 'I think that it is OK for people to comment on how attractive a "famous" person is, but there is a line with that kind of stuff that has been crossed many times'. I asked her what that line is. 'Just downright saying that they want to have sex with them. When I leave a comment it is usually just a quick "hey, I love you, you’re awesome".' On one particularly cute selfie of Pete, she had commented 'STRANGLE ME WITH YOUR PHONE CHARGER'.
None of this means that these girls are being overtly sneaky or outright lying. On an individual level they don’t want to reveal themselves as a fan who would 'cross the line', but as a part of a stream of comments they’ve all made together it’s clearly acceptable. Each comment is sexual – there’s no denying that none of these girls would want their parents, or even me, seeing them and attributing any to them under their real identities – but taken as a mass, the sexual braying feels benign. The conflict within the girls arises from sexualising artists and being personally seen doing so, particularly on an internet where a new generation of teens can protect their privacy with usernames, fan and private accounts. Even at the Fall Out Boy show in London, out in public, mooching around the O2 arena, small groups of girls outside condemned saying similar things or sexualising the artists. But inside some did, and god, is it funny.
Sexuality and music fandom have always been tightly linked, to the point of being inseparable. The same girls who screamed at The Beatles and Elvis, responsible for their rise, could be typing obscenities out to rock bands today. If you were a girl, Beatles fandom meant you were extra stirred up, that your energy was quite particular. Critics and journalists Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs noted in an essay that while mainstream culture, led by America, became sexualised in the 1960s – counterculture proclaimed that it was socially acceptable to have sex outside marriage, the use of the contraceptive pill became more widespread – teenage girls were still expected to be perfectly pure. 'To abandon control – to scream, faint, dash about in mobs – was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture,' they wrote. In every moment that girls fetishised the bodies of boy bands, they said, girls were one step closer to sexual freedoms – they could vocalise any sexual desire they had in ways they never could before. It just took a crowd of them to feel normal.
The lineage is clear. The Beatles fans mobbed their idols – love, love me do – and newer fans can mob online – fuck me, please – in an update on sexual pack behaviour. Decades ago feminist scholars decided that the teen girl’s part in the sexual revolution was buoyed along by boy-band fantasies and fetishising men’s bodies. Similar fantasies and fetishisations now happen in a hypersexualised society, where a girl’s role is (mercifully) less clear, less defined. It’s not a reach to wonder if, in the current climate, fans being openly crude about musicians is, in part, them grappling with freedoms too. Sex talk – from all ages and genders – has become more delicious and aggressive and frequent on the internet but not always meaningful, sometimes utterly meaningless. What does throwing a 'fuck me' at a picture mean, when 300 fans did it first? Fuck who?
Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture by Hannah Ewens (Quadrille, £14.99) is available now