Teenage Kicks

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I didn’t watch Channel 4’s ‘Crazy About One Direction’ last week. I didn’t watch it because I’m 33 years old and, ya know, One Direction. We’re apparently not supposed to say that these days. Instead we’re meant to encourage the notion that we’re really down with what pop kids like, that people enjoying something is reason enough for its existence, that the fandom you experience when you’re an adolescent is this pure, undiluted, beautiful fandom that becomes corrupted by the horrors of adulthood. It’s typical of that ‘cloying positivity’ which I’ve previously written about and is also tackled well here:

We all know the types; they’ve just discovered memes, they earnestly listen to shit pop music designed for children, they watch TV talents shows with a genuine excitement – they are people whose cultural interests are almost exclusively based in novelty. Everything is ‘amazing’ not because it’s exceptional or out of the ordinary, but because amazing is now the go-to word to describe most anything, ironically or otherwise. 

It should be emphasised (because some will deliberately try and avoid it) that this is aimed at the overwhelmingly 25 year old and over ‘critics’ who write reams defending 1D fans and their ilk, not the 1D fans themselves. No-one is surprised when teenagers get hugely excited by pop music. Indeed, the 1D documentary was nothing new – in my time I’ve seen similar shows on obsessive fans of Britney Spears, Take That, Madonna. Interestingly enough, several of these previous shows featured many male fans, something which I gather was missing from the 1D documentary. This is important because the response to the 1D documentary has overwhelmingly rested on two things: a sentimental, banal appeal to feminism and Poptimism. Two things which, of course, are catnip for much of our modern media and certainly current music journalism.

Let’s look at the Poptimism first. Of course we’ve had the ‘oh people are making fun of these fans because it’s pop music’ response and corresponding attack on people who obsess over guitars, ‘authenticity’ blah blah blah oh God not this again. We won’t dwell on the fact that this ‘Rockist’ attitude is so ridiculed and unfashionable that anyone sincerely making it (and more often than not you don’t actually find many people making it, it’s just this floating spectre) may as well be standing up and saying ‘I’M A PAEDOPHILE’. Instead we’ll take it at face value and agree – of course loving pop is no less valid than loving rock or indie or whatever. Great. What this argument always does however is to conflate all pop music and all pop fans. You may love Taylor Swift and Rihanna but as soon as you say that you think One Direction are pretty terrible, you become this snobbish archetype. Indeed, even on the fans’ ‘side’ there’s no recognition that pop fans love a myriad of different acts (pop and otherwise) and that loads of 1D fans think The Wanted are shit, and vice-versa, and wider still. No, rock music is not inherently superior to pop music. Running with this to the point where we refuse to acknowledge that some rock is better than some pop (and of course the reverse is true) or more importantly, that there is a lot of dreadful pop music out there is absurd and doesn’t suggest that anyone making the argument takes pop music all that seriously themselves. Current pop music journalism does seem built on this extremely shaky bedrock, a cheapness which elevates dreck and kitsch as celebratory and refuses to sincerely consider pop in any social/political/cultural terms as an important art form. We can see this right now in the response to Lady Gaga’s ‘ArtPop’ project where she is very loudly and ostentatiously banging on about bringing ‘art’ and ‘pop’ together. I’ve yet to see a single pop writer say, ‘hold on – pop already is art and we don’t need these very obvious signifiers taken from the ‘art world’ to tell us otherwise’. If you constantly treat pop music as some big cheap joke where no-one can make any critical judgements without being ‘the enemy’, you cannot turn around and complain that other people then think of it as cheap.

Of course, the ‘pop’ we’re discussing here is very much of a type. Spend any length of time on a British pop music site and you’ll find sneering references to artists like Jake Bugg, Mumford & Sons, Coldplay. Matt Cardle was torn apart on these sites when he won X Factor, seemingly because he played guitar and didn’t want to make dance-pop. It doesn’t matter that these acts may have legions of teenage (female) fans – they’re acceptable targets and no-one is going to devote any time to writing columns defending them. If the documentary last week had been called ‘Crazy About Coldplay’ the Twittersphere would have been united in its derision. This may seem a rather trite point but it’s an important one. The photo at the top of this depicts some ‘crazy’ fans of The Beatles. The impulse now is to slot One Direction and their fans alongside this yet there is a clear demarcation in how obsessive fans of The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson are viewed as compared to obsessive fans of pop acts which pretty much no-one expects to be around in 3 years’ time. The former could all easily be labelled ‘pop acts’ but that instantly makes the Poptimist defence of 1D look very silly indeed.

The feminist arguments being wheeled out are also fascinating, suggesting that there is a nasty strain of misogyny infecting the ridicule which these extreme examples of 1D fans are subjected to. They’re particularly fascinating coming so soon after the ‘internet troll’ hysteria which gripped the media during the fallow Summer months. When (it seems overwhelmingly) young men have been seen to send abuse and threats on Twitter, there has been a mass outcry. There have been hand-wringing debates about ‘the crisis of masculinity’. There have even been arrests. When One Direction fans sent abuse and death threats, however, many leapt to their defence. I previously wrote about a similar response re: Paris Brown’s tweets. In short, young men sending abuse online are pathologised and even criminalised. When young women do it, however, there is a significant movement to at least understand their actions, at most actually excuse them and present them as the victims. Why the double-standards?! Especially when the vast majority of One Direction fans are clearly not going to be people who send death threats and virulently defending those that do makes no such distinction. It’s also notable that, as mentioned, previous comparable documentaries have featured obsessive male fans. It’s curious that when some of the largely young, male fanbase of Lady Gaga took to attacking Adele’s weight no-one was making any effort to excuse them. Yet the peculiar blend of Poptimism and an uncritical strand of feminism meant that when Lady Gaga turned her own weight into a cause célèbre, this behaviour was erased and Gaga became the victim of horrid men online.

It’s no big shakes that teenagers in the throes of adolescence may act rather…strangely over things. Most of us have been there. What’s different now is that we have social media and so behaviour which previously might have been confined to our bedrooms is easily transmitted around the world for all to see. There are also studies tentatively suggesting that social media is making people more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. This is toxic when added to a stage of life where you already have an entire universe exploding inside your head. What shouldn’t have changed, though, is the realisation (and expectation) that it’s a period of life which you grow out of. I’ve seen so much written in the past week presenting obsessive teenage fandom as some idealised state of being that I’ve wondered if I’m going a bit ‘crazy’ myself. At 14 you’re not living through some magical period of ‘real’ emotion. You’re growing up. It’s a formative time, certainly, and a lot of great stuff happens but it’s not being horrific for the older people writing about this to acknowledge that yeah, your personality, intellect and emotional state mature and you look back at when you wanted nothing more than to touch a pop star with a mixture of fondness, confusion and embarrassment. Suggesting that it’s somehow a good thing to hold onto that state is idiotic and even harmful. It’s another thing we’re apparently not supposed to say. We’re not supposed to acknowledge that adolescence play a huge part in phenomenon like One Direction – we’re being ‘patronising’ if we do. I rather think that if you’re not a teenage fan yourself, you’re being patronising in pretending that things don’t change, that your relationship with music and its creators develops and that fandom can endure and develop alongside that.

Springsteen and I

It occurred to me while reading these thoughts on One Direction and fandom from Lucy Robinson that one of the greatest aspects of Springsteen & I (which I saw last night) is that it openly celebrates unadulterated fandom from the kind of music listener who is commonly presented as a ‘snob’ these days. Bruce Springsteen is pretty much the archetypal ‘old man with a guitar’ of our age, held up as emblematic of ‘rockism’ and beloved of the kind of people who could never listen to Ke$ha. Yet the fans in the film (ranging from kids through to pensioners) are as excitable, as enthusiastic and as devoted as the most hysterical One Directioner, It’s a very sweet and heart-warming depiction of the profound importance which music plays in the lives of those of us who’ve let the magic in; it’s also a moving tribute to the relationships which this can lead to. A mother proudly watches as her 10 year old son shows off the close-up photo of Bruce he managed to take after they both attended his concert; a couple reminisce about how they initially bonded over their mutual fandom and dance around their kitchen to a tinny stereo, lamenting that they’ve never been able to see Bruce live; a middle-aged woman explains how her first Bruce concert changed her, awakening a previously-dormant sexuality and a newfound appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll. In one of the loveliest moments a woman who could be a grandmother films herself alone in some woods (her first ever video, apparently) as she speaks about how Bruce is one of her oldest friends even though he’s never met her.

What the film offers which a One Direction equivalent couldn’t possibly duplicate is an appreciation of the musical relationships which endure and which sustain us. More than acting as a soundtrack to their lives, these people speak time and again of how Bruce’s songs are part of their being and how they offer the kind of intimacy which allows them to feel that they are seeing some kind of truth regarding life. One man speaks of how the lyrics are such that he feels he can smell Bruce’s coffee and share in Bruce’s failures and triumphs, an observation which reduces him to tears. A woman in her 20s speaks about her job and how Bruce’s music has helped her to accept that it’s ok to have a degree that she doesn’t use in her job as a truck-driver. It’s fandom but it’s also didactic and transformational. Bruce himself gets this in an after-credits scene where he meets some of the fans from the film. Asked what motivates him to get on stage every night, he explains simply that music changed his life for the better and he wants to be able to give that gift to other people. This is pretty much exactly what I meant when I wrote previously that caring about what they did was the most fundamental thing an artist could offer. The intense, ephemeral love for a short-lived pop act is something many of us experience and it’s great while it lasts but we’re kinda not supposed to acknowledge that it’s a temporary rush which probably has more to do with our own adolescent states than anything else.  It’s seen as patronising to say that and preferable to pretend that we don’t ever change . Yet we do and the music which speaks to us evolves and changes in turn. If we’re lucky, the artists whom we love at 13 will change us, inspire us to check out more music, books etc, If we’re lucky, they’ll develop as we do and we’ll have a hell of a journey together. One Direction are clearly aimed at children and no doubt speak to their experiences but their music would be pretty useless at capturing the peaks and troughs of a 33-year old (unless it’s a particularly stunted one). Maybe they’ll progress, as (the far superior) Take That did but there’s nothing wrong with recognising that acts being loved by lots of kids isn’t a huge virtue in and of itself. What we rather should acknowledge is that our love for music doesn’t diminish with age. It’s no less ‘pure’ just because you have a life, responsibilities, problems and passions which take you away from it. Rather our relationship with music deepens and it permeates us in ways we couldn’t possibly begin to quantify or adequately describe. It’s a great thing and it should be celebrated.