Franz Liszt sat at his piano, his profile in full view of the audience. He cut a dashing figure onstage: his thick hair hung to his shoulders, his aquiline nose jutted dramatically above his full lips, his cheekbones were a monument to bone structure. And when he started playing … oh, when he started playing, Liszt could make any piece a whole-body experience. For himself, sure, but more importantly for those in his audience.
Liszt made each composition, whether written by himself or someone else, something bigger than anyone realized it could be—a call to frenzy. He threw everything into the theatrics of playing: his expressive eyebrows, his dark hair, his arms, his hips. Audiences throughout Europe—Berlin, Dublin, Madrid, Istanbul—went wild for this in the 1840s. They shouted and breathed audibly, bordering on hyperventilation, as described by one reviewer at the time. They stamped their feet. “Involuntary” screaming, and even fainting spells, swept through crowds wherever Liszt played. One report of a Liszt tour stop noted, semi-satirically:
As manufacturing grew and transportation, mainly via railroad, developed in the mid-19th century in Europe, so did a new economic group: the middle class. These conditions shifted much of the social order, including—crucially, for a musician like Liszt—the way the arts were funded. The new bourgeoisie’s disposable income and leisure time made them perfect candidates to help fund the artists who could keep them entertained in their off hours. Instead of aristocrats giving large amounts of money to support art as patrons, now each member of the middle class could contribute a small amount—say, the price of an admission ticket—to a working artist’s income.
Thus a popular artist could now make a living catering to his fans, though they weren’t called that yet. This seems the most logical point in history to declare as the beginning of what we now recognize as modern fandom: vociferous, enthusiastic, and ongoing loyal support of a specific artist or work, in terms of both money and time committed to the enjoyment of such. Liszt had no idea what he was starting.
From the beginning, fandom has centered the regular folks, growing from their reaction to their relative lack of power. And it has also elevated mob mentality. Scholar Henry Jenkins, the dean of fandom studies, explained the unique set of behaviors that developed around fandom, going back to “Lisztomania”, as a reaction to the imbalance inherent in the relationship: “Fandom originates, at least in part, as a response to the relative powerlessness of the consumer in relation to powerful institutions of cultural production and circulation.” But that balance has flipped in the Internet Age. That can be cause for celebration, as noted in recent books highlighting the newfound power of particularly female fandoms: Tabitha Carvan’s This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch: The Joy of Loving Something—Anything—Like Your Life Depends on It and Kaitlyn Tiffany’s Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It. But it’s also a cause for grave concern as marauding bands of fans increasingly rule culture, bully stars (and opposing groups of fans), and have even morphed into a force that made a credible run at toppling American democracy in January 2021. This is a more complicated riff on Jenkins’ theory: Now folks who feel disempowered in everyday life find they can organize and terrorize with surprising effectiveness via social media, and they’re drunk on this newfound level of influence.
It is the era of Fan Rule, a time when fans have learned that they can do far more than get together to scream at their idols as in the past. They can actually organize to make a difference. User reviews on Amazon and Rotten Tomatoes can make or break a TV show, movie, or book. The music charts are no longer a pure product of corporate gamesmanship: Independent TikTok sensations like 2019’s “Old Town Road” can storm Billboard on sheer viral appeal and upend traditional ideas about, in that case, who and what belong on the country charts. Taylor Swift’s fans got involved in an arcane contract dispute she had with the mogul who owned the master recordings of her work, and they continue to buy re-recordings of her old songs en masse just to boost her music chart rankings and give her the last word. The #FreeBritney movement agitated, social justice-style, for Spears’ release from 13 years under her father’s draconian and abusive legal control via a conservatorship—and, in a stunning turn, succeeded. All of these are arguably good outcomes, though one can also draw a line between, say, Swifties’ tenacity and Trumpers’ unwavering devotion, or between the #FreeBritney movement and conspiracy theorists like QAnon. That said, the massive difference in intention matters here. And, it must be said, the #FreeBritney folks were, in fact, right, unlike QAnon.
Fans haven’t always garnered this much power and respect, but rather, fandom has often been perceived as a behavior that landed somewhere between weird and unhinged. Around the same time Liszt had maniacal fans fainting in the aisles, devotees of the Brontë sisters made pilgrimages to their rural England hometown to pay homage and catch a glimpse of the place that inspired Wuthering Heights. Followers of the original Sherlock Holmes books and stories are often cited as one of the first real “fandoms”: They wrote their own versions of Holmes stories and staged public gatherings to mourn the detective’s fictional death in 1893. Victorians also stripped a tree in Bidford of all its bark to keep as souvenirs because William Shakespeare had once supposedly collapsed beneath it in a drunken stupor.
Now, in post-millennial America and much of the world, attitudes toward fandom have changed. Almost everyone is a member of at least one fandom. Fandoms provide a sense of belonging and a sense of identity in a way they never have before. Though the fan’s relationship to the object of fandom is considered “parasocial”—that is, one-sided—fans can have very social relationships with other fans in the modern era. As one Game of Thrones convention-goer told The Verge in 2017, gathering with fellow fans is “a way of life,” and “not just something an odd person does.”
Fans’ newfound group power, however, can easily morph into something more sinister, warping the very idea of connection into tribalism on a mass scale. Given that all fans are wielding more power than ever, the worst of them are wielding more power, too—often in reaction to the individual group members’ perception of powerlessness in their own lives. “Gamergate” erupted in 2014 when a mass of male video game fans, apparently threatened by the mere idea of women enjoying the same things they did, orchestrated a sustained harassment campaign against several prominent female gamers, game developers, and critics. This included rape and death threats, culminating in a threatened mass shooting at a university where feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak.
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The incident was a harbinger of things to come. When an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters came out in 2016, sexist and racist fanboys revolted, incensed by the idea that the classic comedy franchise was for anyone but them. They particularly harassed the sole Black woman in the main cast, Leslie Jones, sending her messages calling her an ape, telling her she was “ugly” and “savage” and “the source of AIDS”—all obviously racial attacks.
The election of Donald Trump, a former reality show star, as president of the United States in 2016 demonstrated that a skilled showman devoid of morals or genuine policy ideas could harness the power of fan-fueled crowds by preying on people’s worst fears and instincts. He led his fandom, bolstered by rallies that looked a lot like rock concerts, from electing him president to storming the Capitol in 2021 under the false pretense that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
Fandom culture also had a very real effect on that 2020 U.S. presidential election. The race looked nearly indistinguishable from online fan wars as Bernie Bros and Yang Gang members went after each other and supporters of the other candidates. The Verge and The New York Times were among major publications that did trend pieces about, as the Times headline said, “How Fan Culture Is Swallowing Democracy.” In an overt crossing of the fandom and political streams, fans of the Korean pop band BTS banded together to successfully sabotage an election rally for incumbent President Trump.
All of these examples of fandom-run-amok share a strong anti-woman streak. And this phenomenon was on full display when, earlier this summer, Johnny Depp fans flooded the internet to warp public perception of his legal battle with ex-wife Amber Heard. They live-Tweeted and obsessively TikTokked during the trial, which was meant to determine whether Heard had defamed Depp by writing that she had endured domestic abuse in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed. Through memes and commentary, fans scrambled online discourse, implying that Heard was mentally unstable and the real abuser. It’s impossible to know if this had any effect on the result, which favored Depp. But a report from research firm Bot Sentinel determined that the harassment Heard endured was “one of the worst cases of platform manipulation and flagrant abuse from a group of Twitter accounts.” (It should be noted that Heard hired the firm in 2020, though Bot Sentinel says it wasn’t on Heard’s payroll for this 2022 research.) The report found that trolls flooded Twitter with anti-Heard hashtags (#AmberHeardIsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardIsALiar) “while targeting and abusing women to suppress any positive tweets supporting Amber Heard.”
This evolution of fandom clearly reflects the tribalism of our times—the same hunger for connection, ability to easily organize online, and desire to point the finger at “others” that undergirds our polarized politics. Underneath fans’ power is a desperate desire for community in an increasingly impersonal world. For many, that connection is their salvation when they don’t fit into more traditional groups at school and work or simply perceive themselves as disempowered. These communities have taken on increased value to many in the 21st century as more traditional unifying groups—civic clubs, churches—have faded from younger generations’ lives.
In a world hungry for connection, it’s no surprise that we turn to the things we love to find a centering force. But the power of those bonds can spin out of control, making the internet a landscape full of warring factions wielding a force different from anything we’ve seen in history. Much fandom, of course, is benign, even healthy, fun. But as we’ve seen, it’s not as far a journey as we may have originally thought from liking a reality show called The Apprentice to admiring its star, elevating him to the highest office in the land—and attacking Congress and American democracy itself.
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