Dossier 9: Online Fandom

Introduction

After years of support and activism from fans, Britney Spears’ father was removed as her conservator during a court hearing on September 29, 2021. Back in 2008, the American singer went through a tumultuous time: she divorced her husband Kevin Federline, shaved her head, attacked paparazzi, and lost custody of her two sons. Her mental breakdown, in front of the public, resulted that same year in a conservatorship in which her father, Jamie Spears, and a lawyer have control of her estate, financial assets, and some personal assets. A recent investigation by The New Yorker shows that the process to install the conservatorship took only ten minutes: “No one testified. No questions were asked.” The arrangement was so extreme that Britney was not allowed to decide for herself when she went on holiday and who she drove a car with. During a lawsuit in June 2021, Britney described the conservatorship as “abusive”.

Despite Britney sharing on social media that she is doing well, Britney’s fans have been concerned about the conservatorship from the beginning. They believed that she was being controlled and manipulated against her will. The #freebritney movement went mainstream in 2019, when an anonymous voicemail message was left on the podcast Britney’s Gram, saying the pop star was being held against her will and that her father had forced her to go to a mental health facility after refusing medication. Thanks in part to fans publicly protesting the conservatorship—several times and worldwide—the arrangement has almost come to an end.

#freebritney is a great example of the loyalty of fans and shows that their efforts can really benefit the well-being of their idol. Fan communities, or stans—a kind of portmanteau of ‘stalker’ and ‘fan’, and based on Eminem’s hit song from 2000—are getting more and more powerful on the internet and are getting more and more powerful both on- and offline. For example, the stadium in Tulsa where Trump’s first 2020 presidential campaign event took place remained half-empty because K-pop fans and TikTok teens banded together online to reserve tickets for this event, while they were not planning to go.

Such bottom-up ‘stan actions’ can be refreshing on an internet dominated by a number of Big Tech companies, but these actions are not always aimed at achieving something good. In his article “How pop music fandom became sports, politics, religion and all out war, writer Joe Coscarelli describes pop fandom in 2020 as “[c]ompetitive, arcane, sales obsessed, adversarial, amusing and a little frightening”. Fans of one of the most well-known K-pop band BTS call themselves the ‘BTS army’, and this reference to an armed force is fitting. There is a lot of rivalry between different stan communities, and critical journalists are regularly attacked by stans. According to David Turner from the newsletter Penny Fractions, stan culture is “one of the worst aspects of the record industry at the moment”.

With this online dossier, which was compiled in collaboration with guest programmer and researcher Sjef van Beers, we look at how fans organise online and how they shape our online culture. Sjef starts with an introduction to stan culture. We did short video interviews with stans: an ex-Smiler (Miley Cyrus fan), someone from the Rihanna Navy and from the BTS Army. Guus Hoeberechts has a longer talk with Oumaima, the BTS stan. And Lilian Stolk asks David Turner how stans influence the music industry