Let's say you're a fan of a successful and prolific big-name pop star. You listen to their music, of course. You recommend it to your friends. You probably stream their new singles on Spotify and like their posts on Twitter and Instagram — all that standard stuff.
But would you go further? When they release a new album, would you look up their competitors, and actively work to make those projects fail? Would you personally contact other pop stars you don't think are as good to tell them they're ugly and untalented? When your fave goes through a public breakup, would you encourage their ex to kill themselves?
It used to be that only someone particularly vengeful or cruel would engage in any of that kind of behaviour. But as fan culture changes, it's become more and more common to act in vile ways to innocent or innocuous people — and to claim it's being done out of love.
"Stan" is usually understood as harmless shorthand for "superfan," but the term itself hints at darkness: it's a reference to the 2000 Eminem song about a (fictional) fan whose rejection by the artist he's so obsessed with drives him to murder-suicide. Obsessive fandom isn't a new concept, of course — fans screamed, cried and fainted over the Beatles in the 1960s, and 19th-century composer Franz Liszt had such intense fangirls (and boys) that a German writer coined the term "Lisztomania" in 1844.
But the claustrophobic closeness available in niche online communities, and social media that connects fans directly to celebrities, has changed the game in new and alarming ways. Online access to just about anyone, paired with a lethal combination of anonymity and perceived righteousness, can unleash horrifying forces.
Toronto freelance writer Wanna Thompson, who often writes about hip-hop, discovered this over the summer when she wrote a tweet that was mildly critical of Nicki Minaj's music. The responses from the rapper's fans weren't musical or cultural comments; they weren't well-reasoned arguments. They were straight-up insults and harassment directed to her not just on Twitter but also on Facebook, on Instagram, by email, and to her personal email. Some included photos of her four-year-old daughter. Others told her to kill herself.
The rapper herself even joined in.
Nicki Minaj exhibited #Queen behaviour when she hopped in my DMs and insulted me numerous times over an innocent music opinion while her fans continue to harass me and DM me death threats. This is NOT okay. pic.twitter.com/bJI9TVvJV7— Stacy, Tracy, Ronna, & Ronda, Donna, Yolanda, Ta.. (@WannasWorld) July 1, 2018
"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," Thompson told the New York Times, describing the consistent intimidation she was subjected to for weeks after the tweet.
"It's like a lion with their cubs," a 26-year-old Nicki Minaj fan named Shaheed told Rolling Stone in August. "A female lion with her cubs, you don't mess with the babies, and Nicki is our baby."
There are too many examples of toxic fandom that happened this past year to explore in full, but here are a few that stood out:
- Ariana Grande's fans urged her ex, Pete Davidson, who has spoken publicly about his borderline personality disorder, to kill himself. A few weeks ago, police showed up to his workplace at SNL after he posted what sounded a lot like a suicide note on Instagram. (He appears to be doing better now, although he's said that his mom also received taunts from Grande fans.)
- Fans of rapper XXXTentacion bullied his ex-girlfriend off the internet after she started a GoFundMe to raise money for the orbital surgery she needed as a result of him viciously beating her. After the rapper was shot and killed in June, an elderly couple in Florida received repeated death threats after a stray Instagram post incorrectly identified them as being connected to the death
- Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj fans joined forces to take down a common enemy. Fans of both artists wanted to prevent Cardi B's song "Bodak Yellow" from reaching number one on the Billboard charts
- Lady Gaga fans flooded social media with fake bad reviews for "Venom," which came out the same weekend as her movie "A Star is Born"
- Diehard fans of the "Star Wars" franchise posted so much racist abuse to actress Kelly Marie Tran that she deleted her Instagram account
- Canadian singer Alessia Cara announced she planned to take break from social media after receiving a ton of abusive messages. She seemed to indicate that the messages may have been coming from fans of competing musicians. "This whole world of stan culture, while it's amazing and great and connective a lot of the time, it can be very hurtful," she wrote on Instagram. "When you say those things to somebody, even if you're trolling or just trying to make a joke, it makes that person's day that much harder."
- Rapper Offset cited public opinion as the reason for his breakup with Cardi B; she responded by asking her fans not to get involved in "that bashing online thing"
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The Nicki Minaj example is rare in that the artist waded into the fray themselves. Others, like Swift, don't explicitly sic their fans on rivals, but they do purposely keep controversies alive. For the most part, artists discourage that kind of behaviour — but their fans see themselves as performing some kind of necessary service, as opposed to doing something needlessly antagonistic.
These celebrities don't need their fans to act as mobs. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Chris Brown are grown adults who have massive wealth and vast resources and powerful publicists. They have tools to defend themselves, and they're able to survive a bad review, or low album sales, or coming in second at the box office.
Nicki Minaj earned $170,000 to perform a New Year's Eve show at a Las Vegas club this week — a fee Complex calls "low" — because she's friends with management. In other words, she's fine without you. She can fend for herself — and if she's asking her critics to do that for her, much like messaging a critic to tell her to "eat a dick," that's a misuse of her platform.
It's a uniquely incredible feeling to discover a musician, or a writer, or a piece of art that truly resonates with you. And finding other people who you can connect with over how deeply you've been affected by something can provide you with a powerful sense of connection. But it's important to remember that culture isn't made specifically for you. If you don't like Cardi B's music or the newest "Star Wars," that's fine. Leave it alone. You're not a better Taylor Swift fan because you've told someone who likes "Bodak Yellow" that they should die.
In so many ways, 2018 was a year full of negativity, violence and outright cruelty. Our entertainment should either help us escape the darkness, or give form and meaning to it. Concocting gratuitous and absolutely pointless infighting is a waste of everyone's time. Let's leave toxic standom with Tide pods, tiny sunglasses, Ivanka Trump's fashion line, and all the rest of the refuse from 2018.
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