(Don’t) Meet Your Idols

Fantasy and reality collide in boyband YA literature

by Allyson Gross

Zayn Malik, of One Direction, signs autographs for fans.  Image credit:   JStone  /  Shutterstock

Zayn Malik, of One Direction, signs autographs for fans. Image credit: JStone / Shutterstock

What would happen if you met a member of your favorite boyband?

In reality, probably very little worth writing home about. You might ask for a photo, and they might say yes. They might smile as you say thank you and your voice shakes, because they are real and in front of you—online, your friends reblog and retweet photos of the same smile that’s now directed towards you and you aloneYou might tell them you love them, and after the fact, you will not remember if they said it back, but it doesn’t matter, because at least you said it, you got it off your chest, this electric feeling that consumes you. The entire interaction will last less than two minutes—and you will think about it forever.

Filtered through your computer screen or headphones, your relationship has always been one-sided. But now your idol is standing right in front of you, un-pixelated and so much shorter in person, and you know it’s totally unrealistic, but it’s easy to hope—what if it didn’t end with a selfie? What if the interest was mutual?

This is a scenario that many boyband fans have fantasized about at least twice. What would happen if you met them? In “boyband lit,” a popular and growing subgenre of young adult literature, we see a few different ways it could play out, as often-teen, often-female protagonists cross paths with the boys of their fandom dreams. This question and its answer, it seems, are also semi-profitable ones. Since British-Irish boyband One Direction began an indefinite hiatus in December of 2015, young adult novels about boybands and their fans have invaded bookshelves across the US and UK.

Maybe this trend is merely capitalizing off of the group’s popularity, or filling a fictional void in their collective absence. Where a mass audience of potential female consumers exists, after all, there too lies a fortune in the potential market. But the growing preponderance of boybands in young adult literature is more than just good business; these books are descended from a long line of fangirl fiction, from self-insert fanfic to blurbs about teen heartthrobs in Tiger Beat. Many of the authors and editors commissioning these books came of age dreaming about previous generations of boybands: BSB, *NSYNC, or Hanson, maybe, or, if they’re a bit older, Menudo or New Kids on the Block. Today’s YA novels are a natural thematic extension of the genre’s most successful tropes and themes, both romantic and fantastic. From Chris Russell’s Songs About A Girl to Goldy Moldavsky’s Kill the Boy Band to Zan Romanoff’s forthcoming Grace and the Fever, the fantasy and adventure of meeting your idol comes to life.

These stories—like self-insert fanfiction, or the recent rise of online “imagines” between you and your favorite celebrity—play off of the popular fantasy of meeting your favorite celebrity. As a long-established category within fanfiction more broadly, self-inserts are often marked by the “special fan” trope: an original female character meets the band in improbable circumstances (an accident, a school concert, or even kidnapping), and falls in love. Sometimes she’s idealized—a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or a Mary Sue—but often she’s bland enough to serve as a proxy for the reader, for whom “self-insert” might mean “inserting yourself into the story.” “Imagines” are a newer cousin to the classic self-insert: short, second-person stories from the perspective “you” or “[Y/N]” (your name). Whether in short, meme-like photos on Tumblr and Twitter or in longer form stories on sites like Wattpad, imagines let the reader to project themselves into the lives of celebrity subjects: “Imagine you’re working your shift at Starbucks and Zayn walks in the door.”

Like self-inserts and imagines, YA boyband novels toy with the possibility of meeting your idol in entertaining (though perhaps unlikely) situations. They are fantasies that narrate the transition from spectator to participant; they hypothesize what it would be like to get close enough to a pop star to see if the glittering magic of their celebrity is as potent in real life as it is on the page or screen. And above all, these stories seek to entertain.

But the genre is as much about romantic love as it is about emotional intimacy, whether real, imagined, or both. Some boyband fiction is about your idols falling in love with you, while some is about you being privilege to private knowledge (of a secret love affair, of a covered-up sexuality, or sometimes, both). Beyond merely meeting and romancing Harry Styles and his stand-ins, boyband YA explores the reality of fan/subject relationships, and the complicated nature of celebrity desire. This complexity is, to a large degree, one of the reasons boyband lit is so popular: as opposed to solely depicting romantic fantasies, boyband YA explores how fans construct boyband identities, and how confrontation with their realities complicates fan love, romantic or otherwise. Whether the dream is to meet them, to love them, or even more improbably, to know them, the rising popularity of boyband YA speaks directly to the power and practice of fandom, authenticity, and love.

Boybands are particularly apt vessels through which to explore the contradictions of authenticity and fame—as individual boys, they are often read as average or normal, but as a collective, they are artificial products, packaged into and marketed as cookie-cutter personas. Writing about boyband fanfiction of the early 2000s in Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture, fan scholar Kristina Busse noted, “In their clearly constructed roles, boybands epitomize issues surrounding identity construction and performativity.” To this end, “Boybands are a perfect example of the simulacrum, the copy without an original, and it is this very deliberate construction of the star’s persona that appeals to [fanfiction writers].” In her analysis of boyband fanfic, Busse further divides the genre into two categories: the insertion fantasy of self-insert fic, and the observation fantasy, in which readers derive pleasure from knowledge and insight into the celebrity’s real life.

This analysis and distinction extends not only to fanfiction but also to boyband lit’s own authors and readers (there is, of course, overlap between these groups). Beneath the predictable molds of the Hot One, the Mysterious One, the Jokester, the Good Boy, and the inevitable Other, we know more complex realities exist—and we fulfill our yearning to construct and dismantle them through fictional encounters. These contradictions of fame, authenticity, and artificiality in the boyband industrial complex are ultimately what lend boybands to such easy fictionalization. Through these fictional groups, boyband lit authors appeal to the fantasy of discovering the hidden interiority beneath their constructed products.

“I couldn’t help it. They were infectious. Watching them perform filled me with this intense, electric joy that I could feel in my fingertips, and the crazy thing was, I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d never followed the band, I didn’t listen to their music or watch their videos, and the last thing I’d expected was to become a fan. But in that moment, standing beside their stage, lit up like a neon sign, I finally got it. I understood the hype.

“I was completely and utterly hooked.”

—Chris Russell, Songs About a Girl

In Songs About a Girl, the first in a trilogy by British author Chris Russell, 16-year-old Charlie crosses paths with boyband Fire & Lights, but she isn’t even a fan before she finds herself backstage. At the request of former classmate-turned-boy-bander Olly Samson, Charlie becomes friends with the group through a gig photographing the boys’ backstage antics for a fan site. As an outsider, as someone special and different, Charlie “gets” the band, seemingly chosen for the role because of her ability to capture their essence more accurately than professionals. Over the course of the novel, Charlie’s transition into the Fire & Lights fandom is a romantic and dramatic adventure: in between attempting to solve a mystery involving her dead mother and sneaking out of the house to party with Fire & Lights across the UK, Charlie finds herself in the center of a love triangle with two of the band’s members, Olly and Gabriel.

The cover of Chris Russell’s  Songs About a Girl

In this regard, Songs About A Girl stays true to the genre—like many works of YA literature, boyband lit is a romance. We follow along the journey of a female character as mere spectators to the fantastic possibility of kissing (perpetually kissing, only kissing) off-brand proxies of Zayn Malik and Harry Styles. It’s always the most unexpected of happy accidents: the female protagonist is rarely actively trying to, but merely happens upon, always finds herself, amazingly and sometimes begrudgingly in the arms of one (or two, if she is both lucky and cursed) members of the band. These plots follow what Busse calls the “insertion fantasy” in real person fanfiction, wherein an original character is inserted into a star’s narrative towards romantic ends. This romantic fantasy is a textbook case for Russell’s unsuspecting Charlie: while Olly notes, “most girls who manage to get backstage…only want one thing,” he assures Charlie that she’s “different.” According to Gabriel, Charlie is, of course, “the most beautiful girl [he’s] ever seen.” Though not the driving conflict of the work’s plot, the love triangle between Charlie, Gabriel, and Olly perfectly portrays the cliché of self-insert fanfiction’s central fantasy.

But what makes Charlie “different” to Olly is what complicates Songs About a Girl’s “special fan” narrative: Charlie isn’t even a fan of the band to begin with, her and character’s journey of simultaneously building up and dismantling the boyband magic of Fire & Lights is a bit of a different one in and of itself. It’s only after having already known them in a separate context that, in a dramatic realization sidestage at their concert, Charlie becomes enamored of their boyband personas.

That they are, in fact, just normal boys is a central tenet of Songs—in one self-aware moment, Olly notes the own luck of his circumstance, how “anyone could be in [his] shoes.” As found throughout boyband lit, that these boys have been chosen, cherry-picked from among us and elevated to international celebrity is perpetually a matter of chance, and something to be grateful for. They are, as a result, both simultaneously of and above us, even if they do not always want to be. In a classic moment of truth about the stresses of fame, Fire & Lights’ Aiden tells Charlie that he “didn’t really want” to be famous to begin with. If boyband YA is an exploration of how fans construct boyband identities, Songs does so not through dismantling Charlie’s own fannish perceptions, but by constructing her fandom alongside an understanding of their reality. When Charlie ultimately falls in love with the group’s “true selves,” it’s a love untainted by symbolism and projection from a long-established fandom. Rather, Charlie’s arrival at the truth of Fire & Lights is a simultaneous buildup and breakdown of the aura surrounding celebrity itself.

“Most Strepurs wrote fics where they injected themselves into the story so that they could play out some deep Mary Sue fantasy of the boys falling in love with them. My fics were different. While they were still rpfs (real person fiction), they were about real issues. There was one fic I wrote where each chapter focused on a different Rupert and explained the origin stories behind their tattoos. I worked with the concept that the reason Rupert L. had covered most of his chest and arms in twenty seven different renditions of a bunny rabbit from his favorite obscure British animated show was because he was really self-conscious about his body and wanted to cover it up in nostalgia for a simpler time when he had no body image issues.

“See? Totally plausible.”

—Goldy Moldavsky, Kill The Boy Band

In comparison to the lighter romance of Songs About a Girl, Goldy Moldavsky’s Kill the Boy Band is exactly as dark as it title implies. Where Charlie is an outsider to the Fire & Lights fandom, Moldavsky’s unnamed protagonist and her friends Erin, Apple, and Isabel are as in touch with The Ruperts (a four-piece of British boys all named Rupert) as fans come. They don’t meet their idols by chance: it’s intentional stalking that brings the four girls face to face with them in a Manhattan hotel where, in a fit of panic and overwhelming emotion at meeting one of the boys, they kidnap the least-desired member of the group, Rupert Pierpont.

The cover of  Kill The Boy Band  by Goldy Moldavsky.

If boyband lit plays off of YA’s most tried and true themes, then Kill the Boy Band is a fandom dystopia which takes the most extreme approach to the fantasy of meeting the group. Over the course of an evening, the four fans, also known as “Strepurs,” (or “Rupert” backwards, and made plural) attempt to forcibly unearth hidden truths about The Ruperts, specifically Pierpont’s own sexuality. After committing a handful of crimes, befriending Pierpont’s girlfriend, and framing multiple parties for the boybander’s eventual death, the girls come face to face with the reality beneath the group’s image—and it’s a messy one.

For Moldavsky’s Strepurs, meeting The Ruperts is less about finding love than it is about finding out the truth. Though the protagonist briefly flirts with Rupert K., the central plot features the four fans’ attempts at aligning their own constructed identities of the group with their IRL selves. To the extent that boyband YA builds upon boyband fanfiction, Kill the Boy Band depicts Busse’s second category of real person fiction (RPF), the “observer fantasy,” which supplements romantic desire “with a desire to see or know about them.” Unlike the romantic impulses of self-insert, Busse further notes that “the satisfaction of reading and writing these stories is derived from the pleasure of information and insight.” In Kill the Boy Band, this is amplified to extreme proportions: meet your idol, hold him hostage, and get your answers. It’s not Rupert P. himself, but his phone that the fans desire, the private information within it “one hundred times more valuable to [them] than he would ever be.”

In the end, Moldavsky’s fans kill the boyband in more ways than one: through coming face to face with the reality of The Ruperts, the four fangirls at the center of Kill the Boy Band shatter not only their own illusions of the truth, but also the aura of the boys’ celebrity. The protagonist’s conclusion that The Ruperts are “just boys who [they’d] looked at through a prism” is one of the only truths left standing.

“People always try to pretend like fandom is some freaky subculture, but honestly, I don’t think it’s that far off from what most people do with celebrities, or even, like, the people you don’t know well at school, you know? It’s so hard to understand that other people are people, so we create them for ourselves. We create whole worlds to live in, and that’s fine. That’s necessary, sometimes.”

—Zan Romanoff, Grace and the Fever

How fans participate in the direct unmaking of their own boyband projections is a theme shared by and expanded upon throughout Grace and the Fever. In Zan Romanoff’s novel, the eponymous Grace Thomas is a secret fan of the boyband Fever Dream; her high school friends don’t know she’s a Tumblr conspiracy theorist with a popular online presence. Half-observation, half-insertion fantasy, Grace’s journey from online fan to real life friend of the band and romantic interest to its lead is a complex analysis of truth, love, and the nature of reality in boyband fandom. Online, Grace is a Lolly shipper: deeply invested in the perceived romance (and cover-up) between Fever Dream members Land and Solly. But when she accidentally meets and then becomes romantically involved with Jes, the brooding star of the group, she finds herself in a double bind between her fannish and IRL identities. While hypothesizing online about the nature of the relationship between Land and Solly, Grace’s brewing romance with Jes earns her a front-row seat to the very conspiracy she’s long theorized about on her blog.

The cover of  Grace and the Fever , by Zan Romanoff.

In one sense, this aspect of Graceis quite obviously about being a One Direction fan. Parallels between Grace’s faith in Lolly and the subset of the One Direction fandom dedicated to Larry Stylinson (Harry Styles/Louis Tomlinson) are very real—and intentional. From this angle, Grace is a love story about loving, whether it’s loving Jes, Fever Dream on a whole, the perceived love of Solly and Land, or some combination of the three—and about what happens to a love based in one’s own projections when those expectations fall flat. In the end, Grace’s answer to the question of what would happen if you met your favorite boyband is a complex one, skillfully holding the nuance of boyband fictionalization alongside the rush and confusion of being confronted by its realities. By the time you’ve turned the final page, the cover’s suggestion to “never meet your idols” reads less like a well-worn adage than it does a sincere warning from a thoughtful friend: stay at home, stay online, and stay in love.

If boyband YA is an extension of the popular fantasy of its mother genre, its greatest impossibility is achieved through a perpetual search for the truth. For both the fictional protagonists of these texts and IRL fans alike, to uncover the reality, to see the glimmer up close and realize in the end that its shine is faded—or imagined—is the slightest bit world-ending in its own right. And just as boyband fanfiction is about identity construction and performativity, boyband YA grapples with fans’ own participation in the (de)construction of those identities. In a defining moment in Romanoff’s novel, Grace’s realization that she failed to imagine “how complicated…how personal” their actual lives were. It’s the final, cathartic mirror held up to the reader, to fans, and even to boyband YA authors themselves—our fictional approximations will always be a bit too far from whatever truth exists beneath them.

For Charlie, who has no preconceived expectations, that realization is a removed one; for each of Moldavsky’s Strepurs, the truth is dramatic and jarring in different ways. But for Grace, the realization that “something can be real and not at all true” is a revelation unto itself. As a plot device, this perpetual search for truth is an engaging hero’s quest. But perhaps it’s founded upon an unreasonable assumption: that we as fans would even know enough to reach its conclusion. In a dramatic confrontation with Jes, Grace remarks, “I read your stories, and I watched them. And then I was in the middle of one, and I still couldn’t see everything that was happening, because I thought I already knew the plot.” Just as in Busse’s own depiction of boyband fanfiction, this desire to “know the star better than he knows himself,” a “fascination with understanding him” lies at the very complicated heart of Grace and the Fever, and boyband YA more broadly. Throughout the genre, there’s a false self-assurance that there is something to know, a truth to understand, which fuels a desire to uncover the unknown. The tragedy—or, perhaps, the beauty—of boyband YA is that meeting the band and finding out the truth is neither as easy nor as complicated as we may think.

Boyband YA is, of course, just fiction. While many of the genre’s female protagonists want to fall in love with the boybander of their dreams, the assumption that all boyband fans are female, or the idea that their fannish interest is driven by romantic or sexual feelings towards Harry, Louis, Liam, Niall, or Zayn is as unfairly generalized as it is heteronormative and misogynistic. Not all fans believe in secrets, lies, or a hidden truth; many take the music and the boys’ personas at face value. But in all its complexity, in all of the paths it could possibly take, the fantasy of meeting the real person behind the pixelated image lives on. Even if the fact they are real, that they could exist in the same way that we do is as magical as it is terrifying.

Because right now, Louis Tomlinson could be in Los Angeles, grabbing a coffee around the corner at a Starbucks on Rodeo Drive. Harry Styles could be walking into a pub down the road from your flat, and your friends are screaming, Go!

What do you do?

Stay at home, stay online, stay in love.

Because if you meet your favorite boyband, maybe nothing will happen, but maybe, just maybe, you might find out the truth. It could be exactly what you always hoped—or it might just break your faith. And yes, you will think about that moment forever. But perhaps the belief that there is a truth to uncover, that there is something lurking beneath the surface waiting for us to find out, is the biggest fantasy of all.

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A headshot of Allyson Gross, wearing bright red lipstick.

Allyson Gross is a graduate student and writer based in Houston.

Allyson Gross