The Empowered Stan

Fandom can be both identity and liberation—but how do we keep our joys from being co-opted by corporate interests?

by Keidra Chaney

People with smart phones at a concert

I had no clue how hard it would be to write an essay based on what I thought was a fairly straightforward sentiment about fandom, empowerment, and capitalism that I shared on Twitter earlier in the summer.

But this summer has has been weird for pop culture, especially on Twitter. It’s been a reminder of how incredibly complicated it can be to parse out the politics of expressing joy—or critique—online, and what that means in a hyper-connected, hyper-consumerist pop-culture landscape.

Just this past week, music fans on Twitter were buzzing over the latest “beef” between Lana Del Rey and veteran music critic Ann Powers. Del Rey fired shots at Powers for her review of her latest album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, essentially saying that Powers couldn’t claim to be a fan if she had anything less than glowing praise for it. 

For a couple of days the response was heated—and occasionally, a bit ugly, a reflection of the current state of online Stan Twitter discourse. I’m defining “Stan Twitter” here as overlapping but not synonymous with fandom on Twitter overall. The word “stan” stems from the 2000 Eminem song about an obsessive fan, and on Twitter, stans are communities of extremely passionate—and often highly organized—fans who celebrate and defend their favorite artists and media properties. 

On Stan Twitter, loyalty and popularity are measured by public displays of support and by big engagement numbers for artists. This is often framed around monetary comparisons, like how well an artist charted on Billboard, how many YouTube or Spotify streams they have, or how many records they’ve sold (you’ll hear the phrase “[artist] outsold” a lot on Stan Twitter). Showing support on Stan Twitter means relentlessly boosting your fave—and often means treating anything perceived as a threat to their success like an attack.

In this case, Del Rey stans vehemently defended her integrity as an artist against Powers’ critique; others took it further, equating any critique at all with “hate.” Some even implied that Powers—who has long been a champion of female musicians and writers, as well as one of the few prominent female critics in an extremely male-dominated profession—was sexist. Of course, those familiar with Powers’ body of work—primarily fellow music critics—pushed back on that assertion, and defended her right to do her job.

It wasn’t the first time this summer that such a debate occurred on music Stan Twitter. A couple of months ago, Rawiya Kameir of Pitchfork wrote a lukewarm review of Lizzo’s hugely popular debut album Cuz I Love You, calling her lyrical focus on body-positivity and self-esteem “empowerment-core,” or, more specifically, music with “enough sheen and universality to stand in for [Natasha] Bedingfield’s mid-aughts empowerment anthem “Unwritten” in any given rom-com or yogurt commercial.” I admit, that particular  comment was kind of a snarky blow (and there was pushback on Twitter from Lizzo herself about the review). 

But Kameir acknowledged the difference between the vague girl-power sentiment of Bedingfield and what Lizzo represents in a pop-music landscape oversaturated with thin white women:

“...she offers songs for an astonishing array of demographics: thick women, independent women, women in general, anyone struggling with body image, people who are single, people who wish to become single, etc. Lizzo’s music performs an important social function. The sound might disappoint, but there will be people moved to transformations of their own thanks to her songs.”

Similarly, Powers’ review of Del Rey’s NFR! wasn’t a negative one—she compared Del Rey’s work to Joni Mitchell! Powers’ critique of Del Rey addressed a songwriter at a creative crossroads, highlighting the bumps along the way:

“Yet let Del Rey’s song sink in, and it offers its own revelations—sensual and emotional, like Mitchell’s, but less clearly mediated. The simplicity and directness of ‘Cinnamon Girl' hits as its leaden rhythm seems to grow more elastic.”

Fans have long defended their favorite artists against negative criticism—before the internet, this was usually done via angry letters to the editor. But social media has changed the way that way that fans interact with their faves, and with each other. The anonymity of Twitter paired with the ability of those with social influence to reach and organize large masses quickly allows stans to “pile on” critics—and other fans—in defense of their faves. 

At best, this can lead to incredibly heated online conversations. But it also can—and does—lead to harassment, abuse, and even stalking and life-threatening situations. Last year, culture writer Wanna Thompson made a critical comment about Nicki Minaj and received an angry Twitter DM from Minaj in response. Thompson decided to share the DM publicly, as a screenshot, and received a furious response from Minaj’s stans, including suicide taunts and insults to her child.

We are currently in an online pop culture environment where this kind of behavior has been normalized. Celebrities and their social media management teams can both identify and communicate directly with Twitter fanbases, while also having the power to mobilize them against critique. That makes publicly expressing a critical opinion about an artist’s work more complicated than ever before. 

My fear is that stan culture’s tendency to shout down anything that isn’t uncritical praise will push most critical discourse about music offline or to private spaces—essentially turning the role of culture writers and fans into PR mouthpieces for artists and their corporate-media backers. To join in the conversation on Stan Twitter, you will need to come with nothing less than slavish praise about an artist’s entire discography.

But as a Black female fan, music writer, and musician, I understand how issues of representation and social justice add another layer to this debate. I get the importance of music and music fandom to bring pleasure and empowerment. Everyone consumes media through their various lenses of identity, but for marginalized people, especially women of color, queer folks, disabled people, and fat people, enjoying pop culture can be significantly more complicated. Our common experience is negotiating the enjoyment of a work of pop culture that has the possibility of demeaning or erasing us, or searching in vain for media that reflects even the barest thread of our lived experience. It’s frustrating and demoralizing, when something’s “just meant for fun.”

I didn’t have artists like Lizzo to see and identify with growing up, so I get the incredible power of seeing her on stage (rocking a flute, no less!). When artists that you identify with are out there thriving, creating, and standing up for the things that you believe in, it’s incredibly validating and empowering. I also get that white female musicians and especially female musicians of color face a particular kind of critique by (mostly white, male) music writers who often don’t understand—or dismiss—the context of their creative work. 

In a social and political moment that’s incredibly hostile to marginalized people, it makes sense that artists that champion self-esteem, self-expression, and diversity are more valued and idolized than ever. I have no problem with Kameir’s less-than-effusive review, or Powers’ highly-nuanced one, but I do understand why Lizzo, Del Rey, and their respective fans reacted defensively, why they saw any criticism as an attack.

But being critical of a piece of work on a musical level doesn’t minimize the enjoyment it can bring you. It also doesn’t minimize an artist’s creative process, or diminish their importance on a representation level. It’s perfectly OK if Cuz I Love You doesn’t float your boat—you can feel that way while still supporting Lizzo as an artist and everything she represents and stands for. And it’s perfectly reasonable to think that Del Rey’s lyrics are “uncooked” while acknowledging the vulnerability in her songwriting. 

To me, the issue is not so much about the validity of music criticism—it’s that as both consumers and music fans, we have increasingly little space to criticize publicly without that critique being conflated with an attack on an artist’s identity or worldview.

I struggle a lot with what it means to be a part of music fandom and stan culture more broadly during this cultural moment. Celebrities are often viewed as more than just idols—they’re valorized as both representatives and defenders of marginalized identities, and pop culture is framed as a springboard to broader social and political consciousness. But on Twitter, constant consumption—and belligerence—are often the easiest and most high-profile ways to prove your devotion.

We saw this in play a couple of months ago (I told you it was a weird summer) with Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” and the furious debate both inside and outside Taylor Swift’s fandom about whether the artist, who has never publicly or directly identified as queer, was co-opting queer culture to sell her new single. As Rebecca Jennings wrote for Vox:

“But these are dangerous critiques against a star with not only powerful friends but a legion of rabid fans on social media ready to pounce at any whisper of negativity. Like many celebrities, Taylor Swift has a complicated history of conflating the online hatred she receives with the suffering of marginalized people, and it’s essentially the driving narrative of ‘You Need to Calm Down.’ I have no doubt that criticism hurts her feelings, but it is not the same thing as the systemic hate faced by LGBTQ people or anyone else whose identities American culture disdains.”

The merging of consumerism, identity, and empowerment isn’t limited to pop music fandom, or pop culture in general. Corporations have long co-opted the language of marginalized identities and social change—just think of the long-running and well-loved Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty.” It’s an important and groundbreaking campaign that highlights diversity and body positivity, but it’s still a marketing campaign, by a multi-billion-dollar corporation that wants to sell you stuff. Pop music is and always has been part of a capitalist system, controlled by powerful and wealthy people who are very much aware of the increasing power of marketing to fan communities around narratives of identity and marginalization.

This makes it a thorny time to be involved in music fandom online, when identity narratives and a critical mass of consumption are so closely linked. So much of stan culture is characterized by positive social media reinforcement and collective hyping—no one wants to be the killjoy by bringing up criticism, especially when it will likely lead to fighting or even harassment.

I’m not trying to call out specific fandoms, or dismiss the intentions and politics of any artist I’ve mentioned. I have and will participate in my fair share of online fan (and stan) activity. I’ve also personally seen the power of organized fan communities to do great things for social justice issues. In my day job, I work for a reproductive justice organization, and in the past year, I’ve seen amazing fundraising and awareness-building projects from fans of K-pop, heavy metal, anime, and comics. 

But when the act of fandom itself becomes viewed as both identity and liberation, combined with the hyper-consumerist bent of social media and stan culture, the result is that consumption, identity, and liberation are conflated—and corporations are the ones who primarily benefit.

There’s power in being a critical fan—critical of your fave, and critical of yourself as a fan. I reject the idea that as music fans, our role is simply to be in service to the machine that pushes an artist’s popularity. It’s totally OK to love an artist, even support their publicly-stated politics overall, while critiquing their music or pushing back on a problematic public stance. 

While individual artists work in pursuit of their own creativity and hold progressive, perhaps even radical politics on a personal level, most, if not all of them are still working within this corporate-dominated capitalist system. Companies might capitalize on social change, but that’s not their goal; they want to get fans to buy records, concert tickets,  and merchandise. 

As fans, we’re unarguably a part of this system, but we have the power and the agency to continually examine our own consumption, and to make critical choices with it. It might be something as important as critiquing our favorite artists when it comes to issues of representation and social justice—or something as simple as choosing not to buy that new single you don’t actually like, even if it’s by your fave. You are allowed to simply say, “I respect what you represent and what you’re doing, but I’m just not feeling this song/album/project.” You’ll still be a fan, and your personal politics will be intact. 

It’s not about diminishing anyone’s fandom—or the empowerment you gain from it—but about leaving space for our own agency, as fans and critical consumers, rather than ceding that power to the cult of personality, or the pressure of stan culture, collectively. If there’s no space within music fandom for any kind of resistance, then it really will cease to be a place to empower us.

This article is brought to you by Fansplaining’s patrons. If you’d like to help us publish more writing like this in the future, please consider pledging as little as $1 a month. And to hear a full conversation with Keidra, listen to our interview with her in Episode 101, “Stan Culture.”

A portrait of Keidra Chaney.

Keidra Chaney is a writer and culture critic based in Chicago. She has been published in the Chicago Sun–Times, Time Out Chicago, Bitch Media, Paste, and a bunch of publications that no longer exist.

She is the co–founder and publisher of pop culture website The Learned Fangirl and occasionally makes music in a band called Sole Heiress.

Keidra Chaney