Back in 2011, a 16-year-old girl uploaded a video to YouTube, singing an ode to Charlie McDonnell of CharlieIsSoCoolLike, one of the platform's early stars. The lyrics were fawning and the sound quality pretty awful, but it did enough to attract the attention of Charlie's fans and, eventually, Charlie himself. Fast forward to the present day, and Dodie Clark, the girl in question – now a young woman, who's granted herself the mononym "dodie" – boasts a massive audience of her own, with a debut EP that cracked the iTunes chart top 5 the week of its November 2016 release. She's collaborated with Charlie, too, completing the transition from fan to peer.
Charlie and Dodie will be familiar to a certain generation of teens, but for anyone who grew up with pop stars on telly and not on a screen in the palm of your hand, they can be baffling. Like an episode of MTV's Diary or Cribs running on a perpetual loop, some of the most popular content on the platform involves watching "content creators" filming the minutiae of their lives. And with music-making YouTubers it's this connection, a simulated friendship of sorts, that's sucked in tween fans who would've had boy bands or girl groups to obsess over 15 year ago.
"Me and my audience have this relationship – we all overshare a lot together", Dodie says, of the creator-consumer divide. "I'm not completely saying we're all on the same level, because obviously I play gigs and shows and people pay tickets to come see me play, but what I'm trying to break down is the hierarchy, the power dynamic of: 'I'm better than you, look at my camera and scream at me'. I just find that horrible. I try and make it as inclusive as I can."
For her devotees – y'know, that lot who aren't "all on the same level" as her – it seems to be working. Delve into the comments of Dodie's original songs, and you'll mostly find not the usual vitriol but genuine discussions of the song's themes, interaction between Dodie and her fans and heartfelt messages of what each simple, acoustic ballad means to that person. Under "6/10", a song about feeling like a "plain girl", a load of viewers explain how it relates to their lives. One writes: "I am soaked in tears right now, this is seriously my life in a nutshell", while another thanks Dodie, adding, "I've had social anxiety for years and I'm still struggling with it." Others chip in with advice: "you matter, even if people overlook what you have to say".
It's hard to imagine the screaming fans of 90s boy bands or girl groups relating with quite as much bleeding-heart earnestness to "I Want It That Way", or "Wannabe". And Dodie's learned to harness the power of her fans, using their chat to inspire her songwriting. One song on her channel, in fact, was composed by fans, who also handily chipped in visuals for the video.
The dedication of Dodie's stans comes as no surprise to Dr Henrik Linden, of the University of East London, and co-author of Fans and Fan Cultures: Tourism, Consumerism and Social Media. "Fans who are particularly visible within the fandom often gain higher status in the fan community," he says. "YouTube is an effective platform for showing one's commitment as a fan, for example by posting fan films, taking part in multi-editing project competitions and covering favourite songs". Basically, the platform itself makes it both easier and more tempting for fans to show off their devotion. Their connection to the stars is more immediate, and thus more intimate, than when trying to get Little Mix or The Vamps to notice them by posting a flurry of breathless Instagram comments.
Social media intensifies the frenzy of a fandom, of course, and YouTube acts such as Tessa Violet, Jon Cozart and Pentatonix (who started on a TV talent show but moved to YouTube after being dropped) are among the most savvy in taking advantage of that. Linden explains how conventional pop stars are starting to wise-up to this approach: "They have come to share more of their everyday life – or a staged version of it – partly because they care about the fans, and partly because they constantly need new social media followers to maintain their pop star status." But clearly engaging with fans personally is nothing new. "Joan Crawford was known for her authentic commitment to her fans – answering fan letters herself," Linden says. "It is said that she wrote about 3 million letters to fans!" And obviously recent stars like Rihanna, who used to post entire holiday photo albums to her Facebook page, and Frank Ocean, who uses Tumblr like a direct press release service for his fans, have been at this for a while.
But most successful music YouTubers seem to distinguish themselves from your regular pop acts by peddling a lifestyle that's just ordinary enough to be relatable, while maintaining an air of aspiration. In Dodie's case, her second channel, doddlevloggle, is a "scrapbook channel, but like an online diary as well. It's like this nice little forum … and then I sort of invite my audience to share as well, we all talk together and everyone interacts with each other". In translation, it's the place where she dumps music that doesn't make her main account and shares the sorts of moments of close-up heartbreak, elation or sadness – the sort of content skewered this month by BBC Three's sharp, new YouTuber mockumentary series, Pls Like.
Dodie lays everything out there – sometimes to a stunning level of intimacy – to build a connection with her audience. These snapshots give the audience a view into her life, and in turn provide context and additional meaning to her lyrics. They're what Beyonce would be like if she ran her entire Instagram like her one-off HBO documentary Life Is But a Dream – wincingly private, in a way that whips fans up into an excitable froth. In Linden's view, this approach hasn't quite caught on in the wider music industry: "Some [pop stars] even feel that a YouTube-style relationship with their fans (where they share everyday moments) may trivialise their work". More likely, it would be exhausting and rob them of a sense of self separate from their work. For people like Dodie, who've opted into the YouTuber lifestyle, rescinding boundaries is more par for the course.
Such a close relationship with your audience is always going to make you aware of your impact on them. As Dodie puts it, "I absolutely have a voice, whether I like it or not. I am seen as a role-model; I can't change that". So there's a recognition that when targeting tweens, it's important to get parents on-side too. Dodie mentions that parents have approached her at gigs, and offered their thanks for helping with their child's problems. A YouTuber musician's influence can come from toeing the line between the sweetness that keeps parents happy and the "cool factor" that still affords kids a hint of rebellion. Lucy Moon, for example, has mum-friendly videos on organising your life and the benefits of university, but it's the swear-laden chat on sex and relationships that keeps teens feeling as though they're edgy by tuning in.
In that way, it's easy to see how this crowd has plugged the gap left by the manufactured groups of 90s and early 2000s. The Backstreet Boys might have had wild haircuts, tattoos and aluminium foil-like boiler suits, but a huge part of their success – like many other acts of that era – was down to them being vanilla enough to dodge parental disapproval. It feels like about a million years ago that Robbie Williams coupled boy-band cheek with hoovering up mounds of coke. But at the time he didn't feel able to open up about his issues with addiction and depression, in the way a YouTuber might today.
So the appeal of these YouTube musicians goes beyond PR-managed persona. Instead of being distant, hyper-rich superstars, they're ukulele-playing teens sat on their beds. Their early content is always amateurish, but that's part of their charm, and by the time they shift towards slick, production on their saccharine pop, their audience feel they've been a part of the journey. For a generation that has started to define itself as anti-elite, on both ends of the political spectrum, these "they're just like us!" stars make sense – and in all their white, middle-class glory they can present themselves as underdogs who are as flawed and normal as they are talented and revolutionary.