I am 15 and sitting on the pavement outside Birmingham Carling Academy. It’s a hot day and I’ve been here for many hours, my legs stretched out in front of me in a way that is annoying and obtrusive to passers-by. My friend Lucy is next to me, and we’re waiting to see Bright Eyes. It's my first time watching the band play, and I am loudly telling everyone else in the queue that they – and in particular, Conor Oberst – changed my life, and probably also saying something awful like, ‘He taught me what poetry is’. Later at the show, where I am front row, my body pushed up against a metal barrier, Oberst touches my hand for a few seconds. It is one of the most wonderful, strange moments of my little life.
Fast forward ten years, and I got to see something I never dreamed I would. Bikini Kill reunited for their first UK show in 23 years. Even now, as I think about Kathleen Hanna screaming, “We’re Bikini Kill and we want 'Revolution Girl Style Now!'” into a room of people whose outlooks and politics her band permanently touched with their music, tears threaten my eyes – because it just meant so much to me.
I’ve been a fangirl since my teens, and I still am now. Days of my adolescence were spent downloading and devouring new music, writing blog posts about it, finding out everything I could about the artists that made it, hassling my parents for rides so that I could go to see it live. I don’t need the lifts anymore, but the passion has continued into adulthood (watch how quickly I drop all tasks when Lady Gaga releases a music video). It has also informed my career as a music critic.
I am, of course, only one of millions of women whose lives music fandom has permeated. More than any other art form, music tends to attract young female fans. And where there are young women liking literally anything, there are critics who say that their enjoyment is superficial, and their understanding not as deep as that of their male counterparts. It’s basically an ancient maxim that any girl who has ever liked a band will have met a boy who asks her to prove it by naming all their albums, right?
This distrust of young female fans, which has existed since the days of Beatlemania, has only escalated in the social media age. Formalised fan groups like Beyoncé’s BeyHive, Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, or Ariana Grande’s Arianators are consistently disparaged – sometimes rightfully if they behave in an extreme manner, but more often than not, simply because they are groups of predominantly young women who really like something and are happy to show it.
But all those who belittle female fans forget their important role in the music industry. Certainly, it’s armies of mostly female fans who do so much to keep artists afloat, buying tickets and merchandise, and leading campaigns to get songs to the tops of charts, in exchange for everything – identification, empowerment – that they get from the musicians they love. More than that, however, doubters forget that when you devote so much of yourself to something, you’re going to end up knowing an awful lot about it. Like the rock critic Jessica Hopper once tweeted: “Replace the word ‘fangirl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens.”
Someone who has done exactly that is VICE staffer Hannah Ewens, whose first book Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture is out today. Fangirls is based on hundreds of original interviews with girl and woman music fans, from members of pop fandoms – including, heartbreakingly, Ariana Grande fans who survived the Manchester bombing – to older superfans of Hole and Courtney Love (including one woman who has bought several items of Love’s clothing). Also included are contributions from Shirley Manson, Melissa Auf Der Mar and Viv Albertine discussing their own fandom, and the people who are fans of them.
The book gives fans unprecedented space to speak, putting the narrative about them into their hands for one of the first times ever. It is also a personal narrative, as Hannah’s own journey as a fan is interspersed with the narratives of the girls and women whose paths it resembles. Throughout, in its warm but fundamentally profound approach to fans and fandom, the book gives readers exactly what its subtitle promises: “Scenes from Modern Music Culture.” It’s important that this is taken in its widest possible context. Fangirls don’t just speak for small niches of music culture – they are music culture.
Fangirls joins a desperately vital group of recent books by women music writers that re-examine scenes we thought we already knew about, because of what we’ve been told by male writers and musicians. Back in 2017, the rock critic Lizzy Goodman published Meet Me In the Bathroom, a comprehensive oral history of one of the most talked-about eras in rock and roll. The book is important because it comprises Goodman’s intimate personal knowledge of the noughties New York scene, alongside a desire to remember its reality, rather than to think of it as the masturbatory dream sequence and late celebration of the male genius that many (also male) critics prefer.
This year has seen the publication of Dayglo! and A Seat at the Table. The former is the definitive book on X Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, which also doubles as a new, non-male take on punk, co-written by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell; the latter grapples head-on with the music industry’s male dominance, and hears directly from woman musicians about how this can be toppled.
One of the most interesting things about all of these books is their shared emphasis on personal truth. While none of them work as memoir (a genre which, in fairness, women in music have been writing in for a while), they allow their subjects to speak directly and, where it’s appropriate, in large numbers. This gives considerably less airtime to the singular, decreeing male voice of The Rock Critic. While objective critical voices are still hugely necessary within music writing, moving the microphone now and then does the important, progressive work of widening the perspective.
Of course, this progress hasn’t happened in a vacuum – it is only possible due to the work of all of the woman music critics who worked (and work) ceaselessly against the current of a male industry to establish room for women’s voices. Lillian Roxon, Ellen Willis, Ann Powers, Evelyn McDonnell and indeed Hopper herself (whose 2015 compendium The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic was as seismic as it sounds) are only a handful of the figures whose past work made the boom in women’s mainstream re-examination of their own scenes possible. There are, happily, too many to name whose current work is supporting such revisitations.
It feels good to be a woman music fan right now, because fandom, and all the love, knowledge, effort and expertise that it encompasses, is finally getting its due. Fangirls, as one of a hopeful many books which will pass the microphone around, instead of keeping it to itself, is about to play a very big part in that.
Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture by Hannah Ewens is out now. Buy your copy here.