All images by Ashley Goodall.
The other day on Instagram I saw a pretty weird photo—a teenage fan of this young American punk band had posted it. It was a two-page spread of the band in a magazine, laid out on a table next to a big pink dildo, captioned "look at what came in the mail today." The comments read things like "great combo." Being 2016, the poster had tagged every band member in the photo, as well as the band's official account—one of the members had even liked it, so it was probable that they'd all seen it.
At first I laughed, because it was extremely funny, and then I kind of tapered off into an awkward, uncomfortable silence. I thought: fuck, what kind of fan would I have been in my teens, if I'd been able to do this with my favourite band? What insane things would I have said and done if I could have commented on their day-to-day life online, if I could have tagged them in my posts? What sort of DMs would I have sent? I didn't have a dildo as a teenager but would I have ordered one to make the same joke? Probably.
I've always been an obsessive person. As a little kid I was completely fixated on getting in contact with my favourite celebrities. I once wrote a letter to Taylor Hanson, addressed to just "Tulsa, Oklahoma." It said You keep saying "I Will Come to You" but you never do! You're a liar and I hate you now. There was more to it than that but that's the part I remember. Luckily—if I know the postal system like I think I do—that letter never made it. But if it did by some divine intervention, I'm sorry Taylor. You didn't deserve that.
Hysterical fans aren't a new phenomenon—they've been at it for decades. There was nothing restrained or cool about a fan leaving a newborn baby on the doorstep of Dolly Parton's house in 1973, with a name tag reading "Jolene." It wasn't "chill" when Hanson planned a small, acoustic set at a suburban shopping centre in Melbourne back in 1997 and were met with 20,000 fans. Dozens of attendees were crushed and taken to hospital.
Back in the early 2000s, and basically any time before then, if you loved a band or a celebrity, they were pretty unlikely to know about it. That aching need that you felt in the pit of your stomach as a fan looking up to a rock star—that feeling that if you didn't meet them and tell them about it you might actually die—had nowhere to go really. It just festered inside you until you saw them live, came down for three days afterwards, and eventually grew up. That is unless you were one of those kids who incessantly called hotlines and radio stations to win meet and greets, or you skipped school to camp outside hotels, screaming your guts out whenever you saw a blacked out car emerge from a nearby backstreet.
That was, until the internet. When the web became a household thing, fans took their obsessions online. Message boards, chat rooms and blogs gave you a new space to express how crucial these people were to you—a friend of mine and I made a fansite dedicated to The Strokes that took three weeks to make with the help of her uncle. You could, all of a sudden, connect to other fans around the world, in a way that only sitting in line outside a Ticketek for 24 hours with a bunch of strangers used to allow. And fan fiction wasn't just a way to write out your ultimate fantasies; it was also a way to read about other people's fantasies, ones you hadn't even thought of yet.
In the year 2003, I was 14 years old and my favourite band was Good Charlotte. When I read on a message board that Joel Madden used AOL's instant messenger service AIM, and sometimes spoke to fans on it, I decided to pirate it from Limewire. I would get online during the days I wasn't in school. I made sure I was online at the right time, so it would be Maryland, USA's evening — hoping to catch him and tell him how I felt, and what his music had done for me. But I never came across him. Weirdly.
More than a decade has passed since then, and many things have happened. Shia LeBeouf invented art, Young Thug invented music, and some wily kids living in a share house in Silicon Valley invented social networking.
Since then, apps like Instagram have opened up a channel of direct communication between us and our heroes. We follow their movements as if we were friends. We message them and tag them and shout them out, despite them still having no fucking clue who we are. And for a fourteen-year-old, whose love of a band or a pop star is all-consuming, some weird shit ends up on the internet.
It's not like kids in 2016 pioneered being totally insane, but my god: they're doing it a lot. A quick peruse through the comment section of a pop star's Instagram—take Harry Styles for example—is a pretty good indication of what a fan will do with the opportunity to make contact. "Fuck me," "I love this picture more than I love my mom," and "please could you just talk to us for ONE OR TWO MINUTES OMG!!!" are common reactions to a picture of just his legs.
While slightly Single White Female, there's nothing bone-chilling about the majority of comments. It's pretty stock standard teenaged delirium. What's really unsettling are the commenters voicing their feelings of immense loneliness—some threatening suicide—and other who say shockingly cruel things.
Back in August when Justin Bieber was dating Lionel Richie's daughter Sophia, his fans took to the comments of his Instagram to express their disapproval. That is to say, they requested Sophia kill herself. Bieber, understandably, told his fans he'd have to make his account private if the bullying and hate didn't stop. And, because people are people, Bieber's 77 million followers lost their privilege, and now no one except the Biebs' closest buddies can lurk his Instagram when hungover. Unfortunately.
After Beyonce's Lemonade more or less confirmed the rumours of Jay Z's infidelity, the Beyhive was irate and out for blood. When designer Rachel Roy—the suspected woman at the centre of The Becky Situation—posted a photo to her Instagram with the caption "Good hair, don't care," the hive went in so hard that Roy, too, was forced to make her account private. Even worse, though, was the innocent and bewildered celebrity chef Rachel Ray, whose Instagram and Twitter also became a hotbed of bee emojis and nasty threats by mistake.
If the comments on a post seem invasive and inappropriate, though, imagine the direct messages. Sure, they're filtered for our convenience into people we do and don't follow, but you don't have to accept a message to see it. And if you have any human sense of curiosity, you're going to check your message requests from time to time. You might get a "listen to my mixtape," or "please shout me out it's my birthday." It could be an out-and-out unsolicited sexual advance. This is all pretty commonplace stuff now.
What would it be like? Would it feel like suffocating, to have people you've never met electronically grasping at you, at all times? Millions of them at once?
Maybe Instagram has brought us too close to our idols. It used to feel like a truly genius technological advancement: we were being let in on their lives in this totally-almost-but-not-quite-intimate way. Now, it's beginning to feel like a big mistake.
We probably should have anticipated it. We've never been good at respecting celebrities' privacy. It was almost ten years ago that we forced Britney to shrink away from the limelight for our desperation to own her. These days we're even more invasive: Every single person is a paparazzo, a journalist, and a fan. Any image of a celebrity surrounded by fans shows more screens than hands reaching out for touch, and each of those photos goes online somewhere, often to Instagram, often to tag the subject.
We've made pop stars less human than ever by forcing them to exist constantly in our hands—because we're fucking crazy like that. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. Even when we're put right in front of them and given the opportunity to see them properly, all we do is film and photograph for the purpose of posting.
Instagram has recently introduced the option to disable comments, because we've proved we can't stop ourselves. Fans will never choose to leave their idols alone, so we're having to create these divides online. For their own safety.
When Matty Healy, the frontman of pop band The 1975, was asked about the nature of his sudden fame in an interview last year, he said "When you're really, really objectified and you don't have time off or time away from that and you're on tour for two and half years… Every time you get up there's constant reminders of your projected personality… I guess I'm pretty fucked up."
We've taken our need to be close to stardom so far that we're giving our heroes anxiety. They're people, and we're affecting their health. And it's fucking terrifying. Maybe it's time to take away our privileges, before we really fuck them up.
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