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Charli XCX, Troye Sivan, Slayyyter, Rina Sawayama
illustration Callum Abbott

What it’s like to be a serious stan for an emerging pop star

Pop stars from Charli XCX to Troye Sivan and BTS are defined by their passionate fandoms as much as their music, but social media has helped create stan communities around even the most underground artists

Charli XCX is the sound of pop right now. For September 2019, the prolific auteur is guest editing Dazed. Head here to check the fashion brand she’s spotlighted, her dream collaborators, a visit to her home, video of her reacting to fans’ memes, plus way more.

“If u want to… you can be my Angels,” Charli XCX wrote in a Facebook post back in 2014. Though initially hesitant about naming her fans, Charli had come across some fan art that crudely edited her face onto a Charlie’s Angels movie poster earlier that mid-10s day. In the wake of the chart-nudging “Boom Clap” and her ambitious breakthrough album Sucker – praised for blowing up the framework of sticky mainstream pop and gleaning the precious metals from the asphalt – and a continent-spanning Girl Power tour, the out-of-the-incubator star’s fandom was finally officiated.

It was a delayed but welcome baptism for Charli fans in their nameless purgatory. They had – though in relatively small numbers – been organising a subculture around the British artist pretty much since her first solo singles in 2008, when she was still playing London raves and warehouse parties, and they were there for her transcendence from songwriter for major pop acts to an artist in her own right. It was an emerging fandom that dotted the US, before igniting in the UK; a 2013 tour for True Romance was defined by adolescent girl fans attempting to storm her tour bus at every stop. Satiating the nebulous fandom with pepperings of collabs and EPs across half a decade, it was, as Charli tells me, the release of her mixtape POP 2 when she really felt her fandom gild itself, a metallic glory that reflected her transformative, hyperpop aesthetic. “After POP 2 was released I really felt that sense of fan community, that was some real shit,” she says. “Both online and offline with the shows – it felt like nobody else could do what I was doing in that moment, and no other fans going to other shows were having that intense of an experience. It just felt like there was no wall between me and them – it was palpable, it felt really euphoric, and so special.”

For artists who were once in the position Charli was in, these moments of solidifying community are becoming more visible. In an era of the micro-celebrity and Insta-access, it’s easier than ever to witness fandoms for emerging artists being born, especially online.

As her third album Charli drops, we’re witnessing the dawn of a new era not just for the artist, but for the community around her, and what it means for anyone who loves a musician on a stratospheric rise to the top. “I’ve often thought the people around the spectacle as curious as the spectacle itself,” Hannah Ewens writes in her enthralling investigation Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, “worthy of proper investigation. The question being not just what is captivating these people but who are those captivated?”

We’re doing just that – looking back across those intimate gigs, the fan-made memes, the grassroots galvanising of a community like the Angels. We know Rihanna’s Navy, the Beyhive, so we’re asking – what is that epiphanic moment, the burning bush that radiates with one singular artist’s extravagance that turns consumers to fandoms, the turning of the tide that says simply: we have no choice but to stan?

“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion,” author and famed cultural critic John Berger wrote in his seminal 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Indeed, future icons cannot exist without the fervency of a following, the... ‘ways of stanning’, if you’ll allow it! But who are the people behind the artists they’re helping to carve into pop’s future-artefacts? And what is it that makes an artist, still traversing the cusp of their career, opportunities, and the charts, worthy of newly stanning? Charli’s fanbase beginnings is an early study in such.

“There’s fans who have been there from the beginning, ones I know personally, the faces I always know I’ll see in the crowd or outside after. They’re the ones who’ll be on my tour bus with me!” says Charli. “There’s this really cool girl called Paige from the UK and she has been there the whole time – she knows all my team, she’s funny and sassy on Twitter and so great. Then there’s Connie – she is so smart and cool!” It’s no surprise that Charli’s fanbase has become as recognisable as it has, given that her rise directly parallels the spillover from MySpace, the explosion of Twitter, and the growing popularity of the lexicon we associate with modern fandom – ’stan’ as a verb and noun can be traced back to online forums in 2008, her breakout year from songwriter to solo singer. 

“When you see so many artists come and go you get pretty good at recognising which artists have real substance and who are just flash in the pans” – @rinasawaupdates

Fandoms in their infancy crop up most under artist’s on a similar trajectory to Charli, traversing the underground and the pop sphere. A 21-year-old student from New Zealand runs @rinasawaupdates, asserting that it’s “the largest fan community” for UK artist and Charli collaborator Rina Sawayama, whose fandom is known as ‘Pixels’ – Sawayama’s own followers are in the tens of thousands, rather than the millions (just yet). The fan account positions itself as the “#1 source for news, content and more” for fans of the 00s-recalling yet future-defining pop musician. The Twitter account admin tells me they started the account as Sawayama released the single and video “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” in 2017 – this was three singles into her career, prior to her debut album RINA.

“I knew the importance of engagement and social media for artists in the streaming age,” @rinasawaupdates says. “Rina had barely any fan accounts, so I saw the account as an opportunity to promote her music.” They describe making “constant updates and engageable content” to increase her fanbase. Rejecting the stereotype of rabid superfans, @rinasawaupdates’ entrepreneurial-like thinking positions themselves like a social media manager and promoter, highlighting the potential Twitter has on encouraging Rina’s fan community, and other smaller artists alike.  

Though they’ve frequented other pop music forums, @rinasawaupdates is the only fan account they’ve made, committing to it in staggering detail: “Only about 10-20 per cent of our engagements are through likes, and the other 80-90 per cent shows people have at least watched or clicked links. So if our post gets 100 likes, engagement is about 1,000-1,500 clicks, and when we get posts with over 1,000 likes, 10,000 plus people have interacted with the content. Even when the account didn’t have many followers at first, posts had more opportunity to spread because of the way Twitter works.” 

@rinasawaupdates’s biggest Tweet garnered 17,700 likes, and a video montage of Rina has over 450,000 views. It reflects how regimented fandom is becoming, the metrification of stanning in what is an enduring cultural practice reborn with each new potential pop icon. In this dynamic, we also see what scholar Henry Jenkins describes as the “balance between fascination and frustration”. “If media content didn't fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it,” he writes in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, “but if it didn't frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.” Fan community-making is “a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by folk.” When mainstream music frameworks won’t reflect what you want to see, these mini-fandoms make it.

“It’s more personal, because you get to experience their full development as artists, but I don’t consider myself a bigger fan than anyone else who loves or supports her music,” @rinasawaupdates says. “When you see so many artists come and go you get pretty good at recognising which artists have real substance and who are just flash in the pans.”

St Louis’ emerging pop artist Slayyyter dropped her debut mixtape this week, and Twitter popped off – “Daddy AF” memes punctuate the timeline, stan accounts for her pop peers are promoting it. Brandon, a 19-year-old, US-based livestock ranch hand, established their Slayyyter stan account in July this year after meeting the musician at a gig. Their Twitter handle – ‘@demon_del_rey’ – reflects their previous life as a Lana Del Rey fan account. Brandon describes the euphoria of “seeing your favourite person achieving something in their life that they have wanted for a very long time”. “You witness them turn into the star they have always wanted to be!” Brandon says. “I do feel like I’m present for the birth of an icon. I was there for Kim Petras, and now she’s huge, and I’ll be here for Slayyyter every step of the way to the top as well.”

Witnessing and engaging with iconography in motion is at the heart of these small fandom missions. “Fandom is a portmanteau of fan and kingdom,” Ewens writes in Fangirls. “There is, as that would suggest, a king or queen regent but also a territory and community of followers.” In the 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes distills society’s need to create modern myths that explain the world around us. Examining the sport of wrestling and the ephemera and culture around it, he writes: “Nothing exists unless it exists totally, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is given exhaustively; leaving nothing in shadow, the gesture severs every parasitical meaning and ceremonially presents the public with a pure and full signification, three dimensional, like Nature. Such emphasis is nothing but the popular and ancestral image of the perfect intelligibility of reality.” Myth serves the ideology of a fandom, and creating community and divinity around an artist primes them to succeed and endure in the pop arena.

“Stan Twitter is good at scoping out talent who deserve mainstream radio play before they even get on the radio” – Yusuf, @arabthot

Yusuf is 23-years-old, and while working in the hospitality industry is also trying to make it as a DJ; with a substantial following as @arabthot on Twitter and @gothjafar on Instagram.  Yusuf first joined Twitter in 2014 to find a leak of Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, and staying for the fan community around London label PC Music. Yusuf highlights Charli’s 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, a PC Music collab, as a seminal moment for underground fandoms, as well as Björk’s work with Arca – essentially, bridges between underground music and pop fandom sensibility. Yusuf counts himself a stan of experimental producer Sega Bodega ever since his 2015 Sportswear EP – ”I refer to him as a beautiful elf king,” Yusuf says. Now, Sega Bodega is producing for the likes of Erika Jayne and Brooke Candy. Speaking of Sega and Nuxxe labelmates Shygirl and Coucou Chloe, Yusuf says: “It’s fascinating to see them have stans – they deserve all their fan accounts, because those are stars and they deserve every ounce of success they have.” 

Like Rina’s Pixels, Yusuf points to the militancy of smaller fan communities in promoting artists they love, with group chats for artists like Slayyyter, Kelela, and SOPHIE, and “viral troll Tweets”, where they spread videos with artists’ music playing in the background to disseminate it further. Who needs the PR machine when you’ve got your fandom? “Stan Twitter is good at scoping out talent who deserve mainstream radio play before they even get on the radio – a perfect example is Slayyyter,” asserts Yusuf. Seeing the rise of SOPHIE and Charli, who Yusuf has following from the beginning, is “beautiful to witness”. Regularly interacting and providing insightful music commentary on artists from Abra to Kim Petras, Tommy Genesis and Sega Bodega, Yusuf concudes “maybe one day I’ll be bumping shoulders with these people, but for now I’m just on Twitter”.

Though the majority of the amorphous, glorious monster that is fandom lives online, these nebulous fanbases are shaping lives. “Charli and this fandom are part of my life – I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t discovered Charli’s music or joined stan Twitter,” says 23-year-old Ronald, admin of prolific XCX stan account @bodyofmyown since 2014’s Sucker. “That feeling when you find out there are people like you on the Internet, you’re not alone… some of my best friends are from Twitter and the experiences I’ve had with Charli are priceless. It doesn’t feel like an idol-fan relationship, because the way Charli treats her fans is genuine, she actually cares about our opinion.” 

Starting a fandom, Ronald says, has to happen naturally. “As individuals we’re always looking for people to identify with, people who share the same interests – you know an artist is special when no one can do what they do and you just identify with their art and the world they’ve created. No one can do another Vroom Vroom or POP 2, only Charli XCX.” The artists flanked by these burgeoning fandoms share similar sensibilities that bring outsiders together – queer visibility, themes of vulnerability melded into pop-confronting, future-facing music, a love of fan interaction. And no one, it seems, can foster community in the same way their growing followings can.