When internet culture journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany first met British-Irish boy band One Direction, she was home for the summer after her freshman year at college. She was sad and sick of herself; she had struggled to fit into her school’s partying social scene. “Most Saturday nights,” she writes, “I would put on something ugly, drink two beers in a fraternity annex and wait for someone to say something I could throw a tantrum at, and then I I was leaving.” Tiffany was moping around the house when her younger sisters tricked her into watching “This Is Us,” a One Direction documentary. Her first impressions – bland songs, “too much shiny brown hair” – were soon overtaken by an eerie sense of enchantment. The boys were clumsy; they were sweet. One of them emotionally imagined a fan, now an adult, telling her daughter about the terrible dance moves of the group. Finding “1D”, writes Tiffany, was like connecting to something pure and reassuring and somehow out of time – like “being pulled out of the crosswalk a second before the bus passed”.
But “All I Need I Get From You,” Tiffany’s new narrative nonfiction work, isn’t about One Direction. “Even though I like them,” she writes, the boys “are not that interesting.” Instead, the book – which is wistful, winning and surprisingly funny – sets out to explain why Tiffany “and millions of others needed something like One Direction as badly as we do”, and “how things that we did in response to that need changed the online world for just about everyone. Perhaps the initial appeal of the book lay in the second proposition. For me, at least, the fandom started to look like to a phenomenon akin to cryptocurrency or economic populism – a force shaping history that we’d be foolish to ignore. After all, fans don’t just run the entertainment industry, with its treadmill endless franchise offerings and its increasingly finely spliced marketing categories.They also affect politics (like when K-pop groupies flood police tip lines during Black Lives Matter protests) and in fluent current events (such as when Johnny Depp stans attacks the credibility of his alleged victims of abuse). One of Tiffany’s most provocative arguments is that fans wrote the internet how-to manual. Their slang has become the vernacular of the web, she writes, and their engagement strategies — riffing, amplifying, dog-piling — fuel both her creativity and her anger.
One Direction is a good case study. The five idols reunited on a reality show in 2010, during the height of Tumblr’s popularity, and at a time when teenagers were starting to take to Twitter in droves. The girls who worshiped the group, called Directioners, were fluent in social internet tropes: irony, surrealism, group humor. Interviewing and describing these girls, Tiffany revisits the teenybopper stereotype, punching bag for critics since Adorno. “No one is ready to see self-criticism or sarcasm in fans,” she wrote. But his subjects, far from being frantic or insane, are productive, even disruptive, obscuring the objects of their affection with a mannered strangeness. The book distinguishes between “mimetic” fandom – the passive variety, which “celebrates ‘canon’ exactly'” – and “transformational” fandom, which often resembles “playful disrespect” and may disfigure or overwrite its source material. . The directors, Tiffany argues, are projection artists, and she highlights their out-of-this-world work: fried memes, “crackling with yellow-white noise and blurry like the edges of a CGI ghost”; a physical sanctuary where star Harry Styles once vomited on the side of the road. In one moving chapter, Tiffany makes a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to find the sanctuary herself. But its creator, baffled by how many people interpreted its marker as “mad or malicious”—she had only wanted to stir up the desire and boredom that would cause someone to commemorate the vomiting—removed it. The sign, she told Tiffany, “was more a joke about my life” than Harry’s.
Indeed, the deeper the book dives, the more the singers end up feeling incidental. They are raw materials, lattices for the self-fantasies woven around them. (The group’s relentless emptiness seems to be a feature, not a bug.) Tiffany acknowledges that fan enthusiasms aren’t random, that they have a lot to do with marketing. “The word ‘fan’,” she writes, “is now synonymous with consumer loyalty.” But she also quotes media scholar Henry Jenkins, who says fans are “always trying to go beyond the basic money exchange”. Sometimes stubbornly unprofitable – tweeting “he’s so sexy breaks my back like a glowstick daddy” about Harry Styles isn’t likely to improve his bottom line – they can serve as allies for artists hoping to transcend The advertisement. Tiffany quotes Bruce Springsteen as insisting that he wanted his music to “deliver something you can’t buy”.
That same chaotic energy can make fans annoying, even dangerous. Tiffany reviews Larry Stylinson’s conspiracy theory, which hijacks an age-old fan fiction technique – shipping – to posit a secret relationship between Harry Styles and his teammate Louis Tomlinson. Emboldened by lyrical, photographic and digital “clues”, “Larries” rained vitriol on the singers’ girlfriends, closing ranks and terrorizing dissenters. (Some also determined that Tomlinson’s newborn son was a doll.) Such harassment campaigns may “not approach the level of Gamergate,” writes Tiffany. But “any kind of large-scale harassment relies on some of the same mechanics: a tightly connected group identifying an enemy and agreeing on an amplification strategy, offering social rewards to members of the group who show more dedication or of creativity, resorting to maintaining the cohesion of the group, which is always smarter and cooler than its unfortunate victims, while maintaining a conviction of moral superiority.
It’s frightening. Yet the social event of fandom may ultimately be less compelling than its individual dimension. Being a fan, for Tiffany, is painfully personal. I loved his thoughts on why and how people engage with a piece of culture, and if that engagement changes them. At one point, she describes historian Daniel Cavicchi’s work with Springsteen buffs. Cavicchi is interested in stories of conversion: some of his subjects gradually arrive at their passion, but others are transformed suddenly, irrevocably. Tiffany talks to her own mother, a Springsteen obsessive, who tells what ethnographers might call a “story of self-surrender”, in which “indifference or negativity is drastically altered”. (“I fell in love and never left him,” sighs his mother, recalling an ’80s Springsteen performance.) The chapter draws intriguing parallels between fandom and religious experience, teasing the mystical quality of fan devotion, how strangely close we can feel to icons we’ve never met. It also explores the link between affinity and biography. For Tiffany’s mother, the Springsteen concerts punctuated the blurring of early childhood education; one show even marked the end of his chemotherapy treatments.