It’s time again for my occasional look at aspects of scene and identity in music culture. Today’s topic is a bit of an odd one but it’s been a prevalent factor in music for this century so it’s time to get under the hood and look at the inner workings of the most die-hard and devoted fans of all, the stans.
The term “stan” came to us in 2000 from the hit Eminem song of the same name. Eminem’s Stan was an obsessive super fan who wound up going way over the line in a murder-suicide simply because Eminem hadn’t responded to Stan’s fan mail – and it was just a delay, Eminem was actually getting around to it.
In the years since the song Stan, the term stan has come to represent the most die-hard of die-hard fans. It is the person who totally dedicates their social media space to their favorite artist, who buys everything released no matter what, and who staunchly defends their favorite artist from criticism and ridicule, no matter what. The stan is the next step in the evolution of the super-fan, and the advent of social media in the mid 2000’s gave rise to this new form.
And let’s make sure to note the differences here – this isn’t just being into an artist, even being really into one. The average social media user posts about a number of wide-ranging topics, from music to TV shows and movies, sports, hobbies and whatever else under the sun someone might be interested in. The stan, however, rarely posts much of anything not directly related to the object of their affection.
With the rise in social media use, mobile phone technology and, well, arguing online, the stan occupies a spot as the first-line defender of their chosen artist. As little of a thing as an offhand joke about someone can lead to a tirade from a stan, even a brigade if the stans group together in force. It’s not a pleasant thing to be on the end of and results in death threats, attempts to flag and deplatform accounts, and all sorts of weird harassment and vile shit slung one’s way. I’m glad I’ve never been a target of them. It’s not like I care if people don’t like what I say, but dealing with that level of attack can be withering to anyone.
Stans can theoretically pop up in any fanbase, though the demographic skews younger in most instances. Boy bands are a stan hotbed and the early 2000’s scene might be the true genesis of stan culture. Even before social media magnified everything, there were flame wars over the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, and Eminem was there to give it a name and also clown all of them.
As the years have gone on, stan culture has taken root in several areas. K-Pop from Korea is known for fanatical fanbases. One Direction was a huge stan congregation I recall on Twitter in the early 2010’s. A lot of pop stars like Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey and countless others have pretty representative stan cultures. And there is the mother of all stans, the biggest artist in the world, Taylor Swift. The Swifties are a base not to be trifled with. Just ask Damon Albarn, among others.
The true epicenter of stan culture is Twitter. While other forms of social media do harbor it (the site Tumblr was a stan haven for many years through the 2010’s), there is no outrage engine quite like the microblogging of Twitter. Assassinate your target in 280 characters or less (or in total blog form now, thanks Elon…) A total average Joe or Jane with a few hundred followers, or even less, can feel the wrath of stan culture if they dare even raise an eyebrow at an artist. It’s super easy to search your favorite artist, see a disparaging tweet about them, then call to arms across your mutual followers to have at the offending party. Block and report, talk endless shit, dig up personally identifying information to try and ruin the person’s life, this is the face of cyber warfare in the 2020’s. Of course this warfare is over the most low-level shit possible.
To the outsider, stans appear obnoxious, dumb and totally lacking in perspective. Normally I feel the truth of most anything lies somewhere in the middle, but in the case of stan culture I think the outsider observation is accurate. I certainly enjoy music and I have my favorite acts, but there is nothing compelling me to defend them from every slight posted on social media. Someone thinks Iron Maiden is overrated crap? Good, that’s one less person I have to compete with to buy singles and bootlegs. People think heavy metal is loud and noisy? Good, go away. It’s no skin off my back if someone doesn’t like something I do, I have no need to defend the people I listen to online.
It does stand to reason that metal and other independent and other underground forms of music don’t really lend themselves to stan culture. Sure, there are obnoxious fans in these circles, but there isn’t the same strength in numbers as pop stans possess and the isolated jerkoff indie fan is usually an island unto themselves.
I don’t know what the ultimate issues behind stan culture are. I’m sure part of it has to do with the proliferation of social media over the past 15 or so years, something I’m not really qualified to discuss specifically. Part of it might be a lack of identity or purpose in life, something fairly common in modern society and its great transition out of the norms of the past century or so. I’m sure there’s a need for belonging, which is pretty universal among fanbases of all sizes and genres.
And the worst parts of stan culture are mirrored in other aspects of social media and society. Political and social arguments are now more stan culture than music stans. It is the most grotesque and non-constructive discourse on the Internet today, all seemingly fallout from the 2016 US Presidential election.
Does stan culture provide any benefit? Maybe it does to the artists. It might be nice to have a rabid defense force that will deploy without you even asking. That’s probably mitigated by the times that stans go way too far on a perceived enemy, causing the artist to have to apologize for stuff they didn’t say or do. And while die-hard fans are cheerleaders for the artist, everyone knows it’s the casual fans that fill arenas, boost streaming numbers and truly line the pockets of the music industry. Selling a few records to some snot-nosed ultra fans is a far cry from having half a town at your show. Odds are the benefits of stan culture are minimal, if they exist at all.
It’s easy to make fun of, but stan culture is a thing and it’s probably not going away anytime soon. There is no reason to use reason on the Internet these days, so go ham and support your favorite act until you stroke out. Most of us won’t be stans because we can’t enter that kind of head space and, well, most of us have lives.