On Scene and Identity – Stan

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.

On Scene And Identity – Edgelord

It’s time for another entry to my occasional series looking at aspects of scene and identity in music. Sometimes they can get a bit personal and heavy in subject matter but today’s won’t be anything like that.

Today I’ll be looking at the (mainly) Internet phenomenon of the “edgelord.” It is commonplace today to see edgy comments in every corner of social media. It might be people just saying extreme things to get a rise out of people but that aspect of it isn’t really what I’m looking at.

Also wrapped in the edgelord identity is the insatiable need to communicate “I don’t give a shit.” It is that disaffected, nihilistic aspect I’ll be examining today as it relates to music. I will also wrap a few other things into it, like perpetual negativity. There will probably also be a little bit about gatekeeping, though that’s certainly its own topic overall.

The Internet and music have had a hell of a relationship – the ‘Net totally altered music distribution and price mechanisms. It gave bands a platform to reach far more listeners than print media and replaced that media as the leading source of news and information. It allows music collections and rare releases to be identified and cataloged. And all this is just the tip of the Internet iceberg when it comes to music.

One other thing it did? It allows fans of music to speak their minds on songs, albums, bands and issues of the day. It used to be very tough to run into other fans of underground or independent music before the Internet, now legions of fans of the same thing are just a click away.

And, since pretty much everyone has Internet access, we all get to read a whole bunch of bullshit.

It isn’t hard to find – just read the comments of any piece of music news on social media or anywhere. I’m sure the people who drop in here on the regular know exactly what I’m talking about – some piece of music news, maybe nothing more than a new single from a band or even less significant than that, and the comment section will be filled with trolls either slagging off the band or proudly broadcasting just how much they don’t care about said news and band. It’s as if broadcasting indifference is its own art form now. And sure, it’s nothing new, this has been going on for many years.

It is all over the place, certainly not limited to music. I’ve seen it around for eons, dating back to the early 00’s in message boards and the like, before social media. It’s like some people take it as a challenge to communicate how much they don’t give a shit about whatever thing is being discussed. I think that’s mutated into its own behavior subset over the past several years, it certainly plays out in political discussions. It’s as if not giving a damn and proving that point at every turn is its own political party (oh wait … it is).

But back to music – honestly, it does get to be a drag reading comments and seeing all of this shit. Between the “LOOK AT ME I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT SO AND SO” and the widespread negativity, it makes reading comments not worth it. Reading them does become its own perverse form of entertainment and drama, but what a waste of time.

I don’t know if I can really speculate what the causes are for this sort of thing. I do think gatekeeping is a part of it, or at least some feeble attempt to gatekeep. It’s like “Hey, look how cool I am not giving a shit about band X” and the part that’s left off the comment is “because my taste is so much better.” It’s at least a part of it for some people anyway, I’m sure the pure flexing over how cool it is to be a disaffected asshole who doesn’t care about anyone or anything is a big reason for it all.

I can’t say I was entirely immune to this in my past. I think I was as guilty as many others of thinking that I should broadcast every stupid impulse thought to a public audience. I’m not sure how much I got into the “edgelord flexing about apathy” thing as much as I did the “I’m better than you because I listen to stuff you haven’t heard of” deal (its own obvious entry in this series). Maybe it’s sad that it took until my 30’s but I finally grew up, at least in this aspect.

The edgelord phenomenon can be found in any music discussion, regardless of genre or popularity. I doubt the London Philharmonic can make a post without someone trying to prove how cool they are about not giving a damn about whatever the Philharmonic is doing. It’s very evident when any of the old hair metal acts have news about anything. The splintering factions and constant line-up changes are their own form of parody and comment memes, and the edgelords are always out in full force on one of those articles. It’s great that you don’t give a shit about the latest volley between Phil Lewis and Steve Riley, does anyone else give a shit that you don’t?

And I’ll go ahead and make this point – the edgelording is especially bad when the subject is women. Have a look through comments on any article about Phoebe Bridgers or Billie Eilish – holy shit, is it bad. I can’t make any great claims about what that says regarding society, but I do think it validates what many feel about how much crap women take. It doesn’t stop with those two, of course – I’ve noticed it on articles about any known woman you can name in music. Just the sheer amount of venom brought toward women in music and elsewhere is something I’ve absolutely noticed.

I can go on and on about specific instances of the edgelord, they are everywhere. But what’s the point, really? Me writing this isn’t going to change anything. People will make snide comments on things on the Internet. Nothing I write or say is going to stop it. No edgelord is likely to read this post, much less alter their behavior. That’s not my goal anyway, I’m just observing. Sure, the whole edgelord thing might point to some deep-seated psychological issues in society – what is the cost of spending time, thought and energy to demonstrate apathy? I’m sure there’s something there but I’m not the one to find it.

I would ask one question of the edgelord – why waste the time? I honestly couldn’t find the time in the day to do everything else I do and also spend all that time commenting about how much I don’t care about things I see that I don’t care about. Between work, writing this blog, reading others’ blogs, using social media and other stuff, hobbies and other interests, I don’t feel like wasting time commenting about what I don’t care about is a productive use of time. The edgelord disagrees, obviously, but I think that wasteful use of time is one of the adverse byproducts of this whole phenomenon.

Again, at the end of it all, there’s not much I can do about the case of the edgelord. There are plenty of them, they seem to love wallowing in negativity and apathy, and so it goes. I can read music news without paying mind to the useless comments of the “I don’t care” crowd. They can go on fulfilling their life’s greater purposes by demonstrating to the world at large that they are too cool to care.

After all – why should I give a shit?

On Scene And Identity – Outcast

This is a new series that will look at the identity and psychology behind various aspects of music fandom and listening culture. It’s more how it relates to me but will also give a general overview. It’s a bit “heavier” than most stuff but it’s still stuff I’m compelled to write about so I’ll just go with it.

An outcast is someone who is, at times, literally thrown out of society. In more common parlance, and outcast is someone who does not fit society’s norms and is looked down upon for whatever reason. It is a real and/or perceived struggle for many and has taken several different forms over the eons, depending on what society’s norms are at the given time. Being outcast can bear harsh mental and emotional scars or can be an embraced identity.

The idea of the outcast is reflected in music and certainly in the music I listen to. While rock music as a whole became very popular and was the sound of a generation, its offshoots like metal, punk and hardcore took a turn toward an adversarial side, opposed to the norms of civilization. These movements would give voice to the outcast and come to be safe havens for those repelled by typical society. Of course, this would also be embodied by other subcultures like goth, emo and others.

I was a typical kid growing up. I was in a middle class family with no wants or traumas. Many in my family before me had been the prototypical scholar-athlete kind and I was more or less left to pursue that path. I did not, for various reasons.

One of those reasons was that I didn’t get along with the others in that peer group. I didn’t “feel” like one of the pretty, successful kids in my school. I didn’t have much natural talent in sports and did not enjoy them. I didn’t like the people I was around and they didn’t like me. I’d had some incidents of being picked on or “bullied,” though in fairness it wasn’t a lot from that particular peer group. All in all it led me to finally not giving a shit about the acceptance from others I wasn’t getting.

I was still walking that line in junior high school in 1990 when I began listening to heavy metal proper. After that I abandoned the concept of being some straight A student with a full-ride scholarship to play some sport at some university, then become a used car salesman or whatever. All I cared about was the music.

And metal is the perfect home for someone who feels adrift from society. It is loud, brash, powerful and hits on themes not found in the popular music of the “normies.” It is the ideal music for someone who is or who believes they are an outcast. It was what I gravitated to in the early 1990’s and what I built my identity around. I was a sullen, quiet, disaffected teen and I was alive when listening to the heaviest music on the planet, not when interacting with kids at school.

I would not ever really fully become an outcast in the true definition of the term. I did set myself apart from society in different ways at different times, but in the end I’ve done roughly the same shit everyone else has. Work, find hobbies, even socialize with others. I didn’t separate from society and I never fully embraced it as a way of being. But I have always clung to some part of not being “like the others.”

It’s easy to say that we’re all alike, we generally want and need the same stuff. But it’s also easy to not want to be a part of things. Back in the day it was not fitting in with or wanting to be a part of the “popular” crowd in school. Today it’s not at all wanting anything to do with the vile rhetoric and division through weaponized ideology.

Heavy metal is the obvious gathering place for the outcast. It is loud, abrasive music that instantly turns so many people off in just a few seconds of listening. And any lyrical analysis will point to a variety of themes that aren’t in jive with the typical social consciousness. Many, in fact, attack that outright. Even the most mainstream and accepted of heavy metal rubs many the wrong way, and on the underground end of the spectrum there are sounds that repel far more people than they attract.

Of course, heavy metal has moved on from the “Satanic Panic” years and is far more accepted as music and a subculture than it was eons ago. And society has shifted (to a degree) to accept unconventional scenes that were once reviled. It could be that heavy metal is not the same “home to the outcast” that it once was, though I don’t think that dynamic has gone away completely.

But for me and many others it will always be a defining aspect of the music. The independent and underground scenes have a way of pulling in the people on the margins of society, whether the margins are real or perceived. The role of the outcast is embraced, often even celebrated as one rejects the given tenants of society and goes their own way. There is a home for everyone but it’s not always on the same playing field.