Harry Styles and the importance of fangirls


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Harry Styles takes to the stage in Australia at the last Aria awards.


Harry Styles, formerly of the massively popular British boy band One Direction, launched into the Asia/Pacific leg of his world tour with huge performances in Perth and then Melbourne this week.

Fans confessed to camping for more than 35 hours in the Melbourne cold just to secure a barrier spot close enough to throw rainbow coloured paraphernalia, feather boas and roses at the singer/songwriter.

An affection for feminine tastes is made clear before the concert even starts. With Styles’ long-time favourite Shania Twain (Man! I Feel Like a Woman!) blasting as fans entered the stadium and a One Direction deep cut Olivia causing much pre-show delight.

Far from being ashamed of his boyband roots, Styles’ rendition of One Direction’s signature bubblegum pop anthem What Makes You Beautiful was infused with the same genuine enthusiasm and wild dancing as his most explicitly rock tracks Kiwiand Only Angel

Styles also toyed with the unreleased track Medicine, deliberately trailing off lyrics, allowing fans to have fun filling in the blank.

Importantly, and contrary to attempts to divide and elevate him above his existing fans, Styles showed no glaring desire to trade in his audience for one that is more subdued, or that brings with it more gravitas and credibility.

In fact, much of his direct interactions with fans consist of him encouraging them to indulge in all the feminine activities that journalists and music critics often cite as most annoying – to scream louder, sing every song, dance more and fangirl harder.

Somewhat sadly, it is exactly these interactions that make Styles’ concerts unique.

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A young Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t a fan of the teenage girl response to Titanic. 

The paradoxes and pains of being a fangirl

In an essay on the “paradoxes of girl fandom”, scholars Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti argued young female fans were “faced with the paradox of tainting (in the larger public eye) what they love and admire simply through the act of loving and admiring it”.

Although Styles’ self-titled debut album, released in May 2017, received glowing reviews, critics have consistently turned their noses up at the thousands of young women who pour into Styles’ concerts night after night, sneering at their vocal enthusiasm and berating them for their excitement.

The artists and performers young women support also have a long and dirty history of actively and publicly distancing themselves from their tastes and support.

For example, the commercial success of the 1997 epic film Titanic was overwhelmingly driven by teenage girls. Their deep adoration of the film’s male lead Leonardo DiCaprio also launched the actor to unmitigated levels of global recognition and fame.

But their love for DiCaprio was deeply unrequited by the star who frequently articulated his resentment towards the tastes of his female audience, much to the relief of journalists and critics looking to redeem his credibility.  

Similarly, journalists and the wider public revelled in Twilight star Robert Pattinson’s blatant distain for the teen vampire franchise and the millions of female fans that came with it.

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5 Seconds of Summer have lamented their fangirl base.

While Australian boyband 5 Seconds of Summer also lamented in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone that “75 per cent of our lives is proving we’re a real band … we don’t want to just be, like, for girls”.

Even when young women engage with “legitimate” culture (read masculine) this often attracts its own form of criticism, with journalists and other fanseither deriding them as “fake” fans, or raising suspicions about the motivation of their fandom.  

This goes a long way to understanding the importance of Styles’ consistent defence of his female audience.  

Girls and young women live in a world that offers them very few avenues for positive cultural engagement. The music, literature, films and television shows aimed towards them carry little legitimate value, and their enjoyment of it is routinely ridiculed in the news media while also being touted as evidence of their “bad” taste and dupability.

Going to a Harry Styles concert offers young women a reprieve from the quotidian judgement of feminine culture as insipid and frivolous; a rare night where young women can have their tastes celebrated and validated as legitimate and worthwhile endeavours.

While critical and journalistic approval of Styles’ performance is no doubt appreciated, it need not go hand in hand with sneering judgement or criticism of young women’s passions as illegitimate or unworthy of validation. The consistent effort from journalists to do exactly that betrays that they have fundamentally missed Styles’ main message.