Beliebers, Directioners, Barbz: What's With Pop's Fanbase-Nickname Craze?

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Are monikers for top-40 diehards the result of genuine enthusiasm or savvy branding?

one direction screaming fans 615.jpgReuters

When the members of the boy band One Direction—arguably the most popular British musical act since the Spice Girls—took a stroll in New York City this past May, they started a civil war.

As soon as they stepped out of their hotel on 54th Street, "this sea of girls completely engulfed them," according to a report in the British press. "Liam got pushed over and Niall was struck in the face. They had their hair pulled and Liam's shirt got ripped."

The war, though, was online. Fans of One Direction, who call themselves "Directioners," reacted to the news on Twitter instantaneously. British Directioners condemned American Directioners, who begged to not be compared to the New York Directioners responsible—the Directioners who had violated the Directioner code.

One Direction's publicist said the name helps the band get fans to act in unison: "For example, purchasing a track at the same time to drive it up the charts."

On Urban Dictionary, "Directioner" is defined as "someone who stands by the band One Direction no matter what. Who would be there to support the boys 100%. Whether it's acting, singing, dancing, anything... they'll be there for it all." Less enthusiastic fans are labeled "Directionators" (real Directioners' name for fake Directioners)—a distinction that's needed in order to help distinguish Directioners from their mortal enemies, "Beliebers," and protect them from the forces of Lady Gaga's "Little Monsters," Katy Perry's "KatyCats," Ke$ha's "Animals," Bruno Mars's "Hooligans," Nicki Minaj's "Barbz," Adam Lambert's "Glamberts," Rihanna's "Rihanna Navy," Taylor Swift's "Swifties," Beyonce's "Beyhive," and more.

Pop-music superfandom has always been, in part, about defining oneself through culture. But the pop 2012 landscape is so littered with tribal names that it's hard to escape the feeling that we're in a new era of factionalized fandoms. As the rise of mass cliques like the Directioners show, the Internet has allowed listeners to align more closely—and more publicly—with their favorite artists, and has given artists the power to mobilize those listeners like never before.

Fan nicknames aren't new, of course. Though it's difficult to trace how actively some older acts were complicit in fan-base titling, the Grateful Dead were prominent early supporters of practice, addressing their fans as "Dead Heads" in their Dead Heads newsletter, which the band published throughout the 1970s. The Beatles had "Beatlemaniacs." "Zep Heads" were first in line at Led Zeppelin shows. Fans of KISS and Aerosmith formed The "KISS Army" and "The Blue Army." New Kids on the Block fans? "Blockheads." Insane Clown Posse brought on the "Juggalos," not to be confused with Barry Manilow enthusiasts, "Fanilows." This is also a convention seen in K-Pop, heavy metal subgenres, and film and television—from "Trekkies" to "Twi-hards," and their subsets, "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob." Not to mention the "Twi-moms."

But the practice has never been as ubiquitous in popular music as it is today. Think back to the late '90s and '00s. The screaming fans of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and *NSYNC never really pledged their allegiance to their idols with cutesy monikers. Googling for the nicknames of these acts' fans only yields threads on message boards asking the same question, where the answer is usually a haughty variation of "we don't do nicknames." The existence of these threads, however, demonstrates that a segment of listeners now anticipates fan nicknames as part of a pop-artist's packaging.

Lady Gaga ushered in this new wave of fan-branding in 2009 with her "Little Monsters," whom she instructed during concerts to put their "paws" up. Last month, the artist took her fan management to a new level, shepherding her Little Monsters into the pen of a new social network, LittleMonsters.com, "which looks similar to Pinterest and has voting functionality like Reddit," as Mashable put it. Perhaps by coincidence, the nickname has also proven synergistic; in 2009, she teamed up with the headphone company Monster (makers of the now-ubiquitous Beats By Dr. Dre).

Gaga's "monster" conceit may have a whiff of major-label focus-group about it, but apparently, Mother Monster deserves all the credit.

"That's Lady Gaga—it came out of her brain," Martin Kierszenbaum, the chairman of Cherrytree Records, said in an interview. Kierszenbaum, who saw the rise of the Little Monsters as A&R for Gaga's breakthrough album, The Fame (she shouts out his alias, "Cherry Cherry Boom Boom," on several songs), said that the recent surge in nicknaming could be a product of pop stars' constant engagement with fans through social media.

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Jason Richards is a writer from Toronto who has contributed to New York Magazine, Gawker, and RollingStone.com.

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