Are monikers for top-40 diehards the result of genuine enthusiasm or savvy branding?
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.
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.
"For the first time ever, the artist can talk directly on a consistent and daily basis with their audience," Kierszenbaum said. "Maybe there's a representation of that relationship in the nicknames." Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Gaga is the most popular person on Twitter, with more than 28 million followers.
Now, artists are often rolled out with names for their fans already set—long before the acts have had a chance to develop fanbases of a size that would warrant the nomenclature. The followers of British YouTube-breakout Conor Maynard, whose debut album came out late last month, already go by "Mayniacs." Justin Bieber protégé Carly Rae Jepsen converts more "Jepseners" with every repeat play of her one hit, "Call Me Maybe." It doesn't always work, though. Failed fan-handles include Selena Gomez's unfortunate "Selly Lovers" and Skrillex's "Skrillers" (which sounds like it could be the name of a Skrillex-endorsed microwaveable snack).
One Direction fans, though, reportedly came up with their moniker by themselves. "The fans started the Directioners name early on in their career," One Direction's publicist Simon Jones wrote in an e-mail. "Once it gets to a certain point, the band themselves start using it to refer to their fans and it explodes and takes on a new level."
For artists and labels, there's obvious marketing potential in having ready-branded followings.
"Having a shared name also allows the act to embrace all the fans in one moment, and encourage them to use their force as a combined team to make things happen," Jones wrote. "For example, trending on Twitter or all purchasing a track at the same time to drive it up the charts."
Nina Beckhardt, the founder of The Naming Group, which has developed brand naming strategies for corporations like Sony, Capital One, and Chevrolet, said that fans calling themselves by variations of an artist's name, "that shows immense brand support." She added that monikers like "KatyCats" and "Taylors" (the name for die-hard fans of the rapper Wiz Khalifa) are examples of sophisticated branding that evokes a set of meanings about the artists—Perry loves cats, and Khalifa's favorite shoes are his Chuck Taylors.
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"What [artists] are doing when creating these names for their fans is creating a 'namescape,' which is what we encourage our clients to think of when they're thinking of their brand," Beckhardt said. "A brand is a collection of experiences—how many of those experiences can you draw back to your brand through names?"
But nicknames can also be deeply significant to some artists, representing tributes to their devoted followers. Marvet Britto, who publicized Mariah Carey's "comeback album," The Emancipation of Mimi, explained the significance of the singer calling her supporters "Lambs."
"[As opposed to] the transient fans that come and go, that are really only invested in Mariah's records, her Lambs are invested in the total being of Mariah Carey," Britto said. "She's a Christian, and it's basically a Lamb of God, and it's symbolic of the strength that she puts in her fans. Lambs of God are supposed to be those individuals who carry forth the work of God. And so for her, those Lambs are her biggest evangelists."
But not all artists have named audiences to proselytize for them, of course. What do fans of Madonna, Eminem, Adele, Maroon 5, and Kelly Clarkson call themselves? Just plain old "fans." This brings to mind Stephen Colbert's 2008 interview with Rush. He asked the band if they call their fans "Rushians."
Neil Peart's reply: "They have their own names."