Dua Lipa does not understand time.
The 25-year-old British pop star recently tweeted two images of herself as a small child: short hair tied up in a dozen tiny scrunchies, toddler hand struggling to apply pearlescent pink lipstick with any kind of precision. She captioned it “HOW I STARTED THE DECADE.”
Her fans immediately lined up to gently inform her that she is—sorry, we love you!—so dumb. “Ma’am you were born in 1995, which means you were 15 in 2010, the beginning of this decade,” one pointed out, with a heart and a crying emoji. “I think you mean century queen” another suggested. “Girl do you know what a decade is,” one asked. “Stay in school kids,” another cautioned. The “aww honey” replies went on and on, with all the rudeness of a rebuttal to an older sister or a beloved but airheaded friend, and with the same presumed closeness: “Y’all she’s bad at math like us, we stan.”
Lipa’s fans aren’t unique in this regard. Last week, when Ariana Grande posted a mirror selfie in an oversize bomber jacket with seemingly nothing on underneath, her fans grabbed it from Instagram and re-posted it to Twitter, asking, “Is she dumb????” The question was urgent, like a mom following a teenager out of the house in February: “PUT YOUR PANTS ON!!! LADY, R U DUMB??” When a Niall Horan fan shared a hyperrealistic drawing of the singer’s profile in November, and he replied to her tweet asking “What the??? Who drew this?” another fan jumped into the replies: “SHE DREW IT YOU M0RON [sic].”
If you stan, you’re allowed to say it. Nobody else is. (Just ask the music critics who have been swarmed over even the most considered—sometimes gushing!—writing about pop stars with volatile fanbases.)
The insults aren’t just outward bound: Fans love to call themselves “clowns” and “dumb asses” whenever they feel themselves getting too worked up over the object of their fandom, whether they’re spending too much money or blowing through hours of studying time or waiting too expectantly for a single that, it turns out, is not actually dropping this week, despite the coded messages they thought they’d deciphered. This, too, is part of sustaining an imagined—but in some ways very real—closeness. “Am i an actual joke to you,” a Styles fan asked him in November, in response to an evasive tweet. It’s a harsh, seemingly ugly question, but one you mostly ask when you feel, or you hope, that the answer is no.
In October, when Styles released T-shirts promoting the first single off his sophomore solo album, one fan wrote on Tumblr, “If he thinks i’m gonna be a walking ad for him he’s absolutely correct,” with the hashtag #iboughtit, punctuated by a clown emoji. When Louis Tomlinson—another former One Direction member—set up a virtual scavenger hunt for clues about a new single in November, one of his fans wrote on Tumblr, “Louis making us do puzzles as if any of us have a brain.”
Acknowledging the silliness and strangeness of devotion is a common fan activity—fans make fun of themselves and the objects of their affection constantly. But it doesn’t fit the stereotype of what a fan is, and it’s often overlooked because it’s such a stark rejoinder to outsiders who speak of the craziness and cluelessness of stans.
It’s goofy and fun to call somebody you actually think is a handsome genius a “moron.” Try it! But it also confounds the popular image of what fans are and how they talk, the assumption that people who follow a star’s every move are doing it in complete seriousness, all the time, and never pause for moments of self-awareness or critique.
Critics have long been afraid of fandom and its emotional power. In its “33 Ways to Remember the 2010s” list, The New York Times put online fandom at No. 1, noting that “Bad Stans” were drowning out “Good Stans.” The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman recently explored the question of whether fandom is “as toxic as politics.” “Music fandom is out of control,” the Slate columnist Jack Hamilton argued earlier this month. He explained Lizzo’s embarrassing Twitter conflict with a Postmates delivery driver, in which she tweeted a gig employee’s photo and name to thousands of followers, opening her up for harassment. “Lizzo has vastly more power and money and influence … and fans ignoring this for the pleasure of, at best, getting a like or retweet is much worse than stupid,” he wrote, eliding the fact that, from what I saw, many or most of the people correcting Lizzo on her treatment of the driver were her own fans. Her original tweet has since been deleted, but in the first few minutes after she posted it, the top replies were from people who likely get push notifications when she posts, and plenty of them were somber notes explaining how she had erred.
This isn’t to say there aren’t terrifying factions of most fandoms, or that they haven’t been strengthened by the instant escalation engendered by the Twitter retweet button. Only that fans already know that.
Academics who study fandom regularly find that fans are willing to criticize themselves and their heroes, particularly as their fandom evolves over the course of their life. Laura Vroomen’s long-term study of Kate Bush fans and Daniel Cavicchi’s book-length ethnography of Bruce Springsteen fans are both hallmark texts, thanks to the remarkable complexity of their subjects’ thoughts and feelings about what exactly it is that they are doing when they love a pop star. It can be ugly, and they will say so.
In a manifesto published in 2006, self-described “aca-fans” (academics and fans) were moved to explain that not only did they love popular culture, but they were prepared to confront it “with a profound ambivalence, our pleasures tempered by a ... mixture of fears, disappointments, and disgust.” It reminds me of the latest self-deprecating Twitter meme, “It’s me i’m bitches.” As in,“Bitches be up at 5am crying over tom holland. it’s me i’m bitches.” Or, “Bitches can’t study for a test but can memorize every one direction song word for word ... it’s me i’m bitches.” As a “clown,” “bitch,” and “dumb ass” myself, I recently paid international shipping for a tote bag that says One Direction Ruined My Life.
To criticize something is to take it seriously. This requires knowing it deeply—something that fans are still better at than they get credit for. Which is why the fans willing to call their loved ones “dumb” are the best fans of all.