Charli XCX is, affectionately, stupid. Harry Styles is an idiot. Camila Cabello’s wordy, florid photo captions are “so weird dude.” Her boyfriend, Shawn Mendes, is also “SO DUMB I LOVE HIM.”
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.