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On the morning of August 25, 2014, a 16-year-old girl arrived at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in baffling condition. She was short of breath but had no chest pain. She had no history of any lung condition, and no abnormal sounds in her breathing. But when the emergency-room doctor on duty pressed on her neck and chest, he heard noises like Rice Krispies crackling in a bowl of milk—spaces behind her throat, around her heart, and between her lungs and chest wall were studded with pockets of air, an X-ray confirmed, and her lungs were very slightly collapsed.
The doctors were confused until she said that she’d been screaming for hours the night before at the Dallas stop on One Direction’s Where We Are Tour. The exertion, they hypothesized, had forced open a small hole in her respiratory tract. It wasn’t really a big deal—she was given extra oxygen and kept overnight for observation, and she required no follow-up treatment. But the incident was described in all its absurd, gory detail in a paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine three years later. The lead physician wrote that such a case had “yet to be described in the medical literature.” Doctors were familiar with military pilots, scuba divers, and weightlifters straining their respiratory tract, but this case presented the first evidence that “forceful screaming during pop concerts” could have the same physical toll.
This was a novelty news item: an easy headline and a culturally salient joke about the overzealousness of teenage girls. It was parody made real, and recorded with the deepest of seriousness, for all time, in a medical journal. I know nothing else about the girl who loved One Direction so much that she collapsed her lungs over it. Her doctor wrote to me that he’d asked, at the time, for her permission to tweet at Jimmy Fallon about the incident—he’d argued that maybe she would get to meet One Direction. “But she was too bashful!!!! Classic teenager,” he said, adding a laugh-crying emoji.
I’ll never know who she is or hear her personal explanation of what made her scream so much. In this specific circumstance, that’s because of medical-privacy laws, which are good. But it’s also emblematic of a bigger lack of information about people who behave like her. We have seen so many screaming girls. Every time we see them, we’re like, They’re screaming. And that’s it. Yet the screaming fan doesn’t scream for nothing, and screaming isn’t all the fan is doing. It never has been.
When the Beatles visited Dublin for the first time, in 1963, The New York Times reported that “young limbs snapped like twigs in a tremendous free-for-all.” When they arrived in New York City in February 1964—a little more than a month into the U.S.-radio-chart reign of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—there were 4,000 fans (and 100 cops) waiting at the airport and reports of a “wild-eyed mob” in front of the Plaza Hotel.
“All day long, some local disc jockeys [have] been encouraging truancy with repeated announcements of the Beatles’ travel plans, flight number, and estimated time of arrival,” the NBC news anchor Chet Huntley reported the evening the Beatles arrived. “Like a good little news organization, we sent three camera crews to stand among the shrieking youngsters and record the sights and sounds for posterity.” Ultimately that footage didn’t air—it was deemed too frivolous for the nightly news.
At the time, the media couldn’t figure Beatlemania out. They didn’t see a reason for so many girls to be so obviously disturbed. For The New York Times, the former war correspondent David Dempsey attempted a “psychological, logical, anthropological” explanation of the phenomenon. He cited the German cultural theorist Theodor Adorno’s famous essay on the conformity and brainlessness of the dancers in Harlem’s jazz clubs. “They call themselves jitterbugs,” Adorno had written, explaining one of his ideas that has held up least well over time, “as if they simultaneously wanted to affirm and mock their loss of individuality, their transformation into beetles whirring around in fascination.” Dempsey was misquoting this, playing superficially off of the available beetle pun—and defending the teenage girls by calling their passions stupid and harmless. He either didn’t know or didn’t remember that Adorno had found jitterbugs dangerous, and described their movements as resembling “the reflexes of mutilated animals.”
Nearly all of the writing about the Beatles in mainstream American publications was done by established white male journalists. Al Aronowitz, the rock critic best known for introducing the Beatles to Bob Dylan and to marijuana (simultaneously) in the summer of 1964, reported that 2,000 fans “mobbed the locked metal gates of Union Station” when the Beatles performed in Washington, D.C. Then, when the Beatles came to Miami, 7,000 teenagers created a four-mile-long traffic jam at the airport, and fans “shattered twenty-three windows and a plate-glass door.” A plate-glass door!
These are compelling images, but I found it challenging to sort through the details in some of the reports of Beatlemania, many of which read to me as improbable, or at least difficult to prove. There was the actual hysteria of the fans, and then, it seemed, there was the mythmaking of that hysteria. According to unsourced early reports, some cities tried to ban the Beatles from their airports because of the cost of securing them; legend has it that carpets and bedsheets from the band’s hotel rooms were sometimes stolen by the entrepreneurial, cut up into thousands of pieces to be sold with certificates of authenticity. Supposedly, an entire swimming pool in Miami was bottled up and auctioned off after the Beatles swam in it.
The media, having little to say about the Beatles’ music, had a lot to say about the women who went “ape” for it. After the band’s Ed Sullivan Show debut, the New York Daily News reporter Anthony Burton recapped the event, describing a “wild screaming as if Dracula had appeared on stage.” The Simon & Schuster editor Alan Rinzler reviewed the Beatles’ Carnegie Hall performance for The Nation a few days later with a devastating description of what would much later become the popular image of a boy-band audience:
The full house was made up largely of upper-middle class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist, and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in flood lights for everyone to see and with the full blessing of all authority; indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police … Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and very private kind of rapture.
It’s all there: the disdain, the condescension, the awe, the panic, of course the screaming. There’s even, amid the mocking, maybe a little sympathy: “This was their chance.” The media’s bewildered contempt for girlish fandom was already congealing into a flat dismissal.
“Being a fan is very much associated with feminine excess, with working-class people, people of color, people whose emotions are seen as being out of control,” Allison McCracken, an associate professor and director of the American-studies program at DePaul University, told me. “Everything is set up against this idea of white straight masculinity, where the emotions are in control and the body is in control.”
McCracken is an expert on the history of the “crooner” in American culture, and her 2015 book, Real Men Don’t Sing, credits Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby with making the blueprint for a pop sensation in the late 1920s and early ’30s. McCracken visited the American Radio Archives, in Thousand Oaks, California, to see Vallée’s personal archive of fan letters, dating back to 1928. She was fascinated by them because they were so full of questions—the women who were writing to Vallée were surprised by their own emotional reactions to his music and were confused by the idea of falling in love with a voice they’d heard only over the radio. “They were responding to his voice and saying, ‘I don’t understand why I’m so happy and joyous and why you’re moving me so much,’” she said. “They were writing to him and saying, ‘Can you explain what’s happening to me?’”
They were also writing to journalists, in ways that may sound familiar to anyone who has witnessed a Twitter altercation between a blogger and a fan army. In 1929, the New York Daily News columnist Mark Hellinger wrote a story about Vallée, calling him obnoxious and crossing his fingers that women would soon get over him and move on to someone else. (“He has women of 50 bouncing around as though they were 15,” he complained.) “You are jealous. You are stupid. You must be insane,” one woman countered. Fans wrote to him by the thousands. Some threatened violence or told him to hang himself. When Ben Gross of the New York Sunday News published a negative column about Vallée, a fan reportedly wrote to him: “The sweetest music to my ears would be to hear Rudy play a march at your and Hellinger’s funeral.”
Though psychologists had in the early 1900s started describing adolescence as a unique stage of life, the word teenager itself wasn’t widely used until the late 1940s, McCracken explained, and the most eager speakers of the term were also marketers. They realized in the postwar boom years that far fewer kids were dropping out of school to earn money for their families, and that far more were being given allowances and plenty of leisure time. The 1950s and ’60s saw more and more products marketed explicitly to teenagers, often reinforcing the idea that they were a distinct group of people with a separate identity from their parents, and with the rise of teen-marketed products came teen-oriented TV shows during which they could be advertised.
So long as teens existed as a lucrative market category, the industry would supply them with a teenybopper idol. When these idols were written about by journalists and critics, it was often with full acquiescence to their marketing, tinged with disdain. This was the case as recently as 2010, when the idol was Justin Bieber. When he performed his first sold-out show at Madison Square Garden that September, the New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica titled his review “Send in the Heartthrobs, Cue the Shrieks” and wrote that Bieber “teased the crowd with flashes of direct emotional manipulation.”
Two years later, One Direction was battling Bieber for the No. 1 spot on the U.S. charts, and in the hearts of American teenagers, and Caramanica started reviewing the band’s output with equal attentiveness. He called their 2012 sophomore album, Take Me Home, “a reliable shriek inducer in girls who have not yet decided that shrieking doesn’t become them.” He panned the band’s 2013 album, Midnight Memories, writing, “They play the part almost resentfully, with the mien of people who know better … Whether this is transparent to the squealers who make up their fanbase is tough to tell.” Aware of the machinations of the pop industry, he situates himself in alignment with the put-upon boys, and implicitly blames the girls who love them for the fact of their presumably beleaguered existence. Caramanica invokes history to make his point without having to make it; he understands that we all know what the shrieking girls look like.
It’s easy to find photos of young Beatles fans with their hands out and their faces drawn into tearful shock. It’s also easy to find nearly identical photos of Backstreet Boys fans and Justin Bieber fans and One Direction fans and BTS fans—but placing them side by side to highlight their similarity does not feel satisfying to me. Visually, it’s a neat trick, but the timelessness of a scream isn’t much of an observation.
Every scream has context, but we rarely hear about it.
A screaming girl you run into at a concert may go home afterward and cut up the footage she recorded to make GIFs and memes that will pass through many other hands, becoming something entirely different and totally bizarre. Unsatisfied by One Direction’s constriction in time and place and situation, screaming girls who are also fan-fiction writers will cast them as employees of suburban coffee shops, or plop them into the 1960s to operate alongside that other famous British band, or go behind the scenes with totally imagined detail, drawing out what they conceive to be the emotional consequences of fame or the more universal pangs of secret love. The writer Zan Romanoff has interviewed women who dress themselves up in the spirit of Harry Styles—indulging in elaborate cosplay—as an expression of devotion that is also a prolonged creative exercise.
Beatles fans wrote some of the earliest “real person” fan fiction (RPF), which circulated at the time in small batches, through letters. They could be self-aware and very funny: In 1964, a group of girls in Encino, California, founded an organization they called Beatlesaniacs. It was advertised as “group therapy” and offered “withdrawal literature” for fans of the Beatles who felt that their emotions had gotten out of hand. Life magazine missed the joke and covered the group credulously, despite its absurdist rules, including “Do not mention the word Beatles (or beetles),” “Do not mention the word England,” “Do not speak with an English accent,” and “Do not speak English.” The image of the screaming fangirl is so familiar and dramatic, it precludes curiosity. But for decades, fans have not just passively enjoyed or loudly desired the objects of their fandom. They’ve also edited them and recirculated them and used them as the inspiration for a range of creative works so enormous—and largely uncataloged—that it can’t even be grasped. The art, the stories, and the in-jokes are as much a part of what it means to be a fan as staking out an airport or memorizing dozens of songs.
The term transformational fandom comes from the blogging service Dreamwidth—an iteration of LiveJournal, built using the same code in 2008, after LiveJournal’s new ownership implemented draconian content guidelines. It was coined by a pseudonymous fan-fiction writer who was trying to explain the origin of an ongoing conflict between copyright holders and the amateurs who were appropriating from their work to make new stories. It’s “all about laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans’ own purposes,” they wrote in 2009. “It tends to spin outward into nutty chaos at the least provocation, and while there are majority opinions [and] minority opinions, it’s largely a democracy of taste; everyone has their own shot at declaring what the source material means, and at radically re-interpreting it.”
Transformational fandom separates itself from “affirmational” or “mimetic” fandom that celebrates the “canon” exactly as it is, copying it with exact replicas or precise cosplaying. It sometimes takes the form of playful disrespect, and you can’t always understand it by taking it at face value. Its practice takes many forms, and from the outside, it might not even look like love at all. The One Direction fandom, as I experienced it on Tumblr in the early 2010s, was playfully vicious and much grosser than you might expect.
The images I remember best were surrealist—sometimes creepy or disgusting. There’s Niall Horan, somehow flying through the air in maroon skinny jeans, doing a split, upper body completely rigid, face frozen with eyes dead ahead, a blurry still from a long-lost video. There he is hovering in a dark corner of a concrete structure, foregrounded by twin bundles of sticks, never explained. Or there are his teeth in close-up before he had braces, or the weird toe on his left foot that’s shaped like a lima bean. Girls on Tumblr made use of these images as naturally as if they were words.
According to the Adorno essay from 1938, cited in the New York Times’ coverage of Beatlemania, fans at live music performances are empty vessels: “Their ecstasy is without content.” With a tinge of sympathy, Adorno adds that they must have “free time and little freedom.” This is an odd pair of observations. One Direction fans, or Beatles fans, the screaming girls who went home and holed up in their bedrooms to make whatever they were going to make in response to their outsize emotions, did have plenty of free time and “little freedom.” But their ecstasy wasn’t “without content” just because the content was personal and confusing. You can’t see what you don’t look for.
This article has been adapted from Kaitlyn Tiffany’s forthcoming book, Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It.