Articles - 14th October 2019

Cultural Tribes

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

“I’m conducting some offhand anthropological research into fan cultures,” I explained between sips of a Yorkshire brew, “And, helping my sister find her bearings around a prospective University City.” The truth was that whilst I surely intended to accompany my sister around Sheffield’s historic campus, I hadn’t pursued a four-hour Megabus, a twenty-minute deciphering of the city’s arcane tram system and an extensive tour of my Uncle’s allotment, for these reasons alone. 

Nine months previously, I had purchased tickets for the Northern leg of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener + Thank U Next world tour, even, accidentally, forking out an additional £7 per ticket for what later transpired to be souvenir keychains. Lanyards primed, we headed to the city’s FlyDSA stadium with high-ponys, nude manicures and clear bags for an evening of high-octane Power Pop amongst a bubbly entourage of Hen Dos, imitation Aris, camp congregations and mothers and toddler pairs, unfailingly decorated in glitter stripes, black lace rabbit ears, sequined peplums, thigh-high boots, ribbon chokers and creatively executed scrunchies. We burrowed into the crowd, mere metres from where we entered before realising that unlike most other standing events, Grande’s glittery clientele were not only significantly smaller, but also significantly more alarmed that one might be rude enough to barge to the front. Our return tram teemed with small choruses of unsynchronised ‘God Is a Woman’ and ‘No Tears Left To Cry’, hair-flicking home in a shimmering, fluffy afterglow.

These fans were of a different ilk than the throngs of loyal Billie Eilish’s Stans we’d encountered back in March, at an acoustic gig hosted by Banquet Records at Kingston’s Pryzm. The Eilishees were cut from a different cloth entirely; smudges of black eyeliner, block-colour eyeshadow, thick chains and layered neon leisure-wear dripping with Blosh insignias; Eilish’s merchandise emblem, outlining a lopsided hanging corpse. That’s not to say they were without any cheery camaraderie; we shared chicken nuggets, swigs of Lucozade and gig stories with our fellow queuers, extolling hand-drawn vinyl-mounted portraits that we cast on-stage, a small offering to the divine.  

My desire to participate in manic fandoms may not have been truthfully entirely anthropological. It’s easy to see why people, often young girls, can become addicted to the rush of post-gig endorphins when witnessing their Pop icons; the duplicitously paradoxical anonymity and collectivity of immersion in the mass. As VICE Journalist Hannah Ewens describes in her book Fangirls, “Fandom is a portmanteau of fan and kingdom – there is, as that would suggest, a king or queen regent but also a territory and community of followers. To be a fan is to scream alone together. To go on a collective journey of self-definition.” Throughout the course of her book, Ewens traces the history of the fan and in doing so, privileges female first-hand accounts. Ewens considers the lineage of fandoms from Lord Byron to Harry Styles, siphoning the history of the fan through her own encounters as a young gigger and reminding us of the fundamental role fandoms play in identity forming friendships. Ewens’ writing is above prejudice, searching in earnest for the motivations behind the masses. She conducts interviews with One Direction fans and survivors of the Manchester bombing with a tender, considerate outlook. “I’ve often thought the people around the spectacle as curious as the spectacle itself -and as worthy of proper investigation” she explains. Ewens gaze doesn’t linger, it doesn’t curl a lip, she is a subject of her own investigations. 

Obsession is hardly a phenomenon exclusively associated with the colourful icons of popular music. Mania, like culture, has no moral binary. As I witnessed last week at The Goldsmiths Prize inaugural lecture, chaired by its former winner Eimear McBride, the Literari are similarly defined. Emerging post-lecture from behind her lectern, McBride sported a pair of thigh-high Grande-esque cowhide and a baggy black t-shirt bearing a Lady Hale-inspired glitter Spider motif to the envy of the amphitheatre. This year’s avant-garde shortlistees include Lucy Ellmann, Mark Haddon, Deborah Levy as well as stars of indie publishing, Isabel Waidner, Amy Arnol and Vesna Main. My copy of We Are Made of Diamond Stuff arrived in the post yesterday and I tore through it with lightning speed. With sections including “POWDERED MILK” “RAUSCHENBERG AND BREXIT ARE BRAVING THE SURF” and “EMPIRE 2.0”, Waidner cites TripAdvisor reviews, Samuel Delany and Stranger Things in their spirited method of Acker-y, iconoclastic bricolage, dismantling dreams of national identities and what Dodie Bellamy names “fucked up inequalities of class, race, queerness and immigration status”. Shiny, new, experimental, cult fiction. Sign me up. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about the shortlist, or, if you can’t afford the books and you’d like to witness live snippets and euphoric screams of “THE NOVEL IS DEAD”, head along to the Prize’s shortlist readings this Wednesday. I’ll bring the flags and whistles.


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