The Cost of Teen Fandom

Before #Directioners mourned the sudden exit of Zayn Malik, before Justin Bieber’s Beliebers were the target of malicious 4Chan members, and even before Justin Timberlake cut his hair and announced he was going solo, Beatles fans were crying and passing out at concerts like swans withering under an unrelenting heat wave. Teen girl fandom is a timeless and powerful thing. Some people think that fandom is a polite word for cult, but I think it’s important to differentiate the ascending levels of hysteria. Fandom can manifest in various degrees of worship, ranging from superficial crush, to strange and uncomfortably awkward, like the 40-year-old man who once was the prouder owner of 29 “ugly” tattoos of Miley Cyrus, to downright fatal.

I came of age when music videos were still a big deal, Rolling Stone created controversial covers, and in order to guarantee album sales, an artist had to visit TRL and ham it up with Carson Daly. I lived for MTV, but most importantly, TRL (my dad can keep his memories of American Bandstand, thank you very much). We had something more than sanitized countdown. It was a show that captured live drama, an integral limb of a network that once felt original with those earlier seasons of The Real World and Road Rules. For a boy band fan, TRL was a chance to prove your loyalty. If you were outside the studio during a taping, you might be lucky enough to give a quick “shout-out” on camera. It always ended with the screeching battle cry of “WHOOOO!” Doing an on-air shout-out was almost as good as being a member of the live audience.

The boy band fandom could also be a ruthless bunch. Beating the rival band was a collective mission of ride or die. A select few of my fanatics-in-arms have become pop culture legends. I was one of those unapologetic fanatics: I wallpapered my small bedroom with various cutouts and carefully preserved magazine pages torn from the likes of Bop and Tiger Beat. I taped TV appearances of the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, devoutly sat through the croak of AOL dial-up in order to post my silly, self-indulgent fan fiction to the appropriate subforum on I (my parents) bought overpriced merchandise, including watches and bobblehead dolls.

My obsessions seemed to feel less alien when watching TRL. I could connect with the girls who stood outside the studio, sometimes waving homemade signs that declared their undying love for X or Y or Z. I just had to see my favorite band’s video sitting at number one, or a part of me would feel disappointed and defeated. Blame it on the youth. There’s some kind of weird chemistry brewing at that age, a witchy elixir of clashing hormones laced with optimistic determination. Perhaps it’s a matter of what Frances McDormand’s character says in Almost Famous, “Adolesence is a marketing tool.”

Although my parents now make fun of my time as a teenybopper, they can’t deny that they enabled that obsession in measured doses. Both of my parents bought tickets for various concerts, and both had alternatively acted as chaperone. Though they make fun of me now, I’ll always be grateful for the memories:

Concerts in chronological order:


JUL 3, 1998, 7 P.M.
The Meadows Music Theatre
Hartford, CT

My dad and I went to this concert. My brother hadn’t been born yet. I can’t remember why my mom didn’t go; she was probably working. The lawn seats were in the outdoor part of the amphitheater. I remember some of the songs they played: a mix of tracks off their debut album, which featured chart-topping classics such as “Wannabe,” “2 Become 1,” and “Say You’ll Be There,” and their sophomore album, Spiceworld, which later became the title of their first and only movie. This was right after Gerri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, quit the band. I was definitely bummed that she decided to peace out before my show, but definitely not bummed enough to call the whole thing a wash and not go. Besides, Posh Spice was my favorite.

I still have the concert T-shirt. Sometimes I wear it to bed. Sometimes I wear it out and I feel like it’s a sign I’ve allowed Tumblr fashion to influence my sense of style too much.


NOV 12, 1999, 8 P.M.
Hartford Civic Center
Hartford, CT

TLC isn’t necessarily a band that comes to mind when you think of hysterical fandoms. But the group’s third studio album, FanMail, is a conscious and audible thank-you to TLC fans. Coined by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the title was meant as a tribute to fans after a five-year hiatus, which was due to financial woes that forced TLC to declare chapter eleven bankruptcy. If you’re skeptical that a best-selling, chart-topping, world-touring group can declare bankruptcy, please acquaint yourself with TLC’s episode of Behind the Music. Lisa explains the math in a succinct way that somehow my number-challenged mind understood.

This concert was a family event. Baby Bro still hadn’t been born yet. Both of my parents had liked TLC from the beginning of the group’s career. We didn’t all like the same music but there were certain albums that united our family. When it dropped, CrazySexyCool was an album in constant rotation on my mother’s behalf. I was just about to start sixth grade. The opening act was Destiny’s Child and I remembered wondering who they were.


JUN 21, 2000, 8 P.M.
The Meadows Music Theatre
Hartford, CT

It’s Britney, Bitch! This tour supported Britney’s second album, Oops!…I Did It Again. The star power of Britney Spears, then a small-town girl hailing from Louisiana and a Mickey Mouse Club alumnus, was swiftly chugging ahead in the early aughts. I watched her videos on repeat in order to memorize the dance routines. I was one of the few black kids in my lily-white town and had nothing in common with this Southern child star gone Rolling Stone-worthy pop star, deliberately styled under the direction of photographer David LaChapelle to echo a Teletubby-toting Lolita. Regardless, I was a Britney fanatic. My dad took me to this concert. I used posterboard to make a sign that said “OOPS! SHE DID IT AGAIN!” Naturally, I thought this was very clever and funny and surely, the cameras would somehow find my little sign in lava-thick mass of screaming faces. A mother and daughter were standing near us; the mother saw my sign and smiled. She told me she liked it.


*’N Sync
MAY 31, 2001, 7:30 P.M.
Foxboro Stadium
Foxborough, MA

This was another show with my father. The Pop Odyssey Tour was in support of ‘N Sync’s third and unknowingly last album, Celebrity. This album was meant to poke fun at celebrity culture, a departure from their second album, No Strings Attached. The second album was a celebration of freedom from their manager Lou Pearlman, a rotund boy band svengali who also managed the Backstreet Boys, LFO, and the reality-show-born band, O-Town. Pearlman was what Colonel Parker was to Elvis.

At the stadium, I’d never seen so many ‘N Sync fans packed into one place. I remember being in awe of the fact that my dad could tolerate a nearly two-hour concert with hundreds of other shrieking girls, an impressionable mass of were blissfully numb by the thought that for a second, they’d locked eyes with their treasured boy band prince.


*’N Sync
APR 19, 2002, 7:30 P.M.
Hartford Civic Center
Hartford, CT

My mother was chaperone for me and three or four of my friends. My best friend and I made loud signs at her house and taped her pool sticks to the back of poster board. We planned out our outfits in person only to change them while talking on the phone. The seats were behind the stage and I didn’t care, too caught up in the rapture of breathing the same air as Justin Timberlake and Co.


AUG 11, 2007, 7:30 P.M
Mohegan Sun Arena
Uncasville, CT

My mother, brother, and I went to this show. This was for Timberlake’s second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds. He was letting everyone know that he’d saved us and brought sexy back. And if you were questioning where it ever went in the first place, you were missing the point. I was 19 and my brother was 10. Being an older sister with such a significant age gap is kind of weird at times, namely because you’re constantly reminded of the weight of your influence, even if you deny this cause and effect component of your relationship.

My mother probably wore too much perfume, something deathly sweet and serpentine-heavy like Dior’s Poison. I probably wore a face full of as much makeup as possible to make it out of the house. When he was younger and didn’t know any better, my brother loved the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. Now that he’s recently graduated from high school, I’m no longer his touchstone for All Things Hip and Cool.

My mother bought both of us T-shirts. I still wear mine, but my brother had an outrageous growth spurt. Most of his clothes from childhood and early adolescence are comically small. In fact, neither of us like Justin Timberlake that much. My brother favors mostly rock, especially Black Sabbath and AC/DC. When Timberlake returned to the music scene with his much-anticipated third album, The 20/20 Experience, I didn’t buy it. After about the fourth or fifth time I heard “Suit and Tie” on the radio, I got annoyed and now reflexively switch the station. I’m no longer equipped with enough innocence to return to that vice-like state, to the days of bubblegum fanaticism.

Grand Total of Tickets: $313.00


Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and writer. She is the Creative Director for the literary journal Winter Tangerine. Tweet her @book_nerd212.

Top photo credit: Tumblr user lsach



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