To all the boy bands I’ve loved before

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“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” When my editor in chief pulled me into the hallway to speak privately, my heart crawled into my throat. As a relatively new reporter for my high school newspaper, I figured I had made some sort of dreadful mistake in an article. Instead, to my surprise, I was handed an opportunity: A boy band was giving a surprise live performance at my school the next week, and my editor wanted me to cover the event. I said yes. “Awesome. So, just don’t tell anyone,” he said. “It’s on Tuesday.”

I didn’t have a classic boy band phase in middle school. In history, I sat next to a girl who wore a necklace with a photo of Liam Payne. Another classmate spouted facts about Harry Styles at recess, recalling the exact time he was born, his blood type, what hair products he used. Sure, I listened to “Drag Me Down” once in a while, but back then, I never fully understood the spell that boy bands cast over so many of my heart-eyed classmates.

After I received the pitch from my editor, I began researching the band in order to compile my list of interview questions. I streamed its singles, read its Wikipedia page and watched its music videos. Before I knew it, I was buried beneath behind-the-scenes videos, tour vlogs, Instagram Lives, fan pages and edits. I was a few years late to the boy band scene, but I had finally arrived.

It wasn’t long after my interview was published that I joined stan Twitter, an online community discussing hot pop culture topics. Losing sense of time online, I immersed myself in a world of reaction memes, lowercase letters and glittery fancams. I was warmly welcomed into fandoms, and as I made friends in these flourishing online communities, I teetered on the fine line between admiration and obsession. As a fan, I didn’t just want to be recognized: I wanted my dedication to be truly appreciated. My screen time ticked up every day, and I collected celebrity notices like concert stubs, claiming that they weren’t notifications but experiences.

While my collection steadily grew, however, my obsession eventually began to fade. Fandoms expanded, assuming peculiarly competitive natures. Grammy nomination season turned my timeline into a battleground. Communities thrived on toxicity. Cancel culture evolved. Maybe I was tired of checking my phone constantly, or maybe I just gave up trying to get a follow from Harry Styles. But at some point, I realized that I didn’t want my existence to be defined by how active I was on Twitter.

Though I gradually moved past my somewhat embarrassing, all-consuming support for boy bands, I continued my steady diet of stan Twitter and pop culture in what ended up being unintentional preparation for my future as an arts journalist. Somehow, admissions officers never came across my Twitter account, and UC Berkeley welcomed me as a freshman. And here I am, spilling my guts as an arts reporter for The Daily Californian.

As an arts writer, I’ve learned that blind obsession and fair criticism can coexist. Though being a fan and a critic might seem mutually exclusive, these roles intersect more than they conflict. Critical writing doesn’t mean that I have to necessarily exclude my experiences as a fan; it just means that I have to hold my favorite artists to a higher standard. It can be uncomfortable to recognize that the art of someone I’ve idolized isn’t as brilliant as I want it to be, but honest criticism doesn’t necessarily reflect disloyalty.

While I still listen to my throwback playlist to hold onto a sliver of naive nostalgia, critical writing has allowed me to explore my relationship with some of my favorite artworks. In a way, writing this piece allowed me to slip back into my sophomore stan phase temporarily; I wrote this listening almost exclusively to the discography of the British pop band The Vamps. I stayed up late watching their past press interviews and vlogs. I added London to my Mac’s world clock. I memorized the opening and closing ad libs of all of their recorded live performances. And last month, I gave their latest album a 3.0/5.0 rating without looking back.

Like many others, I find it easy to fixate on figures surfacing at the top of pop culture headlines. They’re glossy statues gracing red carpets, carrying themselves with charisma. They’re unattainable, and I was drawn to stan Twitter because it made them suddenly accessible. I used to treasure my notices from celebrities, thinking that if I gathered enough likes and retweets, I could piece together some sort of phantasmic connection with them.

But now, as an arts critic, these popular figures are no longer faraway characters on screens or my Spotify playlist covers. Instead of liking their posts or tweeting at them, I’m having a conversation with them over the phone. They’re suddenly human.

A few years ago, I’d have done anything for a Harry Styles follow. Now, who knows? Maybe I’ll interview him one day.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].