A Stand Against Stan Culture
Obsessive, overbearing fans have become normalized in the music industry, and this phenomenon is increasingly dangerous for artists.
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When listening to our favorite artists, it is easy to feel that we know them personally. Through achingly relatable lyrics and sonic soundscapes, their music can become the soundtracks of our lives—making it hard to remember that we are one out of hundreds, thousands, if not millions of fans listening to those same songs. Forming communities with other fans can be liberating; many music enthusiasts have positive experiences self-identifying with fan names like Swifties (Taylor Swift), Arianators (Ariana Grande), and Blinks (BLACKPINK). Music fandoms allow for the creation of memories with people across the world at concerts and through social media and the internet. These groups, however, have also led to a controversial phenomenon: stan culture.
The term originates from rapper Eminem’s song “Stan” (2000) that tells the story of an obsessive fan, Stan, who consistently writes to Eminem and, upon realizing that Eminem will never reciprocate these efforts, murders his girlfriend and commits suicide. The word “stan” has since become a term used to describe obsessive and overbearing fans—albeit to a much lesser extent.
Such stan behavior stems from parasocial relationships, in which fans feel strong emotional attachments to celebrities they do not know personally. Parasocial relationships are based on the attachment theory, the idea that humans form bonds with familiar people. The brain cannot distinguish a familiar face in a picture from that face in reality, so the more pictures and videos a fan sees of an artist, the stronger the sense of attachment and relationship becomes. These types of relationships have always existed between celebrities and fans, but they have been intensified by the rise of social media. Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have given fans unprecedented access to the daily lives of their favorite musicians as if they were right there with them.
This phenomenon is not always negative: one study found that many fans reap benefits from being “stans,” such as gaining higher self-esteem and increased positive thoughts. However, issues arise when fans replace necessary real-life connections with these relationships. The reliance on musicians to fill social voids became especially apparent during the pandemic when people experienced significantly less human interaction. Fans started to expect reciprocation of their feelings from their idols, and as the boundaries between reality and fantasy blurred, a small minority ended up violating these artists’ reasonable expectations of privacy and personal space, often in the form of stalking. This phenomenon, however, has been going on for much longer; artists have talked about fan behavior on the internet for years, from receiving messages from unfamiliar accounts requesting personal contact information to receiving potentially dangerous packages from unknown senders.
This one-sided familiarity similarly affects in-person interactions, as some listeners make artists feel unsafe with the way they approach them. 21-year-old pop superstar Billie Eilish recalled a very stressful concert when she was 17 in an interview with Variety: fans were pulling at her body and clothes so hard that security had to get involved. Even if these fans did not have malicious intentions, this incident haunted Billie for several months after. As she put it, “Of course, they’re just excited. I get it. But I do still have to live with it.” When fans do not receive the same level of attention they give to the artist, they can sometimes take it as rejection, leading to serious detriments to their confidence and mental health.
This emotional dependency also endangers an artist’s reputation. Naturally, celebrities only post their best moments and most aesthetic photos on social media platforms. Considering this is the main point of reference for stans, who are constantly analyzing these profiles, an unrealistic standard is set for how this icon should look, speak, and act. As their following grows, artists must make a constant effort to keep up this facade. This is further instigated by cancel culture, which urges fans to boycott and desert their idols if they do something deemed socially unacceptable. Musicians rely on their social media presence—and directly-related concert attendance—to make a living off their music, so cancel culture can seem threatening and overwhelming. During Taylor Swift’s 2022 NYU commencement speech, she discussed the devastating effects of this normalized criticism: “Getting canceled on the internet and nearly losing my career gave me excellent knowledge on all the types of wine.”
Despite the obvious issues with fans assuming this type of relationship with someone they have never met, stan culture is not likely to fade. Maintaining a healthy fan culture is a two-way street. Artists have to accept the responsibility of controlling how much of their private lives they share with their fans, and fans need to remember that their idols are only human and deserve the same privacy and freedom to make mistakes like the rest of us.