In the weeks since the release of Harry Styles by Harry Styles, publications have been clambering for their chance to speak on the idea of fandom and how Harry’s solo success will work in relation to his past with 1D. Now that he is free from the shackles of a boy band they couldn’t possibly have taken seriously, music journalists and critics alike are quick to declare their admiration and respect for the artist newly emerged. They’ve embarked on a project of legitimization, announcing their shock and awe at how good the music actually is and what a talented musician Harry has turned out to be. As a long time fan (and dedicated Harry girl), reading these articles put me in a super weird position. Somewhere between, “ohmygod I’m so happy everybody is finally seeing what I see” and “yea, no shit.” While I can’t deny how happy it makes me that Harry is doing so well, I also can’t help but roll my eyes at the mock surprise being expressed when I know the only reason Harry, and One Direction as a whole, have never been taken seriously as musicians up until this point is because of the understanding of their fan base as young, teenage girls. And who takes teenage girls seriously?
I’m not nearly the first person to point out how the patriarchy discredits the opinions of teenage girls on culture (see Modern Girl Megan’s piece on this re: the indie/rock scene) and I definitely won’t be the last but the irony of people pretending to be shocked by the talent of band that has been a consistent international success since 2011 is almost too much to handle. As writers attempt to analyze, quantify, and theorize the “phenomenon” of a boy bander turned rock star and his (largely) female fan base it becomes clearer and clearer what voice is actually missing—the voice of fandom itself. And I use that word not as a term to referring to the greater subculture of 1D fans but as a noun to name the state of being a fan—fandom as a personal and private act. It’s useless to put on show of trying to understand something from the outside while systematically ignoring and invalidating the voices from the inside. And I mean, not that I or anyone else on the Modern Girls team cosign human trash Chr*s Br**n in any way, but honestly, I don’t see how you can hate from outside the club when you can’t even get in.
I discovered 1D (or rather, my best friend discovered them for me) when I was 14, only one year into officially being a “real” teen. One fateful Skype call (“I just discovered this really cute new boy band, wanna see? AND they’re from England!”) and few YouTube clips later, I already had a favorite member (guess who) and was absolutely hooked. By the end of that same year, a vocal majority of my class at my (tiny, private, all girls) high school was obsessed with One Direction too. Unless you’ve lived it, you’ve never known bonding like a group of 60 girls all obsessed with the same thing. With an album release underscoring almost every year I was in high school, and being one of the remaining few who actually didn’t completely grow out of their 1D phase by the end of it, One Direction for me is always going to be intrinsically linked to my experience of both teenage girlhood and my youth in general. So many of my best memories and my deepest friendships were made with One Direction as the soundtrack. It’s literally not an exaggeration when I say my 1D phase was absolutely formative.
My 1D story started when I was an 8th grader’s age starting my freshman year of high school, so yeah it was a really weird time for me to say the least. Awkward, self-conscious, dying to finally get my braces off, and desperately trying to achieve the ever elusive “cool,” dedicating myself to One Direction was not exactly how I’d pictured my high school years would go. Fresh out my middle school Twilight phase (I’ve always been lucky enough to stan the most highly ridiculed parts of pop culture) and tired of being made fun of for liking things the world had gotten together and deemed stupid, I vowed to change. Buying into society’s serial tendency to devalue anything associated with teenage girls, I fell headfirst into a pool of internalized misogyny and began to believe that to reject anything popular or girly would make me special and superior. With no way out of a vicious cycle, I began to think it would be easier if I distanced myself so far from my femininity I stopped being the joke and starting laughing at it. Getting into 1D, however, was a baby step to getting out of that mindset and allowing myself to delight in my girlhood—even and especially all the fucked up, unrestrained, and ridiculous feelings that came with it.
For me One Direction went from being my life, to a guilty pleasure, to just a pleasure with no guilt at all and I think it is this transformation that is most important. So many young girls go through a phase where they hate their gender and everything associated with it more than anything, not because they really do, but because the world teaches them they should. And once you’re out of it (because you always do, find your way out of it), it’s heartbreaking to realize how much joy you might’ve deprived yourself of because of stupid rules and regulations you placed on your own desire in order to live up to some preconceived notion of who you thought you had to be. In my opinion, One Direction’s greatest legacy will always be that they made themselves a safe space for girls to come into this realization on their own. Yeah, I know a large part of One Direction was just management prescribed pre-packaged propaganda marketing but I don’t think that discredits what they were able to do with what little freedom they did have. Which was take their fans seriously. Without exception.
Everything One Direction ever had, they had because of teenage girls and that’s something they never forgot. Instead of fighting it, they leaned into it hard, showering the girls who would die for them with sugary lyrics about love and endless pronouncements of gratitude and appreciation. Corny, maybe, but an invaluable feeling for teenage girls growing into themselves in a world that is so often unrelentingly cruel. Part of why One Direction were able to last so long is because of this decision to support their fans as much as their fans supported them. One Direction gave an entire generation of girls a boy band—a concept traditionally and insidiously used to take advantage of teenage girls—and gave it back to them.
The relationship they created between us, the fans, and them, the band was intimate and untouched by outside criticism—within the One Direction universe, even at your craziest, teariest, most hormonal, completely irrational point, you were still a person, still valid, still worthy of not only their respect but their kindness too. Depending on other people for validation and empowerment is never a sustainable strategy, but when you’re a teen, you pretty much only know how to do that. So for One Direction, teen boys themselves, to spend as much time as they did making sure their fans felt safe, happy, and understood in their presence, is super important. While teenage girlhood is very often defined by learning exactly which parts of your growing self you’re supposed to feel bad about, 1D took off just a little bit of that pressure by assuring their fans, again and again, that no matter what the world said about being teen fangirl, it was okay—all of it. It was okay to scream until your throat was raw, to cry all your makeup off, to dance so wildly you gave yourself whiplash and yes, to feel desire because hey, all of that just made you beautiful. (Does being beautiful matter? Not really, but hearing it sure feels good especially within a culture that tells teenage girls they’re worthless without it). And no matter how preconceived or disingenuous the intent was, the effect of feeling your idol’s adoration on the psyche of a young girl is irreplaceable. You’re no longer screaming into a void, you’re screaming and you know you’re being heard. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of a generation of girls that got to grow up loving a boy band that loved me back because it helped me get to a place where I could eventually love myself too.
Nobody gets through their teenage years without becoming a crazy fan of something and nobody gets shit on for it like teenage girls do. Yesterday morning, I was blessed enough to score tickets to see solo Harry Styles on his upcoming stadium tour (insert prayer hands emoji here), so I think my entire youth just came full circle. As someone only four short months away from leaving teenage girlhood behind forever, I’m coming to the realization of how fucking much I enjoyed being one. And before I H.A.G.S my teenage self, I’m taking time to appreciate all the things that made this time worth it, despite it all. And I’m not going to deny that One Direction was a huge, huge part of that. I wouldn’t be who I am or have the life, friends, and passions that I have if I hadn’t spent a lot of my teenage years being a fangirl of epic proportions—and this is true for my interests beyond 1D too (remember how all the modern girls met again?).
Fangirl is not a dirty word. All it means is that we like what we like and love what we love, stupidly, wildly, and with complete and total abandon.
We won’t be ashamed of that any longer.
Words/Rant/Manifesto by Chaia.
Featured Image via this blog
As a more lighthearted companion to this piece, please jam to this Spotify playlist of all my favorite* 1D songs from each album:
*every 1D song is my favorite 1D song, these are just the highlights