When Aaliyah Welton was 12 years old, she started listening to a K-pop band. Their performances were a mix of slick choreography and heart-bursting lyrics – all dressed up with sparkles and lights. A middle schooler from Mississippi, she had never seen anything like it before. It felt like she was discovering a whole new world.
Aaliyah soon became involved in a circle of “stans”, committed fans who dedicated most – if not all – of their spare time to supporting and promoting the group. (Now a badge of honour, the term “stan” refers to a song of the same name by Eminem, about an obsessive fan; it also happens to be a combination of the words “stalker” and “fan”.)
“I saw how many people from all over the world were actually involved… and it made me feel a part of that. It felt like something so special,” she says.
The band became the framework around which Aaliyah constructed her identity. She spent hours online talking about their music, voting in Korean music competitions or award shows, and following their every move on social media. She thinks she probably spent around $3,000 on extra phone data, as well as on niche merchandise she tracked down online and forked out extortionate shipping costs to have sent from South Korea.
But when other stans found out that Aaliyah was black, things began to change. Some started bombarding her with racist messages. At first, she tried to ignore the abuse and kept it from those around her, including her family. But, eventually, the need to extricate herself from this online community – or, of unstanning the band – became overwhelming. Even six years later, some of Aaliyah’s devotion remains: she is unwilling to name the group in case it marrs their reputation.
When you’re in that deep, how do you leave?
In short: with difficulty. Aaliyah, now based in Arizona and in her last year of high school, is from a military family. Moving around a lot meant that the standom was a lifeline. “I was never really in one school for more than two or three years,” she explains. “And so it was very hard for me to make friends – I made my friends around this group.”
The racist abuse became increasingly public. One message said that if she ever met the band, she “shouldn’t touch them because they wouldn’t want me to infect them or have my blackness rub off on them – as if I was dirty.” Someone tagged Aaliyah in a photograph of a real-life lynching. Depressed and failing to cope, she cut herself and even contemplated suicide.
Simply breaking ties with the other fans did not feel like an option: Aaliyah was devoted to the group, and the standom was her only gateway to information about them. “It’s like an addiction,” she says. “You’re so happy to see them succeed, to see them go through the things you want them to go through.” Plus, she worried that if she unstanned, she’d be letting the band down. “I wanted to be involved so much that I was willing to put my thoughts and opinions aside.”
Eventually, Aaliyah’s parents found out and deleted her social media accounts. She felt lost. As well as coming to terms with losing friendships, she couldn’t stop thinking about the band; by this point, they were woven into the fabric of her being. She felt like she’d betrayed them.
Most of the time, being a stan is “a loving thing, a giving thing,” Penny Andrews, an academic researcher who has written for Tortoise about political fandoms, explains. “It’s being a part of something that makes you giddy and happy – everyone around you is excited.”
Pop-music standoms are communities built around a shared passion. They have their own collective names: Taylor Swift stans are Swifties; Beyonce has the Beyhive; for K-pop band BlackPink it’s Blinks. Being involved can bring a sense of kinship and shared identity. Harriet*, a 22-year-old ex-Belieber from South London, explains: “I was indecisive about everything else. I could never decide what GCSEs to do or what A-Levels – but I knew I liked Justin Bieber. He was the one thing I was decisive about.”
In many ways, Andrews says, “it’s no different to being part of a hobby or a social club.”
There is one key distinction: to borrow a meme, stans are Extremely Online. “It’s very much the internet that runs stan culture,” says Keidra Chaney, publisher of The Learned Fangirl, a website for academic analysis of fandoms. Working together, a global network of stans can track the minutiae of someone’s outfit, their plans for upcoming music, and their relationship status for 24 hours a day. Standoms never sleep.
“On the internet, history is formed within a day,” says Dr David Greenfield, the founder and medical director of the Centre for Internet and Technology Addiction, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School for Medicine. “So your information becomes stale very quickly online – almost instantly. The minute you post something, it’s yesterday… There’s an expectation of information being updated constantly.”
Twitter, in particular, is the engine of standom, providing a platform for stans around to world to trade information and gossip in real-time. A hub of continuous communication, it is littered with content made by stans to celebrate their faves. Because of this, “Stan Twitter” has developed, in Andrews’ words, “its own culture, with its own memes, its own language, its own behaviours”. Some of this bleeds into wider Twitter culture, but individual standoms also have their own internal slang and social norms, and the constant turnover of content means that these can develop at an alarming speed. There is a pressure to keep abreast of these endlessly mutating reference points; failure to do so implies a lack of devotion.
In fact, being a stan of good repute can require such relentless digital engagement that Dr Greenfield compares it to a job. None of the advice he gives for non-addictive internet usage, such as turning off notifications or waiting to respond to messages, really applies. “If you are a superfan, you can’t wait – because if you want to maintain that status, you have to be the first one to reply all the time. That is how you get to be a superfan. And you can’t be a mellower version of a superfan – because then you’re not a superfan.” He is not surprised that people find it destabilising to leave such an all-encompassing world.
It is like “losing a limb,” Andrews says. Being so heavily internet-based means that standoms can become a support system for otherwise alienated people. Choosing to leave that behind can be “like leaving a relationship and having to leave your kids behind in the house. Everything that makes you special and everything that you do with your time on and offline is all to do with [the standom], and now you have got to rebuild an entire life from scratch.”
For pop music standoms in particular, there is a heavy focus on numbers: streaming figures, music charts and video views are all tangible industry metrics that stans can boost for their fave and, in doing so, demonstrate their support.
“Every time new music comes out, with new videos and promotions, fans ‘host’ streaming parties,” says Ida, an 18-year-old university student from Copenhagen. “It feels like everyone is doing this together, but in reality they’re just sitting in front of their own computer streaming while other people around the globe are doing the same thing.”
The competitiveness is often turned outwards, as standoms feud with one another. The language can be surprisingly militaristic: “armies” and “navies” go into digital battle to “prove” the supremacy of their fave. Last week, #JustinBieberIsOverParty trended on Twitter in the UK – a warning shot from a different standom intended to “put Beliebers in their place”.
“The battle cry of the stan is that my favourite outsold yours,” the Learned Fangirl’s Chaney explains. “Stan wars” might seem excessive, but she draws a comparison with the sweaty-faced, impassioned supporters of sports teams. It is no different to the crowing chants sung by supporters in stadiums all over the world; the pop equivalent of “my team beat yours”.
It can feel hugely rewarding – and it works. “People can say ‘I sent my fave to number one because I streamed, because I watched, because I viewed. I am an integral part of the success of this person that I like’,” Chaney says. “People find a sense of identity and power through participating.”
That is in part why, despite the racism and the abuse, Aaliyah experienced so much guilt over deciding to unstan: she felt as though she would be materially harming the band’s chances in the future.
In her book Fangirls, Hannah Ewans argues that this genuine cultural power is still underestimated: “We’re in a time now where, more than ever, girls and young queer people create modern mainstream music and fan cultures with their outlooks and actions.” Although things are slowly starting to change, she writes, “it’s so rare that teenage-girl interests and lives are treated as though they’re of consequence.” This happens in the case of unstanning: the genuine sense of loss is simply dismissed or ridiculed.
While for some people the competitiveness is part of the fun, it can go too far. It was the “toxic” criticism aimed at other standoms that caused Ida to unstan the K-pop band Exo, although she is at pains to point out that not all Exo-ls were involved.
Unstanning wasn’t an easy choice. K-pop bands are rarely, if ever, featured in the press in Ida’s home country of Denmark: “A lot of the ways that I had access to Exo was through the fans – it was very hard to eliminate the fans from the equation.” Exo-ls were usually the first to share updates on the band, plus they also made lots of original content which she still wanted to access. It all felt too intertwined.
Although she was “infatuated” with Exo, the dragging culture meant that Ida was “scared deep inside the whole time” in case she said the wrong thing and was criticised herself. Choosing to unstan was a slow, personal process, which took around half a year. She deleted her Tumblr account, gradually stopped listening to the music, and started removing herself from the Exo-l world.
“I was most sad about feeling forced to leave the group because of the fandom,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, like I was being robbed of [the choice]. I was forced to be disloyal.”
Sometimes, though, it is the fave who is to blame; the dedication of stans is not limitless. Wadha, a 19-year-old university student from Qatar, was a Lovatic – a Demi Lovato stan – for seven years. That changed earlier this month, when Lovato was baptised in Israel (she was reportedly paid $150,000 by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs to publish social-media posts about the trip).
As a Muslim Arab, Wadha tells me, “It is against my beliefs to stan or encourage an artist who supports Israel.” When Lovato herself confirmed the visit, Wadha immediately unstanned. Though the decision was easy, the ramifications were harder. Speaking to me a few days afterwards, she said, “Whenever I see [Lovato’s] photos I still feel that sudden rush of love towards her, but then it hits me that I unstanned her.”
For Sarah, an 18-year-old from Virginia, going “on a trip” wasn’t enough for her to unstan Lovato after a decade. It was Lovato’s subsequent attitude towards her 74.4m Instagram followers – criticising Lovatics for using the hashtag #WeLoveYouDemi during the furore – that was the tipping point. Lovato wrote to one fan account, “how about y’all stop having to make hashtags saying you love me every time you realize your words effect [sic] me?” and blamed another for making her feel “terrible”.
Sarah had forgiven Lovato for what she considered to be bad behaviour previously – siding with manager Scooter Braun in his feud with Taylor Swift – but could no longer “support a person who acts this way”. In lashing out at her fans, Lovato broke the symbiotic covenant of the standom. So Sarah broke her side of the pact, too: she unstanned, and deleted all of Lovato’s music.
Both Sarah and Wadha announced their decision publicly in tweets. “I’m well known to be the ‘ultimate die hard Lovatic’ in my group of friends,” Wadha says. When a misstep is so widely reported, it makes sense to nail your colours to the mast publicly.
But not everyone feels so comfortable being upfront. “I wanted to do it unnoticed and I didn’t want to create drama,” Ida says about unstanning Exo. She did not think that her reason for unstanning would be well received.
Besides, there is a general sense that the outside world sees stans as hysterical; which stans want to guard against. They argue that other (often male-dominated) communities, such as Twitch and Discord, are just as bad – if not worse – but are less visible and receive less attention.
With the racist abuse out in the open, and her social media accounts deleted, Aaliyah was forced to wean herself off the group. It was a bit like a twelve-step programme, she tells me. Full unstanning only came when she realised that it was necessary for her own health. Although it didn’t make her instantly happy, after a while she felt better able to interact with the world around her. She made new friends that she had more in common with. She started to understand who she was again.
But, ultimately, Aaliyah missed being a stan. She missed being able to talk with people from all over the world about one shared passion. She missed having something she could hold on to and take with her wherever she went. (In fact, nearly everyone interviewed for this piece later became a stan for a new artist.)
She started listening to the K-pop group BTS – the world’s highest paid boyband, they are tonight playing a homecoming gig in South Korea as the final stop of their world tour. Aaliyah eventually set up a new dedicated stan Twitter account. Her parents were worried at first, but Aaliyah says she’s much more in control than she was before. She still compares stanning to an addiction, but now it’s something positive, a little more tongue-in-cheek.
Still, when asked what it might take for her to unstan this time around, Aaliyah laughs. “I don’t know… maybe, like, World War Three or something?
*Some names have been changed.
Graphics by Chris Newell and Ella Hollowood.