Finding credibility in pop music is an impossible game. Have popular music but not too popular. Be good-looking but don’t be too good-looking that it detracts from your music. Have fans but not too many - particularly fans who are teenage girls.
The fangirl, in particular, has historically been an atomic bomb for credibility within the music industry. Gaining a large following in that demographic is your ticket to chart success, merch sell-outs, and arena concerts but you can kiss goodbye any chance of critical adoration.
Boy bands, since The Beatles, have attracted hoards of female teenage fans. It’s only natural. You put together a group of good-looking boys singing love songs and the result is exactly what you’d expect. One Direction were defined by their fanbase - anybody who existed outside of it knew that they were not supposed to like them much less award their songs analytical criticism.
That sort of view from the outside chips away at a boyband member, particularly as they exit their teenage years. History shows an immediate reaction to the search for legitimacy. Justin Timberlake teamed with revered hip-hop producer Timberland and Zayn Malik called One Direction’s music “generic as fuck,” in his first interview as a solo artist with The Fader.
Malik’s former bandmate Harry Styles took a different approach. Styles will go down as one of the biggest fangirl targets in modern pop history. His floppy hair and golden smile immediately had fans swooning. In a viral TED talk by playwright Yve Blake she tells a story where a young girl told her she was going to marry Harry Styles. She would “slit someone’s throat,” to be with him.
It’s one that led her into a deep exploration of the fangirl and the criticism surrounding them. So much so that she expanded it into a musical called Fangirls which follows the story of 14-year-old Edna who is in love with a boy named Harry. Addressing the musical she asks, “Why do we use words like ‘hysterical’ to describe fangirls screaming at pop concerts, but use terms like ‘passionate’ to describe young men screaming at a football game?”
The rise of poptimism in the early part of the last decade shone a light on fangirls. Acts that were often dismissed as makers of teenage music were now being assessed seriously. Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Beyonce, and more were now being seen through an analytical eye, often positively. As a result, fangirls were too.
“When fame is girded by a swelling teenage, female fanbase immediately, that celebrity becomes false, temporary, and unearned,” Brodie Lancaster wrote in a 2015 Pitchfork op-ed. Despite the defense, it’s still common for a pop artist who was brought to fame by teenage girls to find a mature genre and shed their teenage image. Styles is an anomaly to that.
Styles was always the one most likely to follow in Timberlake’s footsteps and build a successful solo career. It was predicted that he’d rough up his good-boy image and build a more mature musical palette. In some ways, it’s true that he’s done that. His debut album Harry Styles was a sweeping, rock opus with a more grandiose output than anything One Direction has ever made. His second album Fine Line is looser and more colourful but still richly embedded in ‘70s rock and roll without diving headfirst into mainstream pop.
Still, none of it feels like a particularly forced diversion away from anything that One Direction has done. Instead of distancing himself from the band and its fans in order to find credibility, Styles has done both. He’s now a Grammy winner, solo chart-topper, and blockbuster actor. Historically anti-pop publications like NME love him and grown adults love him.
In fact, the whole world seemingly loves him. GQ wrote in a 2020 profile, “His talent, charm, and style have a magnetism that only comes with the greats.” Styles is so universally adored now that he doesn’t even need the fanbase that launched him to where he is and yet, Styles has never once deserted the fangirl or the band that made him.
Music writers and culture critics alike, including Blake, have been loud in their defense of the fangirl but it’s rare that musicians themselves have joined in. Styles bucks that trend. In a 2017 Rolling Stone interview while launching his ‘serious music career’ he said, “Who's to say that young girls who like pop music -- short for popular, right? -- have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy.”
“How can you say young girls don't get it?” he continued.
“They're our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
In 2019, while launching his second album, he defended them once again. “We’re so past that dumb outdated narrative of ‘Oh, these people are girls, so they don’t know what they’re talking about.’”
“They’re the ones who know what they’re talking about. They’re the people who listen obsessively. They fucking own this shit. They’re running it.”
We are so past that narrative. It’s perhaps why the word fangirl has been replaced by the word stan in the last few years. Styles stuck by his fanbase and reaped the rewards but it’s also the sign of a changing tide. Stans are loud and they’re capable of getting things done.
While One Direction were never considered for a Grammy, the current most popular boy band BTS were acknowledged with a nomination this year. It’s hard to see it happening without the incessant promotion the fans, mostly teenage, have given the band over the past few years. They gave the Korean group an international platform and inserted them into music conversations. It came to a point where it was impossible to ignore them.
In the words of Styles, “They fucking own this shit.”
Check out the cast recording soundtrack for Fangirls below.