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Why are pop stars stanning themselves?

Charli XCX, Lizzo, Halsey, and scores of other pop stars have reshaped what it means for musicians to engage with their fans.

December 10, 2019
Why are pop stars stanning themselves?

“It is so intense to be a super fan. I feel that it’s been lost a little bit. If anything, I want to create that again.” That was Lady Gaga in 2008, during one of her first televised interviews. Barely an album into her career, Lady Gaga became Mother Monster to a new breed of superfan — one who looked to the pop star for maternal guidance, and were made to believe that they shared the same ambitions and were on the same journey as the person they exalted. “Miss you girls...you little monsters, be home soon xx,” she Tweeted in 2009.

In the ten years that have elapsed, superfandom — which we now refer to as "stanning" — has become an essential asset to any pop star’s career. But the power relations have changed: Borne out of an economy in which brand value, fan affiliation, and co-production have become crucial marketing tools, pop stars have begun to stan themselves. It’s why Charli XCX calls herself the "savior of pop," why Harry Styles is Tweeting “Kiwi walked so Watermelon Sugar could run,” and why Kim Petras is a stan first, pop star second.

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Several changes have led us here. With lower barriers to entry, the three major labels — Sony BMG, Warner Music Group, and Universal Music Group — have lost a great deal of their traditional control and influence. Social media has allowed emerging musicians to create their own presence, while the price of recorded music has greatly declined. In the past, these labels were expected to develop their pop star’s personal brand and shape their storyline.

Take Iggy Azalea: the kind of investment needed to make someone like Iggy a "good rapper" no longer exists. While she’s tried to orchestrate her comeback by assembling a stan army (“Y’all better have my back,” she Tweeted back in October), her music has yet to gain any significant traction beyond the possibly too-dedicated fans she still has left. Now that the onus is on the star to establish her own social and subcultural capital in order to create, Azalea has become a hubristic example of auto-stan failure.

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The response to the recent Charli XCX-formed girl group Nasty Cherry has been similarly dubious. “There has never been anyone like us in the history of rock n roll thank you @charli_xcx and Netflix,” they recently Tweeted. They’re almost certainly the words of their alt-pop creator who, in typical Charli XCX style, has asked her stans to stan another group just because she supposedly stans them.

Auto-standom (specifically, the pop star stanning themselves) has become the strategy that an increasing number of artists are using in these new conditions. “I can’t believe I’m releasing a new song in 3 days. Time off? We don’t know her. Workaholic? We stan,” Halsey Tweeted in October of 2018, to which another user replied, ”you sound like a local trying to blend in with fan twitter.” Halsey’s comeback was as illuminating as it was questionable: “I feel like an artist can never fully assimilate with fan culture because one cannot exist without the other. So if they become the same the whole thing falls apart.”

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But artists have begun to assimilate with their own fan culture. They speak the same language: “We stan,” “We don’t know her,” “Locals.” They’ve taken on fan-based practices such as meme-ing themselves to maintain public interest; they ask not only for fan engagement but fan labour, like making concert flyers free of charge. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Taylor Swift’s latest album cover resembles fan art made on Tumblr.)

These actions fall under the umbrella of what, in marketing terms, is known as "fan affiliation." As Alice Marwick and danah boyd's 2011 paper To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter defines it, fan affiliation is “the process of publicly performing a connection between practitioners and fans using language, words, cultural symbols, and conventions.” Ultimately, the consumer wants to see a reflection of themselves in what they’re consuming.

In each case, an underdog ideology is used to justify the stan’s intense devotion to their chosen pop star, which Lady Gaga mastered early in her career. To her fans, the name "Lady Gaga" not only signifies a pop star but an entire worldview — a representation of everything the world could and should be. Similar to discovering a conspiracy theory, the stan is made to feel as though they’ve been let on in a secret, which leads to possession of sanctimony; anyone who challenges their pop star is not only attacking what they love, but also what they believe can change the world.

This is where brand value comes in. In his revolutionary 2001 text Emotional Branding, marketing expert Marc Gobé writes that branding is not only about ubiquity, visibility, and functions — it's about bonding emotionally with people in their daily life: "Only when a product or a service kindles an emotional dialogue with the consumer can this product or service qualify to be a brand.” The most efficient way to develop that emotional dialogue is for the pop star to embody their fanbase — to love themselves on their fans' terms.

This mentality has shone through in the career of Charli XCX, who’s positioned herself both as an underdog and a pioneer by branding herself the "future" and "savior" of pop while drawing attention to her declining commercial success. While Lizzo also stands out as a prominent auto-stanner, her method runs counter to Charli’s, as she relies on chart statistics to maintain a sense of self-excitement within the "lizbian" community.

While the singer has recently been accused of “begging” fans to stream and buy her songs, the reality is that her fans are made to feel as though they’re sharing her success, and in a non-lucrative way, they are. Originally released in 2017, Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" has experienced an enormous surge in popularity, largely due to the labour and co-production activities of her fans. Earlier this summer, the lyric “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch” was repurposed into the #DNAChallenge on TikTok, which saw users taking a cotton swab to their mouth and proclaiming to be 100%-something.

Twitter soon caught wind, and the lyric yielded a barrage of memes (even Lady Gaga got involved); by the end of the summer, the song gained enough traction to spend a record-tying seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s unsurprising that "Truth Hurts" owes much of its delayed success to TikTok, a deeply consumer-driven platform which has enabled new leagues of record-breaking success — and similar to Lil Nas X’s "Old Town Road," the song has become a runner-up of sorts to the fan-made creations it’s inspired.

It’s worth noting how many songs at the top of the charts these days owe their success to fanmade memes, remixes, and TikToks; how many artists are using their natural outgrowth of fans to crowdfund, to enter into their legal battles, and to stan whoever they’re told to. Self-stanning and self-generated fandom go hand in hand, and it’s no longer enough to become someone’s fan just because they make good art — we have no choice but to stan.

Why are pop stars stanning themselves?