The Morning Jolt

Culture

‘Toxic Fans’ Reflect a Society that Is Desperate to Believe in Something

Nicki Minaj arrives at Tidal’s office in Oslo, Norway March 4, 2019. (NTB Scanpix/Ole Berg-Rusten/via REUTERS )

The latest issue of The New Yorker knows how to grab your attention. The headline promises, “How Superfans Captured the Culture,” and warns, “One afternoon, Wanna Thompson, a Nicki Minaj fan, wrote a mildly critical tweet about her idol. Hours later, she had received hundreds of threatening messages — including one from Minaj’s own account — and been fired from her internship. Michael Shulman reports on the rise of extreme fandom.”

If you’re wondering how critical Thompson was, she merely wrote, “You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly [stuff]. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.” Not exactly a scathing reproach, but apparently one that hundreds of people believed must be rebuked with a response of pure rage.

Extreme fandom, toxic fandom — The New Yorker article argues, “fans are more powerful than ever.” Is this something new, though? How different is this from young women getting into screaming hysterics and fainting over Elvis or the Beatles — or the Jackson Five, or New Kids on the Block or the Backstreet Boys. Charles Dickens was mobbed by fans when he visited the United States in 1842, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 in part so he wouldn’t have to keep feeding the ravenous public appetite for more stories of the famous detective. In 1927, silent film star Rudolph Valentino died and allegedly at least two obsessed women fans committed suicide. More than 50,000 people showed up for the funeral,  and 100 people were injured in a riot.

The phenomenon of fixated fans, so consumed with passion that they remind us that ‘fan’ stemmed from the word ‘fanatic, is not unique to American culture, as soccer hooligans, K-pop obsessives, and Bollywood prove. Part of this is the Internet suddenly making it so much easier to quickly send an anonymous death threat. You don’t even need to pay for a stamp anymore! There was a time when a death threat over popular culture meant the Ayatollah had issued a fatwah on Salman Rushdie. But more than a decade ago, we passed the point of pollsters getting death threats from folks who don’t like the results. Death threats are the new and idiotic way of saying, “I strongly disagree.”

The fact that so many people are willing to lash out so angrily over some random person’s criticism of their favorite pop star suggests to me that we live in a society full of people who are desperate to believe in something. They yearn for someone to put their faith in and to inspire them. They want to believe that someone out there is, if not perfect, about as close as any human being can get to that exalted status. They want to feel connected to a larger group, a community all experiencing the same feelings at the same time. They want to believe in something greater that gives them purpose and direction, provides a set of role models, and often gives them some sort of lesson about what living a good life is.

Traditional organized religion may not have the influence in American society that it used to, but eerily similar systems of belief keep stepping in to fill that vacuum.

NBC News is giving people a venue to make their “climate confessions.” Union Seminary gave people the opportunity to confess their sins to plants. There are all kinds of websites, chat boards, and apps that give people the ability to anonymously admit their darkest secrets.

Many of us would argue that the other side’s political rallies resemble cult-like religious services . . . not that our side would ever see a political leader in such blatantly messianic terms.

One of my all-time favorite jokes stems from the time Pope John Paul II held Mass at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 1995. He chose the home stadium of the Jets for the site of the Mass because he had heard that Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason had already had amazing success in getting tens of thousands of people to simultaneously cry out, “Jesus Christ almighty!”

But what are sports events? Large crowds sit in rows and look upon their leaders in hopes of feeling exultation as they witness something extraordinary. They chant, sometimes sing songs, they stand and raise their arms as they do “the wave.” They feel connected to strangers — or maybe, over years of season tickets, those strangers up and down the row start to feel like community or family. They put their faith in a player or team. They’re often reenacting a ritual that their father participated in, and his father before that, and that they’ll pass along to their kids. When there’s disappointment and heartbreak, they share the feeling with a stadium or an arena full of strangers. When there’s victory and euphoria, they share that feeling with all of those strangers, too — and will probably never forget the feeling. When someone they never met in person tears an ACL, they feel heartbreak. When a rookie hits his first home run in the big leagues, they feel proud for him. “Soccer is like a religion here,” has become a cliché of sportswriters visiting foreign countries.

I love the observation that set social psychologist Jonathan Haidt down his path of diagnosing how our political divisions often stem from how we define morality. He described attending a breakfast with liberal friends where the host made an offhand comment about how uptight, repressed, and strict Christians were about sex . . . and then assured the guests that all of the food was organic, pesticide-free, free-range, fair-trade, etcetera. Just like the Christians, the liberal host had his own strict code of what was moral and immoral to do with his body, but he couldn’t grasp that just as he found traditional Christians’ restrictions on sexual activity silly, many other people would find his beliefs about what was morally acceptable to buy and eat silly. He had found his religion; he just didn’t see it as a religion.

A couple of years back, I noticed a lot of Bob Dylan fans don’t like his song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Maybe they find the implications of the song unnerving:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may not think of yourself as a believer or a member of any organized religion, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts, actions, and habits aren’t serving someone. The fact that these behaviors are so ubiquitous, even in contexts we don’t think of as religious, suggests that they’re baked in the cake of the human condition.

A shrewd and canny observer of that human condition once argued, “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

Okay, technically, that was Loki in The Avengers movie. But it’s a good villain’s rant, because as power-mad as it seems, it’s got a little bit of truth to it. Freedom is rarely easy and isn’t always fun. It comes with responsibility and accepting the consequences of our choices and mistakes and flaws. At some point, our freedom to make our own choices is going to leave us in some situation that disappoints us and fills us with regret. Even smart people can make big and consequential bad decisions. A theoretical particle physicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill really believed he was having an online romance with Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model. Sometimes those who are lucky in love find they can’t handle money, those who are a whiz at finances can never find the right words, great leaders in the workplace find raising their own children to be an endless challenge. The only people who never feel stupid in life are those who are consumed by the Dunning–Kruger effect.

We often want someone to love, to serve, some greater cause we can devote ourselves to, because devotion can be invigorating and reassuring. We want someone whose judgment we can always trust, who will always have the right answers, who will look out for us for all those times when we’re blinded by pride or ego and aren’t looking out for ourselves.

We talk a good game about the joy of independence and being free spirits and bound to no one, and but . . . life can be pretty lonely sometimes. Even Ayn Rand found it hard to live up to her own standards of not needing anyone else. We also crave connection, and we don’t always demand perfect equality and a level playing field in our relationships, because we may conclude we need other factors more. Sometimes it’s a relief to just be a hanger-on to the popular kid, to be joyfully wrapped around the finger of the most beautiful woman or the biggest hunk, to be the loyal right-hand man of the bold and decisive leader. Parents dote on their kids, children put their parents on a pedestal. In Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, the long-suffering devoted campaign aide looks at a full moon and declares, “That’s me. Beautiful, huh? Very impressive to the earthlings. But Henry, honey, it’s only reflected light. It needs the sun. And I lived my life drawing light and warmth from the Stantons — and, God, they were so good and glowing. I could go for years without remembering I wasn’t producing any warmth myself, any light of my own.”

Maybe those kinds of relationships can drift into unhealthy territory pretty easily. Still, in all of those cases, we’ve at least found a flesh-and-blood real person for our devotion. And it doesn’t leave us sending death threats to a stranger on Twitter because she thought Nicki Minaj needs to grow as an artist.

ADDENDA: It’s one of those rare one-topic Jolts today. Check out the Corner for more variety in your news diet.

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