Arts, Column

COLUMN: The Invention Of The Modern Fan

When The Beatles landed in America 50 years ago this weekend, they created a monster: the modern fan.

Five thousand people-frantic followers, journalists, and photographers-mobbed together outside of New York’s JFK airport, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pan Am Flight 101. Girls held up hand-painted signs and madly waved their hands. They shouted, jumped up and down, and hopped on top of their friends’ shoulders just to catch a glimpse of the Liverpool boys with their black and white suits and moptop bowl cuts. Police tried to contain the lunacy.

On Feb. 9, a few days later, the band’s performance on CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Showaired, influencing not only the history of music, but also the future of fandom. About 74 million people-38 percent of the country’s population-tuned in to see the Brit pop-rockers play “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” among other songs. Since the concert was televised, the craze extended from the live audience in front of the stage to those at home on their couches. The fanaticism was contagious.

The Beatles altered the way people interacted with-and obsessed over-musicians. They were the first to really take advantage of improvements in technology that brought fans closer to the stars they loved, fueling their hysterical devotion. This sort of fervor was both unique and significant because of the innovative way that it spread, but it wasn’t the first instance of fandom.

The first-known fan frenzy sparked in Berlin in 1884. Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer, renowned and admired for his virtuosic skill as a pianist. His concerts threw crowds into a musical ecstasy. Female admirers would swoon at his sight and swarm him, fighting over his handkerchiefs and gloves. They’d wear his portrait on brooches and cameos, they’d save locks of his hair, and they’d even try to get ahold of his broken piano strings to wear as bracelets.

To describe these ridiculous reactions, writer Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania,” which doesn’t sound much different from Beatlemania or even Bieber Fever. Although Liszt and his fans lived over two centuries ago, it’s obvious that the concept of fandom has persisted and, actually, evolved. What was once considered a 19th-century mental illness has today become a central part of America’s entertainment culture.

It’s embedded itself in, and defined an aspect of, the country’s history. It was Sinatra in the ’40s, Elvis in the ’50s, and The Beatles in the ’60s. The list goes on-through the ’90s with boy bands like ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, the ’00s with the Jonas Brothers, and today with One Direction.

One Direction’s wild rise to fame in the U.S. has been compared to that of The Beatles during the British Invasion-and while they may be similar to some degree, the growth of social media has made the One Direction obsession much worse. The group markets itself well, inundating followers with updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The Beatles couldn’t do that, obviously, and neither could other artists throughout the years. But things have inevitably changed with progress.

Modern fandom began when The Beatles traveled from across the pond to the screens in America’s living rooms. Their success had a lot to do with their talent and charisma, but it also had to do with the developing relationship between music and technology. The radio, the TV, and the Internet have connected an ever-expanding community of fans with an ever-expanding pool of artists and bands. And while this is all good, the closer these two groups are drawn together, the more extreme the fandom seems to become.

How extreme is too extreme, though? And how close is too close? The whole relationship is getting out of hand-to the point where it’s no longer about an innocent, sweet admiration of artistic talent, but rather, an outrageous and uncontrollable madness, defined by fainting, stalking, and other irrational behaviors that society has learned to laugh at and make light of. But maybe this is wrong, and the 19th century was right with Listzomania. Maybe fandom really is an illness. The Beatles said “all you need is love” 50 years ago, but they probably never considered the monstrous love of the modern fan-never thought there could be such a thing as too much love.

February 9, 2014