This article is a part of the Arts b-side on Icons. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.

Growing up, one of my favorite songs of all time was Eminem’s hip-hop classic “Stan,” which tells a twisted tale from the perspective of a genuine superfan (or perhaps “stalker-fan”). Stan as depicted in the song is not the kind of fan anyone would want to identify with — he doesn’t get a happy ending.

It came as a surprise to me when I started high school and saw the word “stan” had entered the lexicon of celebrity fandoms. Stanning is a level of devotion to an artist beyond that of your everyday fan. It’s not quite the devotion of the term’s namesake; most stans firmly disapprove of stalker-like behavior. So what does it mean to be a stan?

“It’s kind of unhealthy to be honest,” Engineering sophomore Sophia Do said between laughs. “It’s a bit of an obsession.”

To stan means to love and support an artist in everything they do. It can take the form of supporting their music doing well on the charts, or feeling happy when they see their favorite artist do anything, down to the most innocuous activities. Stan communities exist for virtually every popular artist, and they even have their own demonyms. Justin Bieber stans are Beliebers, Taylor Swift stans are Swifties, Harry Styles stans are Stylers and BTS stans are ARMYs, just to name a few.

Do, a K-pop fan, stans artists like BTS, Red Velvet and BLACKPINK. K-pop fans in particular have a reputation among other fandoms; they’re widely perceived as some of the most devoted stans. According to Do, it’s a consequence of the Korean idol industry tightly controlling their artists’ images. “Idols have a persona they put on,” she explained. “It’s not actually them. Which makes people more curious.” The limited genuine interaction that K-pop idols can have with their fans gives them an air of mystery, and it bolsters their stans’ enthusiasm.

Where K-pop stans revel in every glimpse of their idols, if you’re a Justin Bieber stan, he might just Cash App you.

“The Biebs follows me on Twitter,” Engineering senior Isha Mishra said. “That was exciting. I remember I cried when it happened.” To promote the release of his latest single, “Holy,” Bieber partnered with Cash App to give away 250 thousand dollars. Mishra tweeted her Cash App, and Bieber sent her 500 dollars. “I was over the moon. I was crying, crying, crying.”

Mishra is a part of Stan Twitter, a subgenre of Twitter in which stans connect to talk about their favorite celebrities. They’ll share their favorite celebrity’s pictures, talk about their music and stay up to date with what their icons are doing, often on a day-to-day basis. It’s a boiling pot of tweets ranging from fiery hot takes and firm opinions to impassioned celebrity adoration. Much of the dialog is between people who don’t know each other in real life, but connect online over their common stanhood. It contrasts with “local Twitter,” stanglish (stan slang) for “normie Twitter” where users follow their real-life acquaintances (locals).

For Mishra, Stan Twitter is a home, a place to escape to. “It gives me a sense of community,” she said. “I tell them my everyday life, any time I have a problem or something, they’re one of the first people I’ll go to.” Even if she only gets to see her friends from Stan Twitter at concerts, their friendship is genuine. “I love them so much. We send each other things for our birthdays. We talk all the time. I just consider them my friends, not just like, ‘oh, I met them on the internet.’”

Harry Styles stan and Nursing freshman Delanie Schreiber echoed Mishra’s fondness for Stan Twitter. “It’s nice to be in a community of people who feel the same way that you do and are excited about the same thing,” Schreiber said. Like Mishra, Schreiber has also made long-time friends on Stan Twitter only to meet them years later at concerts.

Making friends and finding a community is as big a part of stan culture as the idols themselves. For many, friendship with other stans naturally goes deeper than a shared interest. “Harry Styles isn’t just music, you stan for Black Lives Matter, you support gay rights, because so does Harry Styles,” Schreiber explained. “If somebody supports an artist that supports those, you know that you have the same views and interests on things.”

Even though most of these artists are hugely popular, for a long time, being a stan was sort of like a niche hobby. Stan communities on Twitter or other social media help bring like-minded people together, but finding that space in real life can be tricky.

Do always felt some judgment from her peers for listening to K-pop. But today, K-pop is at the forefront of mainstream — BTS’s “Dynamite” is sitting comfortably at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. When she first came to the University her freshman year, Do joined a K-pop dance group on campus with her roommate. She didn’t end up sticking with it, but her roommate did and made lots of friends through it.

There are numerous K-pop dance groups on campus, and though not every person in a dance group is necessarily a devout stan, it’s still a great way to find people who appreciate the same artists. For stans of Western artists, finding other stans doesn’t even need a dedicated space for it: Stans are everywhere.

Even in her first month on a mostly virtual campus, Schreiber has already met other Harry Styles fans. “I’ll meet people that I won’t know that they’re a Harry styles fan, and then they’ll mention a little thing,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh? Are you a Harry Styles fan?’ and we just click.” Recently she connected with another Nursing major who recognized her Harry Styles t-shirt. Amid all the usual freshman year small talk — the tiresome monotony of who-are-you, where-are-you-from, what’s-your-major — finding someone with a shared interest was a breath of fresh air for Schreiber. “You’re immediately in a different conversation, it’s not awkward, you have something to talk about,” she said.

Stan culture and the stan community is a place of comfort for many. Still, like any large community, it’s not without its problems.

LSA freshman Pranav Balachander stans artists like Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift, but he’s hesitant to call himself a stan. “I don’t necessarily engage in the typical stan culture behavior that you see on Twitter, but I am a stan of these artists,” he explained. 

Though they find solidarity in their respective stan communities, all of my interviewees acknowledged the capacity of stan culture to be toxic, both for the stans and the celebrities they follow. Balachander has seen that toxicity play out on Twitter in many forms.

One of the biggest provocateurs of conflict and competition among stans is actually the Billboard Hot 100. “Stan culture almost unilaterally focuses on charts without looking at the bigger picture,” Balachander said. Charts like the Hot 100 or Billboard 200 rank singles and albums by somewhat objective measures of record sales and streaming numbers. When artists don’t do well on these charts, “they’re automatically branded as flops,” he said. (When they do rank highly, they’re “smashes.”)

For stans, it’s natural to want to see your artist do well. “The whole fanbase kind of rejoices at their success,” Do said. “And then you feel like it’s a big community and connected to all these people.” But by the nature of the charts, for one artist to be at the top means displacing another. And if an artist doesn’t chart, or their rankings slip, then competing stans are quick to call them a flop.

Many stans feel so strongly about their artist’s chart placings because they take responsibility for their performance. “Some people are streaming the same music video on 5 devices for 24 hours so that their band or group can hit the top charts, break a new record,” Do said. “That’s a really big thing. Even years after the video (releases), people are still streaming to get it to a certain number.” Given the lengths that stans go to see their artist succeed, it makes sense why seeing their favorite artist get called a flop on Stan Twitter can feel hurtful or like a failure for the fandom.

Beef between stans is common — if their artist has beef with another artist, the stans will take sides. Sometimes it’s pretty cut-and-dry — Taylor Swift stans will always be at odds with Kanye West stans — other times it’s less explicit. Both Mishra and Balachander tried to explain to me why Beliebers and Swifties don’t get along from each side’s perspective, but I never truly grasped what the beef was all about. Something about Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun and Swift’s master recordings. Either way, Bieber and Swift don’t see eye to eye, and neither do their stans.

Sometimes there doesn’t even have to be any beef for the stans to get vicious. Within K-pop, ARMYs and BLINKs are at each other’s throats and fighting over YouTube views even though BTS and BLACKPINK have no conflict whatsoever. They’re just the two most popular K-pop groups worldwide, and both fandoms want their group to be number one.

Balachander, who often reads what people say in the replies to celebrities’ tweets, described interactions across fandoms that look a lot more like genuine tension than friendly banter. According to him, even collaborations between artists will have Twitter backlash, with accusations of “payola” or attributing a song’s success solely to the featured artist. It’s kind of like an intense sports rivalry but the playoffs — the Billboard Hot 100 — are every week.

For many stans, the competition can be exhausting. “I try to stay away from that part of it,” Mishra said. “You don’t know what the other person is going through on the other side of that screen.”

Stan culture can take a toll on artists, too. Even if 99 percent of stans maintain a healthy relationship with their idols, the one percent of overly obsessed stans can do a lot of damage. Schreiber reflected solemnly on instances of stans crossing the line. “Harry Styles threw up on the side of the road a couple years ago, and there’s a shrine,” she said. “On Twitter people were so excited about it.”

Schreiber sees it as a failure to recognize something simple: Celebrity idols are still just people. “You don’t see them as real people when you stan them,” she said. “They’re people too. They’re not some god-like person that can’t be hurt.”

The way I see it, there’s no way to change the “dark side” of stan culture — where there are celebrities there will always be fans that take it too far, and where there is competition there will be conflict. (Billboard seems like the real villain in the story to me.)

Large communities always have problems, but they also have power in their numbers, and stans have put their numbers to use for more than just reaching streaming goals. BTS donated one million dollars to Black Lives Matter, and ARMYs matched the donation. One time they even made a Trump rally flop. Stans are inherently supportive and cooperative, creating safe spaces to vent about things that wouldn’t fly on local Twitter and always leaving the door open to talk when a fellow stan is in need.

For all the celebrity stans at the University I spoke to, the heart of stan culture was always the community they found. The thing that stuck with me most was the idea that you don’t just stan an artist, you stan what they stand for. Finding people to feel at home with is one of the greatest challenges I faced when I first came to Ann Arbor. I could find people who liked the same music, movies and books, but it wasn’t the same connection as when your best friend introduces you to their other best friend and you just click like magic. For stans, celebrity icons are that mutual best friend.

Daily Arts Writer Dylan Yono can be reached at dyono@umich.edu.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *