“A groupie is someone who loves the music so much she wants to be around the people who make it,” famed groupie Pamela Des Barres said in her 1987 memoir “I’m With the Band.”
“A fan is content with an autograph or a look from the stage, or a selfie. A groupie takes the next step. And that takes a lot of courage. But they do so totally willingly, sometimes hoping for a romance, or a one-night stand — or sometimes hoping to marry them,” she continued.
Des Barres came to fame during the 1970s, a period when musicians’ lives were still a mystery to most fans. Some barely knew what their musical idols looked like, let alone the inner workings of their minds. By all accounts and according to this description, I’ve been a groupie my whole life.
The term “groupie” is still used today, but it seems to mean something different than it used to. In line with Des Barres’s definition, every fan of the modern age is already at that “next step,” looking deeper into the music than we ever could before. But where is the line between fan and groupie now, as the access we have to artists grows every day?
As I accompanied my partner, a musician, to the virtual Detroit Jazz Festival broadcast from the Renaissance Center, I began to consider this question more and more. Though I met and fell in love with him apart from his band, the fact that he was a musician definitely sweetened the deal, especially considering that I was a part of that world as a journalist already. But was I finally becoming a true groupie? My roommates joked with me as I prepared to leave on Friday, anticipating a fun weekend of hanging out with the band and their significant others. Through hotel rooms and late-night practice sessions, I sunk into the feeling of comfort and happiness that music can bring.
The experience was familiar to me — my father is a musician, too, and I am no stranger to the family-like culture that surrounds them. As a member of the press, I’ve also had greater access to the people who write our favorite songs, getting the opportunity to ask them questions that most people couldn’t. That relationship is something I’ve always treasured, but I wonder, would it have even existed during Des Barres’s time? In a scene that was saturated with male stars and female fans, maybe the only way to understand those people was to throw yourself into the scene, by whatever means possible. The barriers between these young women and life in the spotlight were large, and often only gusto, a charming smile and a strong will could break them.
Considering Des Barres’s definition of groupie, I remembered a fateful scene from one of my favorite movies, “Almost Famous.” During the film, Kate Hudson’s character Penny Lane, who some believe to be based on Des Barres’ friend Pennie Trumble, claims that she and her other friends are “Band-Aids,” not groupies.
“We are not Groupies. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music,” she explains to the protagonist, young journalist William.
This goes in direct contradiction to Des Barres’s understanding of what makes a groupie, arguing that the station of muse could never go to a lowly fan. When I first watched “Almost Famous” in high school, witnessing the journey William goes through as a young writer solidified my own path as a music journalist. But I also left fascinated and enamored with Penny Lane, wanting to understand her as much as I also wanted to steal her enormous wardrobe. Writers can get into the musician’s head, but is it the same as that fateful bed?
This question poses a lot of others in turn: Is a relationship with a musician moot if you’re a fan? What access do “traditional” groupies have that a normal fan wouldn’t? In truth, 2020 is a different beast altogether than the ’70s were, complicating those relationships even further. I would argue all music lovers are groupies to some extent now, following their favorite artists’ every move through social media rather than tailing the tour bus. There is also a gendered element to this, as the access enabled by modern technology and culture allows people of all gender identities to lock into their respective obsessions. In a world full of powerful, mostly-straight men, the prescribed role of “groupie” was a woman’s work. They were the arm candy to the stage stars of the day, pushing them to create better work while offering companionship on the hard road of touring. Now, it’s everyone’s job, everyone’s prerogative to support and cheer on their idols. Anyone can DM or comment on something in hopes that one day, an icon will see it.
As the long-term partner of a musician, I don’t feel threatened by “groupies” in the same way that I believe the wives and partners of older generations might be. We’re in a completely different boat, the more I think about it. Being a fan, in this era, is almost equivalent to the groupie definition of yore. We are all a part of the music, in a strange way, a collective muse to the musicians we follow and support throughout their careers.
If that pushes one or two people to get closer with those artists, fine, but according to Des Barres, even Penny Lane, the “groupie” is a nebulous label that might not even be applied to them. It’s turning yourself over completely to the music and the people who make it, something I believe we’ve all done in some way or another. You don’t have to crawl into those sheets, behind closed doors or even backstage to catch a glimpse of the musical world.
Daily Arts Columnist Clara Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.