Recently, stans have been reframed as the internet’s new agents of political good, largely after a renegade group of BTS fans that—depending on who you ask—railroaded a Trump rally and flooded the hashtags of racist conspiracy groups with their beloved pop icons. Their efforts were illuminating, showing a possibility for the application of “stanhood” in more practical ways than the usual fare of trolling random internet users with fancams of a boyband they’ve never listened to. But such coordinated mobilizations are hindered by the history of the way standoms developed, and how they traditionally operate.
Over the past decade, stans have become increasingly coordinated in retaliation to the democratization of online opinion. Low album ratings have become not just a difference of opinion, but an act of abuse worthy of retaliation in the form of Twitter mention pile-ups, verbal abuse, or in the most extreme cases, doxxing. Writers and freelancers at critical institutions like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, when offering up perfectly even-handed criticisms of a standom’s favorite artists, have been framed as a conspiratorial cabal of “elites” intent on silencing fans and consumers. These behaviors have been exacerbated by the regular public’s increasing proximity to celebrity through social media, by which every pop star, influencer, and d-list actor has immediate access to their fans, gaining the power to bypass institutions that once facilitated these conversations. Younger pop stars in particular have benefitted greatly from this stan support when confronted with adversity or negative press feedback. Bad album reviews could be tweeted out, bloggers and critics addressed publicly. But standom operates on the fallacy that the music critic, even while working within a system which increasingly devalues culture writing and criticism, is ruining the artistic legacy of their favorite pop star, simply by publishing an opinion. They are unaware that their policing of critical reviews—which does not sway their engagement with said pop stars, mind you—is what’s really diluting the music landscape.
On the extreme end of this scale, look at all the legitimately “canceled” artists in the last year alone. Even when met with criticism, or accusations of rape and abuse, they have largely been insulated from consequences affecting wealth, their fans, or the industry that uplifts them.
There is a burgeoning belief in stan circles that critics and journalists are mighty enough to control the whims of celebrities, record labels, and the Recording Academy at large. Or, at least, they don’t think that even mild criticism of their pop darlings should be published. Sure, journalists have published stories about racist and abusive industry titans, gatekeeping labels, Grammy-winning sexual predators, and more, indicating that journalists do wield a certain amount of power, though they cannot individually get a discriminatory editor fired from his job or a predatory producer sent to prison. (And, notoriously, the music industry has been much slower to embrace #metoo than any other arm of the entertainment industry.) Perhaps the critic’s tendency to write with authority over their areas of expertise lends itself to this supposition of power, particularly from the fans of pop stars. But intrinsic to this ideology, to which stan culture holds fast in times of crisis is the belief that bloggers—many of whom earn bottom-floor salaries—are the real “elites,” and that pop stars are the victims of our savage keyboards, who must also be protected from us. I’d laugh if such foolish beliefs didn’t lend themselves to so much vitriol and harassment.
It’s my general code of operation that if I’m narcissistic enough to publish my own words on the internet, I should understand that anyone can publish their own set of words back at me. Most writers assume as much. But in the view of many stans, critics are aggressors and predators, victimizing your average pop star with less-than-total fawning praise. On Sunday, a Pitchfork editor’s glowing review of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore resulted in mass-coordinated doxxing and harassment—because it might bring the album’s Metacritic score below 90, according to tweets. In this new era of stan war politics, there are only two sides: The elites, and the heroes fighting to topple them; the stans see themselves as the latter. Such simplification of power dynamics is childish, like the political understandings that apparently bolster them.
It’s a tactic made all the more disheartening by the long, slow death knell of the music blogosphere. Once-staple sites have all but ceased publishing, and critics and music writers are going extinct. The real enemies to art and the sharing of ideas and opinions are actually the venture capitalists and CEOs buying up digital publications, parceling them out, and turning them into a Frankenstein’s monster of SEO content and ad revenue. These renovated culture sites—if I’m being completely honest—coincidentally peddle the same celebrity worship and capitalist exaltations that stans thrive on. If stans want to truly see what a genuine attack on their celebrity’s career might look like, then they should continue lending their aid to the dismantling of the music reporting industry.
I’m wary of the ways in which we might talk about the BTS Army’s ability to politically mobilize themselves, while some Taylor Swift stans of the same tenacity and ilk dox yet another critic, apparently oblivious to the lopsided celebrity/consumer dynamic they are encouraging. Stans may consider themselves the white knights of pop stars, but in the worst circumstances, they’re just doing their dirty work.