Who Will Be The First Popstar To Actually Take Accountability For Their Fanbase?
Popstars have an obligation to stamp out abuse committed on their behalf - and they need to start right now.
Last weekend should have been heaven for Taylor Swift stans.
Out of nowhere, Swift released a new album, folklore, 16 tracks of trembling and beautiful sonic honesty. There was a music video; merch; memes. It was a new era, with enough content to keep stan communities going for months.
Then there was the reception from critics. Even those who had previously been less than enthusiastic about Swift projects were glowing. Folklore got some of the best reviews of Swift’s entire career — Jon Caramancia’s review in the New York Times, probably the most mixed, was still suffused with praise.
It would be hard to imagine what more any stan community could want. But for some, it still wasn’t enough. In the days after the album’s release, vocal Swift stans had spammed Pitchfork‘s mentions, demanding that they get a folklore review immediately. When that review eventually came — a glowing tribute from writer Jillian Mapes with an 8/10 rating — stans decided it wasn’t enough.
They sent Mapes death threats; threatened to dox her. Later, she revealed that she had received mysterious phone calls, and that a photo of her home had been shared online. When she sent her Twitter private, they publicly crowed about the success of their bullying.
Elsewhere, Australian musician Katie Dey, who had her own release date overshadowed by the surprise drop of folklore, made a lighthearted post about why music-lovers should stream her album over Taylor Swift’s — her ass was fatter, she said. Stans decided this was bodyshaming. So for days, they hounded Dey, filling her mentions with hate, hunting down her Instagram. Dey’s own fans tried talking to the Swifties in her mentions. It didn’t work. Nothing stopped them. All Dey and Mapes could do was wait for it all to die down.
This is now the norm for those targeted by toxic stans — there’s no option but to ride out the wave of violence and cruelty. Twitter doesn’t help. You can’t block accounts fast enough. There is no way to send your account into lockdown mode except for going private, and far too often stans work their way around that restriction pretty quickly.
Last weekend, when Music Junkee‘s journalist Joseph Earp found himself targeted by Louis Tomlinson stans who were incensed by an article he wrote critical of the popstar, going private on Twitter only encouraged them to find his Instagram. When he went private on Instagram, the stans targeted Junkee socials. This is how stans work — they are tireless in their hatred, endlessly inventive in generating ways to cause pain.
Nothing will stop these stans, who move en masse, and are indiscriminate in their targets and virulent in their hate — nothing except the intervention of the source of stans’ affections, popstars themselves. So why don’t popstars care?
Popstars Set The Tone For Their Fans
Every popstar has a toxic section of their fanbase. But some fanbases are more toxic than others — and it’s always the popstars themselves that are to blame. Louis Tomlinson stans are notoriously aggressive, in no small part because Tomlinson has historically encouraged that hatred. When radio host Ash London lightly poked fun at the popstar and received an immediate backlash online, Tomlinson seemed to relish the bullying; spurred more on.
“Probs best to stay on private for a bit longer love!” he wrote to London on Twitter when she tried to divert the attention of the Tomlinson stans away. In response, stans gushed their approval. “KING DEFENDING HIMSELF!!!!!!!!!!!” one wrote. Tomlinson’s tweet is still up, three years later. He has never publicly apologised to London for the death threats she received, or even acknowledged the incident at all.
Probs best to stay on private for a bit longer love ! 🖕
— Louis Tomlinson (@Louis_Tomlinson) December 12, 2017
And so his fans perpetuate that hate to this day. Music Junkee still receives tweets every week regarding the article we published about the incident. They feel justified in violently defending Tomlinson’s honour because he has explicitly shown them that criticism does hurt him; that he is thin-skinned. They even have a phrase for their attempts to ruin the lives of critics — they call it doing things the “Tommo Way”.
They don’t care about being called out by articles like this one, or by other fandoms. Their hero, the source of their adoration, Louis Tomlinson, once gave them the thumbs up. Only he can undo that approval. And at present, he has limited reason to do so.
The Behaviour of Stans Hurts Popstars — But It Helps Them Too
Stans tar their heroes with an ugly brush — Tomlinson and Korean boyband BTS are both hurt by their association with teenagers who spend their time on the internet threatening to kill writers’ pets, and dox critics. But the exact intensity and loyalty that leads these fans to spread hate is the same energy that gets singles up the charts.
Stans can mobilise at the drop of a hat. They will flood internet polls to make sure their heroes win even meaningless competitions. They’ll go to sleep with songs playing on mute in order to game the streaming charts. They will create thousands of fancams, DIY edits of their beloved popstars, and then spam those fancams in the mentions of anybody who even mentions their heroes.
And yes, they can scare publications off from ever publishing a critical word about their heroes. Going through a stan dogpiling is exhausting for everyone involved — mentally draining, deeply upsetting. It’s no surprise that some publications choose to avoid covering certain popstars at all, or only writing glowing praise about them.
Popstars need their stans. And so they will accept so much from toxicity them, including death threats and cyberbullying, desperately turning a blind eye to harms committed in their name so that they can keep selling out arenas.
Popstars Can’t Be Allowed To Keep This Up Any Longer
But this cannot continue. Popstars can no longer ignore the harms being committed in their name. They are accountable, all of them. Any cruelty inflicted by a Taylor Swift fan is the responsibility of Taylor Swift herself. Accepting such cruelty because it sells novelty cardigans is no longer acceptable. Popstars have an imperative to stamp out hatred committed on their behalf. And they need to get to work stamping out that hatred right now.
It won’t take long. Popstars are, by their very nature, both rich and massively influential over their stans, and those two factors are all that is necessary to alter behaviour. Popstars need only hire one or two team members to monitor online standoms, detect surges in hatred directed against individuals, and then publicly and immediately address that hatred through their own social accounts.
Which is not to say that popstars need to stop journalists from ever being criticised. We’re not advocating for a world in which journalists exist in a bubble, never held to account for their own writing. But there’s clearly a line between acceptable criticism of journalists and what stans do, which is target, dox, threat and dogpile. And it’s time for popstars to stop pretending their stans behave acceptably, when they so clearly don’t.
Change needs to come. And it’s the popstars themselves who have to lead it.
Imagine if, last weekend, Taylor Swift made a public tweet telling stans to stand down. Imagine if she directly told them she doesn’t want them to target Mapes, or Pitchfork, or Dey — that she doesn’t mind the reviews, that everybody is entitled to their own opinion about her music. It would take a single tweet.
And what’s the downside? Fans wouldn’t abandon Swift just because she encouraged them to give up on hatred. They’d still stream folklore, and buy the merch. They’d just be kinder and less aggressive.
For too long, we have put up with the state of standoms; the ugliness; the death threats. No more. Change needs to come. And it’s the popstars themselves who have to lead it.