Have We Reached Peak Pop Culture Stress?
Surprise album releases, online spoilers, entire seasons dropped at once — it’s more stressful to be a fan now than ever before.
[Update July 17, 2017]: We first published this piece a year ago, but it feels painfully relevant today. It is currently 11.35am and the US is halfway through the season seven premiere of Game of Thrones, phones open, tweeting furiously. Welcome to spoiler season.
For the past month, I have become increasingly nervous. I haven’t experienced any major life changes (save for transitioning to a full-time position at Junkee, holla!) or faced any particularly traumatic events in my personal life. The reason I’m stressed is because Drake has a new album out soon and I don’t know when it’s going to come out.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Drake has recently said that his much-anticipated album Views From The Six will come out on April 29, but before that it seemed like it could drop at any moment (really, given the nature of album drops these days, release dates still mean almost nothing). I watched updates on Instagram about his recent surprise show at SXSW religiously, in case the album release followed. When taking a short plane trip a few weeks ago, I fidgeted the whole time, imagining that Drake had just dropped the album and that everyone in the world was enjoying it except for me (note: it hadn’t, but The Life of Pablo did appear on iTunes and Spotify so, you know, I’m not being hyperbolic here).
But it isn’t just Drake. I’m nervous knowing that Beyonce will probably drop her album this weekend. I’m stressed every time a new Game of Thrones trailer comes out, particularly when I can’t watch it immediately (which reminds me, season six starts on Monday, but what if my friends want to hang out on Monday on account of the public holiday? Not all of them watch Game of Thrones. Oh my god, what if I have to watch it on Tuesday after work, instead of on Monday??). The Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix still doesn’t have a release date, so it could be a surprise drop. I still feel anxious that the revival even exists.
What Is Pop Culture Stress?
This kind of manic, slightly embarrassing malaise is probably familiar to a few of you. In this internet age — with its surprise album drops, entire seasons released in one hit, online spoilers in every nook and cranny of the internet — it’s more stressful to be a fan than ever before.
Some of this is down to the fear of not knowing something, and thus feeling culturally irrelevant (e.g Person 1: “Hey, did you hear about that weird Johnny Depp video that came out this morning?” Person 2: “No… I haven’t seen it yet.” Person 1: “… Oh, don’t worry then.” Person 2: *explodes from shame*).
Sometimes it’s as simple as not wanting your pop culture to be ruined by some ninny with a mean spirit and a Twitter account (interestingly, studies have shown that spoilers can increase our gratification with pop culture, because tension can actually detract from our enjoyment. But generally, yes, spoilers can be pretty bad).
When it comes to the pieces of pop culture we really love, sometimes dissecting it with likeminded fans or taking part in the collective shock or outrage on social media is just as much fun as consuming the pop culture itself — which is probably why recaps, podcast recaps and even TV shows based on a podcast recap, have become so popular, particularly with Game of Thrones. Part of the pop culture stress can be attributed to a fear of missing out on the conversation, because the internet has made it so these buzz-y moments may only have a shelf life of a few hours.
Do you remember everyone on your Facebook who told you to get over Game of Thrones‘ Red Wedding episode less than 24 hours after the fact? And how you actually wanted to keep talking about it, but felt like you couldn’t? What if you had missed that first 24 hours completely (you were hiking with your great aunt, you couldn’t charge your phone and she still uses a Nokia that she straps to her hiking belt) and had no-one to DM (“omg wtfffff!!! Rob, nooooooo”) when you eventually caught up? Sure it doesn’t make the show less enjoyable, but it’s a very different experience.
The fact that seemingly ‘unimportant’ things like albums and movies could make a person legitimately stressed out shouldn’t be dismissed, because both positive and negative life events can cause stress or nervousness. Excitement and stress can walk hand in hand, which is why psychologists often suggest reframing anxiety as excitement for people who suffer from overwhelming nerves. Studies have found that these two reactions are not so different, and are both ultimately based on uncertainty at what lies ahead. When you’re stressed about your favourite show being rebooted or whether your favourite Canadian rapper’s new album will be any good, it’s because you’re excited about consuming it, but also worried that it won’t live up to your expectations.
The Internet And Intense Fandom
To be a devoted fan is already a borderline-obsessive act (see: Tumbr) but the ease of the internet has given us a huge sense of entitlement over the subjects of our fandom. Social media has given us greater access to directors, actors and musicians who give us tidbits and leave a trail of breadcrumbs to create buzz for their eagerly anticipated thing (usually hoping that their teaser will go viral).
Fans therefore develop a more intimate relationship with the creators of their favourite pop culture and feel more entitled to their access to them and demand to be heard. This works for stars like One Direction, whose fans often mandate that they know the band’s whereabouts at any given moment, or in any Reddit thread about any Marvel movie ever. By existing in a culture that encourages intense emotional relationships with pop culture, inevitably fandom becomes more intense. All of a sudden it doesn’t seem silly to blow off work and race to Brunswick, just to catch a glimpse of Beyonce filming a music video. I mean, when are you ever going to see that again?
In a New York Magazine article about intimacy and Gilmore Girls, Cari Romm explains the phenomenon of “parasocial relationships”, a term coined by psychologists in the 1960s to describe the one-sided relationships we form with fictional characters. These intimate yet distant relationships were found to “give the illusion of face-to-face relationships with the performer”, which seems to have only increased in the internet age (you can also experience a “parasocial breakups” when your favourite characters go off the air — which probably explains why I haughtily gave up on Lost when Charlie wasn’t in it anymore).
If emotional investment in pop culture can be so affecting that it’s actually an area studied by psychologists, then the idea of pop culture stress doesn’t so far fetched. Maybe deep fandom walks hand in hand with worry, in the same way that excitement and stress are related. With a show like Game of Thrones, which is notorious for killing off heroes and perhaps not always being of a consistent quality, of course being an obsessive fan of the show results in a gamut of dramatic emotions. Part of the fun of it all is getting carried away and enjoying the silliness and fun of a collective experience. We’re nervous about new seasons, new spoilers, new whatever, but it’s a bittersweet feeling because truly caring about pop culture (or anything) is a cool feeling.
Perhaps this is all just part of the enjoyment of fandom; the waiting, the anticipation, the praying it will be good, the counting down with your mates. Those who admonish you for taking pop culture too seriously or caring too much (or worse, telling you should care more about ‘real’ events, as if art cannot contribute to the state of things) just haven’t found a show or movie or album that they can be truly obsessed with and invested in. I’ll take the sweaty stress over that, any day of the week.
But seriously Drake, this album better be good.