Track­ing four boy-band-ob­sessed young women over sev­eral years, a new Aus­tralian doc­u­men­tary, I Used To Be Nor­mal, turns the spot­light off the stars and onto the fan­girls in an ef­fec­tive and sen­si­tive paean to blind in­fat­u­a­tion, writes Brodie Lan­caster.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - BRODIE LAN­CASTER is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.

Writ­ing about pop mu­sic fan­dom is never not tricky. I have been do­ing it for years: after be­ing vo­cal about my gen­uine love of the boy band One Direc­tion, ed­i­tors be­gan ask­ing me to cover the band’s new records, sto­ries from deep in­side its fan­dom, its even­tual dis­so­lu­tion and all five mem­bers’ sub­se­quent solo ca­reers. I de­liv­ered a pa­per on One Direc­tion fan­dom at an aca­demic con­fer­ence for mu­sic crit­ics in Seat­tle; a key­note on the his­tory and legacy of teenage pop mu­sic fans at the Big­sound mu­sic con­fer­ence in Bris­bane. Ear­lier this year, in this very news­pa­per, I de­scribed my­self as a “Direc­tioner”.

I cashed in on the trend and the mo­men­tum be­cause there were sto­ries in­side the fan­dom – of global sup­port net­works for LGBTQIA fans and writ­ers scor­ing main­stream pub­lish­ing deals after shar­ing on­line fan fic­tion – that the broader world was to­tally un­aware of, and I was uniquely po­si­tioned to ex­tract and share those sto­ries in the hopes of shift­ing the nar­ra­tive of un­con­trol­lable and em­bar­rass­ing hys­te­ria that had be­come short­hand for the young women who ob­sess over mu­sic made by young men.

But writ­ing about it was al­ways dif­fi­cult and it never got eas­ier – there was al­ways a cur­rent of de­fen­sive­ness that fiz­zled and sparked be­neath dis­cus­sions of the songs, the peo­ple who sang them and the peo­ple who loved them.

Fans were sup­posed to be em­bar­rassed about lov­ing these bands – and if they weren’t al­ready, they would in­evitably be one day – that had an ex­piry date af­fixed to them be­fore they had even left the ma­jor la­bel assem­bly line. The band should have been – to any­one with ears and a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive – lit­tle more than a guilty plea­sure. And thus, it was im­pos­si­ble to cap­ture and ex­plain the pure joy and unique ache of fan­dom with­out tak­ing an ex­haus­tive/ing de­tour to ac­knowl­edge cul­tural snob­bery or what name­less ob­servers thought or whether the bands even wrote their own songs. The pas­sion and ex­per­tise of fans could never just be the story.

So, when I fi­nally watched di­rec­tor Jes­sica

Leski’s fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary I Used To Be

Nor­mal: A Boy­band Fan­girl Story after years fol­low­ing its pro­duc­tion jour­ney – first as an in­ter­view sub­ject (I was ul­ti­mately left on the cut­ting room floor, which is a place I’m very com­fort­able be­ing) and then as an en­thu­si­as­tic backer of its Kick­starter crowd­fund­ing cam­paign – more than any­thing else, I was over­come by how ef­fec­tively Leski and her four key sub­jects were able to cap­ture that spe­cific joy of ob­ses­sion. While watch­ing the doc­u­men­tary, I’m not sure I man­aged to do any­thing but mum­ble, “It’s so real”, to my­self – and to no one in par­tic­u­lar – un­til the cred­its rolled. And that’s be­cause Leski made the es­sen­tial de­ci­sion to fo­cus not on the tit­u­lar boy bands, but solely on the girls and women who love them.

I Used To Be Nor­mal got its ti­tle from Elif, who was a 16-year-old Long Is­land stu­dent when she first sat in front of Leski’s cam­era to de­clare her ado­ra­tion for “the boys” – One Direc­tion. She howled the line, her face red with tears, at a pizza party with fel­low Direc­tion­ers, to il­lus­trate how ex­treme her trans­for­ma­tion had been from “nor­mal” to fan.

Elif is some­what of a tragic fig­ure in the film. The el­dest daugh­ter of Turk­ish im­mi­grants, she rebels in both tiny and big ways against the tra­di­tions and rules of her par­ents: by dream­ing of Harry Styles’s eyes or cut­ting school to travel to New York City by train in the hope of tak­ing a pic­ture with the band after a TV ap­pear­ance. Elif’s par­ents warn her that she’ll grow up, get mar­ried and for­get about One Direc­tion – whose new pres­ence in all their lives they re­sent and re­ject. She bats away this ul­ti­mately semi-prophetic mes­sage.

When Elif at­tends the band’s con­cert, Leski is there with her. Her cam­era is trained not on the band on stage, but on the faces of the girls in the crowd, each one hav­ing her own spe­cific ex­pe­ri­ence, but who are of­ten thought of only en masse, as a heav­ing, shriek­ing col­lec­tive.

Elif rep­re­sents the lat­est, most in­tense and most con­nected fan in this fea­ture doc­u­men­tary, which also serves as an ed­u­ca­tional piece about the his­tory and struc­ture of boy bands more broadly.

Be­fore her there was Sa­dia, a 25-year-old writer from San Fran­cisco whose teenage love of the Back­street Boys threat­ened to be­come her iden­tity un­til she took a step back to con­sult it with care­ful and lov­ing crit­i­cism.

It’s through Dara, a 33-year-old Take That fan from Syd­ney, that we ex­pe­ri­ence a piv­otal and dev­as­tat­ing stage in ev­ery fan’s life – the break-up – and be­come stu­dents in her vir­tual class on The The­ory of Boy­bands. With a white­board marker in hand, she runs through the de­sired make-up of a band – be­tween three and five young men, aged 17-21 – and what fea­tures each much pos­sess to qual­ify. Boyz II Men, she posits, can­not be a boy band be­cause they sing too di­rectly about “mak­ing love”, whereas clas­sic boy bands must only im­ply or stick to G-rated top­ics. To that I will only say: lis­ten to “No Con­trol” by One Direc­tion and get back to me.

The Mon­kees are a clear in­clu­sion be­cause of their suc­cess with rule No. 1: “You can’t take your­self too se­ri­ously.”. Han­son, on the other hand, are ex­cluded be­cause they’re broth­ers. “These guys have been singing to­gether since they were five,” Dara ex­plains, which gives

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