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.
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