Crazy for You

Everything I Need I Get from You by Kaitlyn Tiffany. New York: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $18.

The cover of Everything I Need I Get from You

IN OCTOBER OF 2014, HARRY STYLES WENT FOR A HIKE  in Los Angeles, and on the way back, made his driver pull over so he could puke by the side of the freeway. Paparazzi took photos, which circulated online and in tabloids. One fan visited the location, marked it with a sign reading “Harry Styles Threw-Up Here,” and posted a picture to Instagram. Five years later, Kaitlyn Tiffany, One Direction fan, staff writer at The Atlantic, and author of Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18), sought out the spot on a Harry Styles–themed pilgrimage. 

What would compel someone to drive up and down the highway looking for the site of a long-ago vomit marker? “The idea of Harry Styles throwing up on the side of a highway and the idea of a girl I don’t know erecting a shrine to it is the most precise possible representation of what I find interesting,” Tiffany writes. “Imagining what could make me feel most myself, I thought it would be standing on that ground.” There is an element of Tiffany proving her own fangirl bona fides here, of convincing the reader of her authenticity. So it’s absurd, and ultimately convincing, that she doesn’t find the exact spot. Eventually, she just chooses a patch of gravel and gets out to snap her own pictures. “This contact,” she writes, “while glancing and totally imaginary, was more intimate than the time I’d spent in stadiums and arenas with Harry Styles, and funnier to me than life itself.”

This episode is great—well-written, vivid, somehow melancholy. And it’s characteristic of Tiffany’s book, which is, on the one hand, elegantly written, evidence-based, and rational, and on the other, off-kilter, animated by a profound and consuming, almost manic, loneliness. Tiffany’s fandom is not quite at the center of the book—which aims, by using One Direction fans as a case study, to show how internet fangirls have been misunderstood as a cultural force—but it’s enough of a presence to be persuasive. 

Crucially, Tiffany’s fandom is no less genuine for her recognition that it makes her sort of ridiculous. At one point, her sister gives her a homemade shirt reading “Mrs. Horan” (referencing band member Niall Horan) and she wears it to a show. “It was gauche on purpose,” she writes, “the tackiness of ‘wearing the merch to the show’ taken to higher heights to make for a good bit.” This self-conscious attitude is not uncommon among One Direction fans, Tiffany notes. Her argument is not that their fandom is insincere, but that these fans have a more complex relationship to their devotion than they’re given credit for. It’s self-aware, playful, and not without a sense of humor about how it all may look to outsiders.

Cultural critics have missed this humor since the dawn of time (or at least since the rise of the Beatles). An overlooked element of Beatlemania was self-parody: the girls who were dismissed as crazed and hysterical were aware, to some extent, that they seemed crazed and hysterical—and shrill and histrionic and whatever other gendered pejoratives were thrown at them. In 1964, Tiffany tells us, a group of girls in California founded an organization called Beatlesaniacs, Ltd.: “It was advertised as ‘group therapy’ and offered ‘withdrawal literature’ for fans of the Beatles who felt that their emotions had gotten out of hand.” The group was “covered credulously” in Life magazine, which noted that it offered therapy “for those living near active chapters, and withdrawal literature for those going it alone at far-flung outposts.” The Beatlesaniacs girls were joking, of course, at the expense of everyone stodgy and boring enough to take them entirely at face value—the squares, the grown-ups, the men.

Fan at a One Direction concert, São Paulo, May 10, 2014. Gabriela Fernandes/Flickr.
Fan at a One Direction concert, São Paulo, May 10, 2014. Gabriela Fernandes/Flickr.

Tiffany fits One Direction fans within a lineage of girls being self-consciously weird about pop idols. She writes, “Though the criticism of fangirls is that they become tragically selfless and one-track-minded, the evidence available everywhere I look is that they become self-aware and creatively free.” Their affect is both ironic and sincere, both a bit and not. They’re joking, seriously. Their memes, described extensively in a chapter called “Deep-Frying,” take aim at their own fervor. To me, this ambivalence is the richest, most exciting, most fun approach to art. It’s also a common attitude on the internet, the fangirl’s natural habitat. You can care and not care at the same time. You don’t have to choose. 

Who do you stan? Is it One Direction, Rihanna, Beyoncé? Do you stan Mark Zuckerberg? (Fact: this horrifying fandom exists.) Maybe you stan ordinary things: your children, your dog, iced tea, long weekends.

We all know that we stan but why do we stan? And why did we start talking like this? Everything I Need attempts to give fans of One Direction their portion of the credit. Before “the mannerisms of Stan Twitter became the mannerisms of the whole site,” Tiffany writes, its memes and slang were being created by Black Twitter, drag culture, and gay stans, mingling with shorthand phrases from niche corners of Tumblr and “Weird Twitter.” The One Direction fandom was a major force in popularizing this language in the mainstream. They are part of the reason “we stan a legend,” and why we marvel, genuinely or jokingly, “HER MIND.” They are part of the reason people not in the know are called “locals” online, and why you might see, for instance, a thirty-six-year-old man working in media call another thirty-six-year-old man working in media a “king” on Twitter. 

Beyond language, the fangirls’ biggest contributions are more difficult to pin down. They rule social media (Tiffany cites Lady Gaga’s fans, who made her the first Twitter user to hit twenty million followers, and a rumor from 2010 that 3 percent of the platform’s servers “were employed solely to host activity related to Justin Bieber”), but besides a few isolated campaigns to sway stars’ public politics, it’s unclear exactly how this all translates into cultural capital. Internet fans first found power in numbers on Tumblr, where they shared memes ad nauseum, and then moved to Twitter. But it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario: Did fandoms shape the way memes were shared, or did the platforms shape the behavior of the fans? “The cultural phenomena of fandom and the internet are braided together,” writes Tiffany. “One can’t be fully understood without the other.”

Tiffany also endeavors to connect some of the more subversive aspects of the fandom to punk, though she’s wary of direct comparison. While she claims not to be interested in interrogating “whether One Direction is actually punk,” she does find some slant similarities. Punk fans thought of the entertainment industry as their enemy, and so do One Direction fans, but only because “they think they could run it better.”

Tiffany is wise to hedge the punk comparison, as it runs up against aesthetic differences pretty quickly (and still has the potential to make punk fans lose their minds). But she does make a convincing case for the internet fangirl as a transgressive figure. “When listing off pivotal subcultural movements, hardly anyone would think of fangirls,” she writes. “Yet a fangirl still exists in contradiction to the dominant culture. She’s not considered normal or sane; her refusal to accept things the way they are is one of her defining characteristics. She is dropping out of the mainstream even while she embraces a thing that is as mainstream as a thing can get.” If that’s not punk, it’s vaguely punk-adjacent.

This book is an exhaustive exploration of One Direction fandom, but its interest for readers who don’t care about Harry Styles and have perhaps never heard of Niall Horan relies on the parallels it draws to other online communities. Tiffany alludes throughout to a whole network of fandoms operating alongside One Direction’s. “Stan armies,” she calls them. “The Swifties taught everyone how to craft a narrative around their fave’s persecution,” she writes, “while Nicki Minaj’s Barbz demonstrated how to make memes that were funny enough to get their hero’s personal attention, and Rihanna’s Navy came to exemplify what a prestige operation could look like for Stan Twitter.” It’s a whole world, Tiffany informs us. Its citizens are legion.

Tiffany doesn’t say so explicitly, but the darker corners of One Direction fandom also bear some resemblance to less benign fixations. One subset of the fandom has convinced itself that band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly in love. The theory is known as “Larry Stylinson” and its most hard-core devotees refer to themselves as “Larries.” The Larries are textbook truthers; they pour over photos and videos for proof. They convinced themselves that Tomlinson’s ex-girlfriend Briana Jungwirth was a beard, and when she got pregnant with his baby, they said this too was fake, staged. They named the controversy Babygate. When the baby was born and photos circulated, they insisted he was a doll. As he grew, they explained he was “replaced with either an actor or a child secretly supplied by a member of Jungwirth’s immediate family.” This sort of conspiratorial thinking is widespread online—and, increasingly, offline too. The Larries have a familiar reliance on specious evidence, an ability to suspend disbelief, and an eagerness to mutate their story to ever greater complexity whenever faced with overwhelming proof that they are incorrect. It’s a familiar case of what the internet has named “brain worms.” 

Tiffany sets readers up to conclude that online fandoms are always microcosms: you could slice into One Direction fandom pretty much anywhere and see a complete cross section of life online. Any niche has its cranks and tricksters, its conspiracy theorists, its dilettantes, its day ones. They’re all here—fragile and wounded and seeking something semi-seriously—and Tiffany portrays them with sensitivity and humor. I have no choice but to stan. 

Erin Somers is the author of the novel Stay Up with Hugo Best (Scribner, 2019).