To all the boy bands I’ve loved before

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“Hey, can I talk to you for a sec?” When my editor pulled me down the hall to speak privately, my heart crawled into my throat. As a relatively new reporter for my high school newspaper, I thought I had made some kind of terrible mistake in an article. Instead, to my surprise, I got an opportunity: a group of boys were giving a surprise live performance at my school next week, and my editor wanted me to cover the event. I said yes. “Awesome. So don’t tell anyone,” he said. “It’s Tuesday.”

I didn’t have a classic boy band phase in college. In the story, I sat next to a girl who wore a necklace with a picture of Liam Payne. Another classmate told facts about Harry Styles at recess, recalling the exact time of his birth, his blood type, the hair products he used. Sure, I’ve listened to “Drag Me Down” from time to time, but back then I never fully understood the charm that boy bands cast on so many of my heart-eyed classmates.

After receiving the pitch from my editor, I started researching the band in order to compile my list of interview questions. I listened to his singles, read his Wikipedia page and watched his music videos. Before I knew it, I was buried under behind the scenes videos, tour vlogs, Instagram Lives, fan pages and edits. I was a few years behind on the boy band scene, but I had finally arrived.

Shortly after my interview was published, I joined stan Twitter, an online community discussing hot topics in pop culture. Losing sense of time online, I immersed myself in a world of reaction memes, lowercase letters, and flickering fancams. I was warmly welcomed into fandoms, and as I made friends in these thriving online communities, I wavered between admiration and obsession. As a fan, I didn’t just want recognition: I wanted my dedication to be truly appreciated. My screen time accelerated every day, and I collected reviews from celebrities like gig stubs, saying they weren’t notifications but experiences.

As my collection grew steadily, my obsession finally began to fade. Fandoms grew, assuming particularly competitive natures. Grammy nomination season has turned my timeline into a battlefield. Communities thrived on toxicity. Cancel culture has evolved. Maybe I was tired of constantly checking my phone, or maybe I just gave up trying to be tracked by Harry Styles. But at some point, I realized that I didn’t want my existence to be defined by my level of activity on Twitter.

Although I gradually grew out of my somewhat embarrassing and all-consuming support for boy bands, I continued my steady diet of Twitter and pop culture stan in what ended up being unintended preparation for my future as a arts journalist. Somehow the admissions officers never stumbled upon my Twitter account and UC Berkeley took me in as a freshman. And here I am, gutting my guts as an arts reporter for The Daily Californian.

As an art writer, I’ve learned that blind obsession and righteous criticism can co-exist. Although being a fan and a critic may seem mutually exclusive, these roles intersect more than they oppose. Critical writing doesn’t mean that I necessarily have to exclude my experiences as a fan; it just means that I have to keep my favorite artists on a higher level. It can be uncomfortable to recognize that the art of someone I’ve idolized isn’t as brilliant as I’d like, but honest criticism doesn’t necessarily reflect disloyalty.

While I still listen to my throwback playlist to keep a bit of naive nostalgia, critical writing has allowed me to explore my relationship with some of my favorite works. In a way, writing this piece allowed me to temporarily fall back into my second phase stan; I wrote this listening almost exclusively to the discography of British pop group The Vamps. I stayed up late watching their past press interviews and vlogs. I added London to my Mac’s world clock. I memorized the opening and closing ad libs of all their recorded live performances. And last month I gave their latest album a 3.0/5.0 rating without looking back.

Like many others, I find it easy to focus on the numbers that appear at the top of pop culture headlines. They are shining statues gracing red carpets, carrying themselves with charisma. They’re inaccessible, and I was drawn to stan Twitter because it suddenly made them accessible. I used to treasure my celebrity reviews, thinking that if I garnered enough likes and retweets, I could piece together some kind of fantasy connection with them.

But now, as an art critic, these popular personalities are no longer distant figures on screens or the covers of my Spotify playlists. Instead of liking or tweeting about their posts, I have a conversation with them over the phone. They are suddenly human.

A few years ago, I would have done anything to follow Harry Styles. Now who knows? Maybe I’ll interview him one day.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].

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