BOOK REVIEW: Fangirls by Hannah Ewens

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4.5/5 stars

Growing up means learning an important but depressing lesson: the world hates teenage girls. No matter the particular flavour of teenage girl, no matter the era, we hate them–we hate the TikTok dancers and ‘woke snowflakes’ of today, we hated the Ugg-booted ‘basic bitches’ of the 2000s, we hated the disco divas of the 1970s and the gum-snapping mall rats of the 1980s. Anything that’s ‘for teenage girls’ is immediately dismissed as less than–rom-coms, Twilight, Pinterest, Zac Efron, pumpkin spice lattes, and as Hannah Ewens explores in Fangirls, there is nothing we hate more than teenage girls’ music.

I was a pretty staunch ‘not like other girls’ girl in my middle and high school years, despite the fact that my interests were marketed in exactly the same way as the ‘girly’ media I eschewed. I turned my nose up at One Direction, instead favouring the pop-punk and emo juggernauts like All Time Low and Fall Out Boy. Who all conveniently had the same boyband-y setups (“this one’s the bad boy”, “this one is the sensitive soul”, et al). But somehow they all felt different, maybe because they played their own instruments, maybe because their songs had swear words, maybe because I was a teenage girl and just felt everything a little too much.

I fawned over my favourite musicians on Tumblr, doodled lyrics on my Converse sneakers or on my forearms, loaded up my iPod Nano with entire discographies, hopelessly tagged musicians in Twitter screeds about how their songs had changed my life. Maybe it was futile. Maybe it was good none of them ever responded, considering the unfortunate number of Warped-Tour-era frontmen named in assorted #MeToo scandals. But I was part of a community of fans through my online life, and it definitely helped me feel a little less alone in the years when every teenage girl can feel alone. Fangirling–and finding your community of fellow fans, whether you’re a teen in 2021 or were a teen in 1960, whether your musician crush was Paul McCartney or a member of BTS I cannot for the life of me name–will always be a teenage-girl rite of passage, as Ewens explains.

Ewens doesn’t just explore the horrifying chaos of ‘stan Twitter’, but the relationship the media has always had with teenage girls daring to feel things. Beatlemania was the scourge of 1960s pearl-clutchers, but now we tend to look back on it all with a warm n’ fuzzy nostalgia. Will we someday feel the same way about young teens tweeting sexual innuendos at emo-rock idols, the same nascent and mostly harmless sexuality as shrieking bobby-soxers?

Fangirls is a love letter to the communal spirit of music culture, especially among women–the joy of waiting together in queues outside venues or rallying around a favourite goth/emo band against rumours they “promote Satan worship”. The parasocial relationships and community among LGBT fans of artists like Lady Gaga or Halsey, or the activism and amplification of the experiences of Black women through ‘the Beyhive’, it’s all here. It’s also made me think more about the big female artists of today not apologising for their unabashedly emotional music, artists like Lorde and Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish and Griff, many still teens themselves, teaching fellow teens to embrace their rage and heartbreak and joy (and all of whom I will admit I listen to now, because feeling sixteen again isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

But the chapter that really sucker-punched me was about an artist I’ve, quite frankly, never cared about–Ariana Grande. Can’t deny she’s talented, but her music has never been something I’ve actively listened to, just something I hear at Superdrug or in a nightclub (remember those?) But Ewens explores the tragic aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing in 2018, arguing a point that even police and UK investigators ignored: it wasn’t just an ISIS attack, it was gender terrorism, a targeted attack on girls and young women. Other events at the same arena around the same time included a KISS concert and a pro wrestling match, performing to largely male audiences. But it was Ariana Grande–hyper-feminine, with largely female fans, selling a particular brand of female empowerment on a tour literally called Dangerous Woman–that represented a threat.

For many of the attendees Ewens interviews, it was their first-ever concert. Many were injured, many just a few steps away from the bomber, and have had their lives put on hold by therapy and surgeries to heal. And yet these girls are still determined to share their love of music, still determined to go to concerts, and still want to bask in the happy memories of that night, before the attack. The strength of these young fans is simply amazing, and it’s so touching to see how they’ve formed a strong community in Greater Manchester and online, connecting with victims of other attacks and their families to heal together. It’s a testament to the power of fandom, and makes this book absolutely worth picking up.

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