On Hanson, fandom, and the sexual desire of teenage girls

By | February 26, 2019

Newstatesman

Society has never quite understood Hanson or their fans.

Since the band first saw commercial success in 1997, at just 17, 14 and 12 years old, Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson were made fun of, quite a lot – as were their equally young fans. The butt of jokes everywhere from Letterman to SNL; the grown-ups just didn’t seem to get it. They look like girls! They sound like girls! What the fuck is an MMMbop? Their fans were always pictured with tears streaming down their face and/or screaming (but mostly screaming). The decibels of said screaming fans at concerts breaking records seemed more interesting than their actual record sales (upwards of ten million worldwide).

This fandom, before anyone really knew what a fandom was, has never been cool. But, predominantly female fandoms are never considered as such. And, as is tradition, male journalists in particular do not understand the loyal female fans of boy bands.

Whether it’s critiques of fans of the Beatles in the ‘60s (“the dull, the idle, the failures”) or fans of One Direction in 2013 (“rabid, knicker-wetting banshee”) the message to teenage girls from the more refined, more cultured mainstream has always been one of bewildered pity and disgust, a sentiment captured perfectly in the Guardian when Zayn Malik left One Direction: “Our thoughts must surely go out to anybody unlucky enough to have given birth to a female child between seven and 14 years ago, for their lives are a mess.”

But where the world looks at throngs of teenage girls screaming at a boy band concert and sees teenage hysteria – a horrifying cocktail of hormones, niche obsession and an apparent abhorrent taste in music – I see thousands of girls who are managing to find joy and delight during one of the most difficult and complicated phases of their lives.

And I know this about them, because this is what my teenage love (OK, my feverish obsession) for Hanson in the late ‘90s did for me.

At those concerts, usually in venues reserved for male-dominated sporting events, young women suddenly have space – we have our music, we have our thing. We have our newfound thousand-something friends who all like the same thing as us. We’re all on fire with desire, waiting for our boys to get on stage. And then the lights go off, the music swells and it’s just too much and the only reasonable way to deal with such raw emotion is to scream our fucking heads off. We lose our minds a bit because being a teenager is horrible! But this is great! And we’re inexplicably horny! And we don’t quite understand what’s happening! Or what it means! And while the world around us is confusing and our parents are breaking up and our grandparents are dying and our teachers are unfair, here, in this space, we can just let rip. We can scream, and so we do. Where else can girls and women just scream at the top of their lungs in wild abandon? (And if there is such a place, please let us know immediately.)

Prior to falling in love with Taylor Hanson on 14 March 1998 while at the birthday party thrown for him by my Hanson super-fan friend Sara, I previously had only had feelings for classmates (Adam) the occasional cartoon (Prince Eric) or muppet (Kermit). But my feelings for Taylor Hanson (known by fans and pretend girlfriends as “Tay” and to the wider public as “the middle one”) were…different. It was his voice, his fingers on that Yamaha keyboard, his palms smacking against the bongos (he played the bongos!) the curl of his lip, the curl of his long, blonde hair, the blue of his eyes, the necklaces he wore, the weird breathy way he sang. It all just…did something to me.

Now, I know that “something” was a frenzied sexual desire – then, I only knew that I liked to be left to listen to his music and stare out the window ALONE. I wanted to watch the Hanson documentary ALONE. I wanted to be left ALONE to THINK about TAYLOR. The exception to the rule was for when I wanted to spend three hours talking on the phone about him with my friends Sara and Linda who also loved Hanson (and conveniently liked the other Hanson brothers, not mine).

One of my other favourite pastimes during this period was gathering a stack of ruled paper, a specific light-blue pen (Tay’s favourite colour) and writing my special stories. My friends and I delighted in creating these incredible works of fiction that featured each of us paired with our favourite Hanson brother. What I didn’t know at the time, was that these stories were what one would now call fan fiction, and I certainly didn’t know this was a thing that other people did, too.

Fan-fic in particular really scares non-fandom civilians – especially because it does not shy away from the sexual desire element of fandoms – and it’s not just any kind of sexual desire, but the sexual desire of young women, which as we all know is the single greatest threat to modern society and civilisation as we know it. Which is also why female-prominent fandoms are so easy for others to dismiss and put down: the desires of young women are not valid, and somehow perverted.

Because of this, some people try to separate desire or sexuality from fandoms and insist that’s not all it’s about (“I just really love their music! They’re so talented!”) – and it isn’t – but it’s also really important to acknowledge that it exists and is a big part of it, and that that’s OK. The sexual desire of women and girls of all ages and of all orientations is important and complicated, it’s a part of our identity and overall being, and for young women, fandoms give us not just a physical space to go scream at a concert, but a psychic space where we can work out elements of our own identity, and who we really are, including our sexual desires and preferences.

Although the negative and most serious extremes (death threats, cyber bullying, self-harm) get the most press, Fandoms do have a positive impact on the mental health of teenage girls. They not only give us a medium to work ourselves out, experiment with what we like, but also to organise, to research, to create and to make connections with others. Being able to connect with others in a turbulent time like adolescence is incredibly powerful, particularly if we’re feeling alienated in our everyday lives. Even if, like Hanson, the fandom is considered a bit nerdy, unpopular, or uncool – these places give us a place to belong, a common thread that maybe didn’t exist anywhere else for us.

As a teenager in the late ‘90s, I didn’t have a home computer or an internet connection, and I certainly didn’t have Tumblr or Twitter to connect with other fans at any given time of the day or night. The only time I was around more than two Hanson fans at once was when I went to my first concert in 1998 – Hanson’s Road to Albertane Tour in Mountain View, California.

My connection to the wider fandom existed in the pages of BOP magazine and Tiger Beat. It existed in my two friends who loved Hanson just as much as I did. And, largely, it existed in my own mind, with the help of my CD player. It was a comfort and secret hobby – like an imaginary friend, but one that my close friends could see, too.

Now, 20 years of hindsight later, I find it no coincidence that my sexual desire-fuelled obsession with a band of wholesome and handsome teenage musicians came at the exact same time as my parents’ divorce.

And really, what would be more desirable at the age of 13? Pscyhologically disappearing into a fandom based on joyful, light pop music? Or having to fully face the unpleasant nightmare of your parents’ separation? Would you rather spend your time writing stories about kissing Taylor Hanson with that light-blue pen or think about your new schedule of only every-other-weekend visits and dinner every other Wednesday? The only thing making the bedroom at your Dad’s depressing new apartment any less depressing was the four new walls to hang your (second favourite set) of Hanson posters.

Hanson’s music and the fandom my friends and I were apart of cocooned me from the realities of my homelife. This isn’t to say I wasn’t affected by it still or that I had I totally checked out, but my desire to have Taylor Hanson’s singing voice in my ears and the thought of his piano-player fingers on my face reminded me of what I wanted. My own desire. He was mine. Their music was mine. Everything else that was happening to me was what my parents wanted, but listening to the “I Will Come To You” single on repeat for hours in my room was what I wanted. It soothed me. It distracted me.

It gave me the mental space I needed to survive.

And like with any cocoon – you do come out differently. Some as graceful, colourful butterflies, or, as I did, an acne-ridden 15-year-old Britney Spears fan. Alas, fandoms can’t fix the pain of one’s teen years or life situations, but instead serve us throughout different phases of our lives, giving us rooms to scream in and choreographed dances to learn, distracting us from the painful ebb and flow of everyday life.

Cate Sevilla is an editor and journalist whose previous roles include editor in chief of The Pool and managing editor of BuzzFeed UK.