The best thing about One Direction was never the chemistry between Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson on stage. It wasn’t the sugar-sweet lyrics, the preppy outfits or the delectable hairstyles. It wasn’t the pop bangers, it wasn’t the dance routines or the predictable (comforting) key-changes. The best thing about One Direction? It was and always has been the fans.
Overwhelmingly female and mostly teenage, the Directioners have always been fascinating in their shameless, urgent devotion. The same goes for fans of Take That, Boyzone and even The Beatles. Fop-haired heartthrobs aside, the women and girls who scream at concerts are the real stars of the pop-music industry. And yet, they’ve long been ridiculed, called “hysterical” and dismissed, despite being an almighty commercial force.
A new documentary called I Used To Be Normal – which just showed at the London Film Festival and will continue to screen around the world – is probably the first of its kind to really understand this blessed truth. “Portrayals of any extreme fans are usually about making fun of them, which doesn’t feel fair to people’s experiences of something that becomes such a big part of their identity,” says director Jessica Leski, who became a 1D fan at the age of 31. “The fans deserve to be seen in a way that felt respectful. Since the movie’s been out, fans have tweeted at us saying they feel seen for the first time.”
I’m speaking, of course, as an ardent boyband fan myself. I lied to my high-school boyfriend about liking Green Day and Rage Against the Machine, when really all I ever wanted was to choreograph routines to NSYNC
There’s something cathartic about watching it, too, and recognising yourself in the unbridled love that a current or former teenage girl can have for her idols. I’m speaking, of course, as an ardent boyband fan myself. I lied to my high-school boyfriend about liking Green Day and Rage Against the Machine, when really all I ever wanted was to choreograph routines to NSYNC. Since I’ve become a fully grown adult woman, unafraid to own her music tastes, I’ve been to three One Direction concerts. Earlier this year, I missed out on tickets to Harry Styles in London so went to Antwerp, Belgium, by myself, to join the heaving crowd of women shouting his name. “As a teenager, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to own up to liking a boyband,” says Leski. “But the benefit of being older is that you no longer care about what people think of you.” Amen to that.
The stars of this documentary have all found comfort and delight in outing themselves as boyband fanatics. They are 16-year-old Elif who lives for One Direction, 33-year-old Dara who would have died for Take That, 25-year-old Sadia who has spent her life besotted with the Backstreet Boys and 64-year-old Susan who adored The Beatles without restraint. Together, they prove how timelessly engaging three to five young men in coordinated outfits can be – and, more importantly, how powerful that combination of lust, curiosity and infatuation is for a woman trying to work out who she is in the world. They are all completely charming, as they show the camera the contents of their memorabilia boxes, stowed in cupboards and wardrobes: old CDs, VHS tapes of concerts, action figures, calendars, posters and magazines. They say things like, “The Beatles changed my life”, “I can’t imagine my life without Take That”, “I love the One Direction boys more than my family”. It’s all wonderfully sweet.
These women acknowledge that loving their boyband of choice has been a significant part of their growing up, when they were piecing together their fledgling adult identities. It is truly an ode to the most enduringly interesting thing about pop music: the people who sing along to it, out of tune, in bedrooms and stadiums around the world. It is a love letter to the women and girls who invest so much of themselves in a group of talented strangers. To his great and handsome credit, Harry Edward Styles knows this truth better than just about anyone. In an interview last year, he defended his fandom, saying, “They're our future – our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don't lie. If they like you, they're there.”
And we like Harry, we do. We love him. We also love Louis, Niall, Zayn and Liam. And Robbie, Gary, Mark, Jason and Howard. And Paul, John, George and Ringo. But, most of all, I have to say, I love and respect the women and girls who make up their loud, shameless, adoring fandoms. A boyband concert should be a safe space and a haven for screaming, dancing and bonding because of them. Boyband fandom is a force for silly, unadulterated good and the girls who choose to engage in it are nothing short of fabulous.
I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story screens at BFI Southbank on 7 January followed by a Skype Q&A with director Jessica Leski. The screening is part of BFI Southbank’s ongoing series Woman with a Movie Camera, which celebrates women’s contribution to cinema and spotlights female stories.
Tickets available from 11 December on the BFI website