An Interview with Hannah Ewens: Author of Fangirls

emilytreadgold #2, Women In Music

Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture by Hannah Ewens really encapsulates everything we feel about fangirls in general. It's about that pure love of an artist but also about the community and culture that surrounds the fandom. She covers everything from One Direction to My Chemical Romance, Elvis to Courtney Love. Fangirls have always had the ability to shift the culture and it's so moving to read these stories. We talked to her about her initial fandoms, the making of the book, and the current state of fangirls.

I was really thankful that you reached out. Let's talk about your book. What was your initial idea?

Hannah Ewens: I was like, I want to write a music book. I just didn't know what was accessible for me to do, and I was at this church gig one day. It was Frank from My Chemical Romance. I was behind Frank. Yeah, so he had his back to me, and then in front, there are all these girls going along, and queer fans as well, but mostly like female-presenting fans going in front, and they're all just like crying, and like had brought loads of really different art and stuff for him to sign. All kinds of things that they've made.

I think it was the first time in a little while where I really paid attention to the fact that girls do that in front of artists a lot. And honestly, like I know that that happens. And I see it all the time because I was a music journalist and was doing so much at that point. I was freelancing a lot for a music magazine in the UK. So I was going to gigs multiple, multiple times a week. I was used to seeing this kind of thing all the time. But I think it was just the fact that we're in a church. And just the fact that I could really pay attention to what they were doing, I was like, "Oh, my God. Obviously, I should write a book about fans, female fans, and fangirls." I knew that I would've already written that book if it existed. So from there, I just thought that I wanted to speak to loads and loads of different girls for it.

I didn't want it to be my opinion. I wanted to make sure that it was research-heavy and spoke to them and used girl's voices a lot. But yeah, I just wanted it to be about fans and for fans. Maybe they're a bit older, and they used to be a fan when they were younger. But they would pick it up and have that excited, sick feeling, like you used to get when you're obsessed with someone as a teen, like an artist, as a teenager. And I feel the feedback has been that a lot of people are feeling that, which makes me happy.

I loved how you kind of encompass all sorts of genres and ages in that. Because I thought that was important that it's not a new thing. Girls have been feeling this way all the time. And I feel like nobody's talked about it.

Hannah Ewens: I wonder if I should have done more of a historical research kind of a thing because I have a chapter that's about, I talk about the Beatles. I interviewed a fan, an older fan, who lived right near Elvis and went to his house. So I did want it to be contemporary. I didn't want it to be a historical research thing, just because I think I felt a bit like when you do-- when you read stuff, hear stuff about that, I swear, it always feels quite historical. You see them in rock documentaries about the Beatles or Rolling Stones, or whatever. It was really important that it was across all genres. I think I didn't really go into rap at all because it was not my area of expertise whatsoever. So I would love someone to do a bit, or a long feature or something.

And why did you want to have the notes from the fans at the end of each chapter?

Hannah Ewens: A lot of that came out of just speaking to very interesting people or fans with really amazing stories and just not having the space to put it into one of the chapters. So it's just like I have all these scrappy, really amazing, interesting basic conversations in there. and I just thought, "I'm not going to leave that out." I've got more scraps of conversation or, yeah, like block quotes, where a girl just had a really interesting story. The Elvis fan, just talking about how she went to Elvis's house and was staking it out every now and again, and how she felt after Elvis died, seeing as she had such close proximity to his house. There's one which is an interview of a Courtney Love fan, and then as she was telling her story, she talks about this girl she met on a work trip, and they bonded over loving Courtney Love when they were teenagers. And I was like, "Oh, wait. I want us to speak to this other woman on the other side of it." So I found out who it was and interviewed her and just thought that it was a cool thing to see both of their stories side by side. I really like those bits even though they're a bit random.

I feel like the Courtney Love part you were really involved in. Who were you the biggest fan of when you were younger?

Hannah Ewens: When I was a teenager, it was definitely Courtney Love but not even so much music-wise. I was just obsessed with her. But music-wise, probably it was My Chemical Romance. I had loads of tickets. I had multiple tickets to see them when they were supposed to be coming back on their reunion tour over the pandemic, but obviously, the pandemic happened, so that couldn't happen. They have been rescheduled, but now it's three years later, and I'm just like, "Is it ever going to happen?" But I kind of have a space for a new favorite artist. Do you know when it feels like I just-- I feel like I haven't really loved anything in a while. How about you?

I'm the biggest Jack White fan of all time. I worship Jack White, and I think it's a very niche fandom.

Hannah Ewens: That was my first ever fandom, The White Stripes. My dad painted my walls all red. Yeah, I'm not joking. I was so, so, so, so obsessed with them, so the first-- yeah, I guess, the first band that I was really obsessed with.

I love Jack White so much, and it's funny because I walked past him eating brunch-- not recently, before the pandemic. And I was like, "Man, that guy looks so much like Jack White," and then I just kept walking past.

Hannah Ewens: Oh, my God.

I was texting my friend. I was like, "Oh, I just saw this guy who looks just like Jack White." And she was like, "Emily, he's in town. He has a friend that lives in that area. You probably just missed him." I was like, "Oh, my God." Only my dumb self would do that, but it's fine.

Hannah Ewens: I wonder what he would be like with fans, though. So I can imagine him being either way, like being really courteous and or being kind of a jerk.

I feel like he'd be mean, but it's okay. I think that's what we like about him so much. I think about it all the time. And I do feel like not a lot of people cover the niche fandoms. You only get the One Direction, 5SOS, which I love, but I feel like you don't think of My Chemical Romance fans.

Hannah Ewens: I think that's why, I guess, this book was different written by me than by somebody else. Because I came from-- I'm into rock. So it was different for me. I felt more out of my comfort zone, having to-- I'd probably put more work researching into the pop chapters because that's not necessarily my area of expertise. I didn't know that much about it. So I knew I really had to try with that, put a lot of research into that. And I wanted that to be at the very beginning. But the weird thing-- so I kind of was, I kind of liked Ariana Grande's music. But I wasn't into her. And then it was so weird. The day that I sent out my book proposal was the day that after the Manchester attacks. So that chapter got put in after.

Oh, my God. That chapter made me cry because it's so true. Like you were saying, is no one was reporting it as an attack on young women. It's just so sad.

Hannah Ewens: It's grotesque as well. So when that book was kind of sent out, or publications can extract them, then obviously, you can get more sales, probably, presumably from that because people can actually read what the book's about. But all the right-wing papers wanted to extract that chapter. And it's like, "Hmm, why do you just want to--," I don't know. I just felt so gross and off-putting. And I was just like, "No. Especially not you. That's really weird."

Was it hard to get the interviews for that part with the girls?

Hannah Ewens: If I had more time, I probably would've gotten more interviews for that one. It was taking time to sort that chapter out. Because the way that I did it was going through Twitter, and I was literally just going really far back on Twitter and finding out who sounds really brilliant, but who and what they were saying about it, and people Tweeting about in the days after Twitting stuff about it and just approaching them. And some of their parents, I had to speak to as well, ask permission-- if it was all right to speak to them about it. Because obviously, it was a horrific event. So that took quite a bit of work. I sent them a copy of the book just to make sure that they were happy and everything. That's very important. And especially with the family who I write about most in that chapter. It's two daughters and a mom. One of them was really struggling afterward. So that was kind of about speaking to the mom a lot so that I could get her trust. 

I remember that happening, and I was in a car coming back from a music festival. I think that year, it just felt there was so much danger going to concerts, which is crazy. And it's something that I think about all the time now.

Hannah Ewens: It's weird. Because I guess now, when we go back to concerts this year, it's going to be we're thinking about the other danger which is a pandemic. But yeah, before that, I definitely felt the same way. Even if I wasn't necessarily scared of going, it would cloud my mind.

It's one of those things where you're like, you know you're going to go to concerts, but it's always kind of like in the back of your mind, you're thinking about that kind of stuff. I don't know. And I like that part in the book where the girls said that they had to go to concerts to prove that they didn't take that away from them.

Hannah Ewens: Which is really sweet. I do think it's a very kind of-- I mean this in a really good way, an innocent way to think about it. Because I don't know, I'd be so scared. It's almost that you can't put yourself in that position if you haven't been in it, but it did just strike me as really brave ways to talk about it.

It sounds like, it's like a little small act-- but it's hard. Man, I don't think I could go to a show again. I feel that shows a lot of bravery in young women. That was kind of a nice thing.

Hannah Ewens: I was also so interested in what you said because since the book came out and-- it came out in London 2019, and it came out in the States last year. I was wondering whether it's teenage girls are looked down on anymore. Because I feel it's changed a lot in the last few years. 

I feel it's slowly but surely. Do you know what I mean? I see a lot of comments. I made a TikTok the other day about how the Beatles are the first boyband, and all of these people got so mad. I was like, the reason y'all are mad is that that's a term for music that girls like. I think there's a lot of internalized misogyny there. Like, oh, my gosh. It's like you called 5SOS boyband. Everyone loses their mind. And I'm like, it's not an insult. 

Hannah Ewens: Yeah, they are boybands. That's why they're so successful because they're a boyband.

I think that people have some-- I've dealt with it a lot. I didn't like Taylor Swift until this year just merely for the fact that she was Taylor Swift. 

Hannah Ewens: I get that too.

I think there's a lot of unpacking that everyone has to do with their reaction to those kinds of words because I grew up being very much a music snob, and I didn't want to like One Direction because I liked other stuff. So, I think a lot is changing, but I mean, even with myself.

Hannah Ewens: I definitely had that when I was a teenager with thinking pop music was just for other kinds of girls. 

It's like you can like all of the things. It doesn't make-- yeah, I grew up feeling like the pop music was dumb and girly. And I wanted to be cool and edgy, and now I'm like, "Oh no. It's all great." But I think things are changing, but there's a little bit here and there.

Hannah Ewens: If I did it again if it would be different. I don't know if people like Billie Eilish have kind of changed how people see it because I think someone like that is-- she's so big and so famous--and loads of her fans are teenage girls but also kind of boys. I feel someone like that has really changed the way that-- at least in the music industry, people think.

And with Billie Eilish, she started super young making this very edgy music, and I saw someone compare her to like the Gen Z Lorde. I like that because I thought that made a lot of sense because to me, when Lorde came onto the pop scene, I was like, "Oh, this is dark. I like this better than what pop music was before." I don't know; maybe it's becoming traditionally cooler.

Hannah Ewens: I think it's that seeing a teenaged girl artist who is legitimately cool and respected among essentially everyone that, in turn, reflects on how people think about fans, I guess.

I do remember, though, I saw her at SXSW a long time ago, and this guy was talking to his friends. He's like, "Oh well, her brother does all of her stuff." And I was like, "Dude come on. I know her brother is a great artist, and he's an incredible producer. But you just took all of the credit and gave it to him. And then you're loudly bragging about this to your friends. This girl's like 16 at SXSW. Can you not?" 

Hannah Ewens: Yeah. That's ridiculous.

I feel like when any woman is successful in music. People will find some reason to find something bad to say about her. I liked all the Beyonce stuff in your book, too, about how a lot of the fan groups get a bad rep because of how mobilized they are. And I see it with the Taylor Swift fans too. People are like, oh, my gosh, they're crazy, like how much they defend these people and stuff. I just like how Beyonce handles things, she does it so differently from a lot of celebrities.

Hannah Ewens: I feel like her fans, again, kind of change the way people talk about bands. It was really negative, but I think now there are so many of those-- so many fandoms where the fans fight back and mobilize a lot. So that now, like the Bey Hive, is just like not like nothing compared to some of the K-pop stans.

The way K-pop got so involved in our election cracked me up. Oh, my God. It was so funny. Even like my parents were calling me, like, "Emily, explain to us what BTS is? And why are they doing this? This is so cool." 

Hannah Ewens: People are asking me about that as well now. It's just so completely bizarre. And I think with K-pop's fans, like with all fans, I feel like it's weird because of how you separate stans from fans. I feel like, now, because everyone's so aware of stans and what they do, especially on Twitter. I feel like fans do have so much negative stuff to say about stans. They are different things, and I think it's very important to separate the two. Because a lot of fans just aren't involved in like stan stuff. I think a lot of people think of stan is like the same word as fan.

I can see that. Yeah, so stan, is the like more extreme?

Hannah Ewens: Like really extreme, and entrusted in their artist winning. So like getting the most like number ones in various charts, and always being on Twitter and mobilizing against people. It does feel like really-- the whole energy of it feels very distinct from the average fan.

I'm always impressed with people who can commit to that so fully. 

Hannah Ewens: It's so much effort. I wondered whether I would be a stan if I were into a band now, and I feel like I would but, too bad that I was a teenager when being a fan was just about being on Myspace and going to shows. That was basically it-- maybe being in a street team or something, but that was it. They're doing it because it feels really good to be part of an anonymous body of people holding other people to account in the name of an artist. It does seem kind of unhinged when you think about it-- when you're not a part of that.

I do love seeing how social media has totally changed fandoms because I grew up in the Myspace era where it was like, "Oh, the band's on my page." It was just different, and then watching kind of this all transform has been-- even with TikTok now, I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, growing up with this must be so much." 

Hannah Ewens: I don't have TikTok, but my friends send me everything. I do have an account. So they're always sending me funny shit I should be seeing. They showed me this thing the other day, and I just got obsessed with looking into it so much. This band called-- I want to say "Tramp Stamps."

Oh, my God. Yes, let's definitely have the Tramp Stamps conversation.

Hannah Ewens: Oh, my God. I'm addicted to it.

I was addicted to this, yeah. And the thing is, kids are smarter than people think they are. And they go down these rabbit holes. Then, I'm going down these rabbit holes because that's all my TikTok will show me now. I was like, "Oh, my God." You can't trick people anymore. But also, it's cracking me up. Then I'll be reading a comment on my Tik Toks like, "Oh, they're an industry plant." Guys, so much is industry plants.

Hannah Ewens: Yeah, basically everything.

You can't get mad at everything being an industry plant. This is the music industry. They churn out products for you. 

Hannah Ewens: And the things that aren't industry plants, you're probably not going to be listening to any of that because there's so much stuff out there. You're only going to have your attention on things that are probably signed to a major label. And even if they're not, they probably secretly are. You just don't know about it. That was a thing with SoundCloud rappers when that was a thing. They were all just getting signed. And they just wouldn't say about it for ages and ages. But then you don't hear about those kinds of people being called an industry plant.

All they're saying that band was just like, "This is all so embarrassing." But it was interesting. It was really interesting to see younger people destroying millennials essentially for being not authentic basically.

It was a lot to unpack. But it's also like-- I remember I watched one video, and this girl was like, "Oh, well, look at their web design. It's so professional. Of course, they're an industry plan." I was like, "Oh, my god. You can't get mad at that."

Hannah Ewens: Right. And that's one thing that's so pretty funny. I have a lot of friends who work more in the music industry. Yeah. And my boyfriend's a PR for artists. So it's funny when fans do all this investigation. And I think that they're finding out some really good things. And they're putting all the pieces together of this massive web. But actually, you know the truth about one thing. And you see them all jump on this piece of information, and they put all this stuff together. I remember there was loads of that when I was researching into One Direction. But then obviously, yes, sometimes all they're investigating is true. Like in Japan's chapter, all these fans working out where Harry Styles was getting off his flight. And I was like, "That's genius. I should know that. I'm a journalist. I should be able to work that out." But I wouldn't be thinking of doing that.

It's so much. It's so smart. It reminds me a lot, like the Taylor Swift fans how they have to decode everything she says. And I'm just like, "Man, how do you all ever sleep?" 

Hannah Ewens: I barely know so much about her, but it's her whole thing that she includes stuff into every album. When My Chemical Romance was announcing those shows, they did that kind of thing with a secret video and what does it mean, and everyone's guessing and trying to guess what each of the little things in the video was. It was just getting out of control, and it was just like, yeah, it's nothing. It's just a video.

You know what? I always think of thought how wasn't it Joe Jonas tweeted once that he thought My Chemical Romance was in the studio next to him. And everyone was like, "Joe, shut up."

Hannah Ewens: Right. And then he obviously turned out to be right, and everyone was just like, "Oh my god." I'd completely forgotten about that.

It was a weird thing that I always remember. What do you see for the future of fangirling?

Hannah Ewens: I feel like it's just going to become more entangled with queer control and queer fandom culture. And I would love to have done a study and looked at a weird fandom in the same way. I have that Halsey chapter in the book. I wish I'd had space to do that, but I feel like there's so much more to be understood there. I hope that the stans and fangirls stay differentiated because I do feel like people know that they aren't the same thing. Still, I just think it's really important moving forward with all of the arguments and discussions that are happening at the moment and have been happening for a little while. About stans getting too aggressive, are they going too far? Stans just really going off on critics and people involved in covering musicians and their work. I guess that my hope is that the two things stay separate and that fangirl culture stays true to what I feel like its holistic roots are.

Like that is stays positive?

Hannah Ewens: I hope that people can lean into being a fangirl because I think that it's just such a good tonic for how shit everything is in the world with women. And there's so much to worry about, so much to feel negatively about in so many ways. I just think it's such a nice escape, and it's a fun way to live your teenage life and to live into your adult life as well. It's a really fun way to approach consuming culture.

Buy the book and keep up with Hannah Ewens here.

Emily Treadgold

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