If Hogwarts is our Mecca and the Avengers our Holy Trinity, are fandoms the new altars of devotion?
Fandoms have blossomed into a life of their own in pop culture and entertainment. Your idols are right in your pocket, thanks to social media. You can tweet to them whenever you want, post your recent fan edit, and be envied by everyone in your little world if they even acknowledge you with a fated like. These communities, formed around a shared love and awe for various celebrities, movies, TV shows, or music groups, frequently exhibit a level of dedication that some may consider cult-like.
So, why do I compare fandoms to cults? Cults, after all, are dangerous, dark places that, once entered, cannot be safely left behind. Fandoms are similar in some ways, making picking your fandoms wisely crucial. I believe the best way to explain this is to use Taylor Swift, BTS, and Harry Styles as examples. From Swifties devoted to Taylor Swift to the fervent BTS Army, fan communities have become a defining feature of modern society. While fandoms may appear harmless, they share striking similarities with traditional cults.
When we think of Harry Styles, we all think of the attention he has received since his days with One Direction. Despite the apparent immediacy of Twitter and Instagram, Styles' use of the sites for purposes other than self-marketing has endowed him with the glamorous mystery of a much older type of celebrity. Fans are left to concoct fantasized versions of his inner life, creating the illusion of proximity in place of a much greater distance. As a result, the fandom feels at once like a close-knit community and dangerously close to hero worship. Styles' alleged romantic partners are scrutinized and harassed online, with jealousy and vitriol abounding in their Instagram comments. Anyone who makes even mild criticism of the singer is met with an immediate backlash. When someone becomes an idol, he can do no wrong. Styles has embraced a much more literal deification aesthetic. His first album featured baptismal imagery, submerging the body in spiritual rebirth waters. Harry Styles has been a pop idol for as long as the public has wanted one. Among the numerous clips from his shows, one that stands out is when Harry Styles read a fan sign that said, "I skipped my grandmother's funeral for you?" and "Can you hit me with a truck?"
For die-hard fans, belonging to a fandom is a full-time job. It entails responsibilities, upkeep, and a never-ending positive energy directed directly at their idol. But why will someone devote so much time to obsessing over someone else's life? What benefits could this type of behavior possibly provide? Plenty.
To begin with, being a part of a fandom creates a sense of community. Consider the Swifties, Taylor Swift's devoted and vocal fanbase. Fans even call her "MOTHER" because they believe she is raising them. Being a true Swiftie entails far more than simply attending a concert or casually enjoying 1989. It involves making memes and TikToks with Swift's sounds, constantly tweeting jokes, making elaborate era-inspired outfits for her shows, and wearing the cardigan (if you know what I mean). It's inside jokes on top of inside jokes, followed by an analysis of everything said for easter eggs.
People imitate what Gods and Messiahs do; their iconic status serves as role models, and people model their behavior after them. These interpersonal connections help people define themselves, decide how they want to act, and how they want to fit in with their communities. Some individuals today have lost faith in conventional religious figures and look for role models elsewhere. Like many religious communities, fans frequently model their appearance after their idols. They also read their interviews and mimic their actions. Many people treat pop stars as Gods, looking to them for inspiration and guidance on behavior. Stars attract large crowds at concerts, wear unique costumes, and stand elevated on stages with lighting and video screens, making them appear larger than life, more than human, and endowed with special (musical) abilities that distinguish them from ordinary people.
Feeling a part of a social group, developing an identity in adolescence, understanding one's place in the world, exploring one's emotions, and interacting with others are all fundamental needs in human culture. They are the glue that holds communities together and have enabled humanity to work together to accomplish remarkable things. They are a social technology as essential to human development as fire, the wheel, or agriculture. Religions used to fulfill these social functions, but many have fallen out of favor, whether due to scandals or people turning to science for our understanding of the world. Pop cults function similarly to religions; many young people have used involvement with famous music scenes or fandom to replace the social functions formally satisfied by religions, such as community belonging, the provision of heroic figures to look up to, and the development of an individual's identity. Furthermore, whereas people used to go to churches and temples to dance, sing, and have transcendent experiences, these now happen in commercial popular music contexts such as clubs, gigs, and music festivals.
Cults and fandoms frequently foster an us-versus-them mindset. They promote a sense of exclusivity in which members believe they are part of a unique, enlightened group, while outsiders are viewed as inferior or misguided. Swifties may dismiss other musicians as low to Taylor Swift, and the BTS Army may be suspicious of other K-pop groups. This mindset can lead to social isolation and an inability to engage with people who hold different viewpoints. Cults and fandoms both foster intense devotion and groupthink. Members are expected to adhere to a set of beliefs or behaviors. Swifties, for example, are devoted to cheering on Taylor Swift in all aspects of her career and private life, whereas BTS Army members vigorously defend the K-pop group from criticism. This unwavering devotion may lead to crazy actions and a refusal to admit flaws or shortcomings in their idols.
Cult leaders wield considerable power and control over their followers, frequently dictating multiple elements of their lives. While fandoms might lack such direct control, they continue to impact the decisions and behavior of their members. Fans devote their time, feelings, and even money to their idols. They go to concerts, buy merchandise, and vigorously participate in online discussions. This level of dedication is reminiscent of the extreme loyalty seen in cults. Are fandoms the new cults?Are fandoms the new cults?Are fandoms the new cults?
Are fandoms the new cults?