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PartnersOctober 4, 2017

Harry Styles and the uninhibited joy of being a fan


One Direction fan Sacha Judd on fandom, group chats, and how difficult it is to get Harry Styles tickets in New York City. 

Tickets to Harry Styles’ first solo tour go on sale on a Friday in May. He’s playing small venues – iconic theatres like the Greek in Los Angeles and the Ryman in Nashville. The registration process is Byzantine. You have to pre-register to become a verified fan, there are different ticket sellers for different venues, and you need a code that will be texted to you just before the sale starts. The tickets will be held until they can be sure you haven’t bought more than four. The official email from Ticketmaster says, “There’s no easy way to say this, tomorrow is going to be tough.”

I’m in San Francisco when they go on sale – at 10am in the timezone of the venue you’re trying to buy for – which for me, trying to buy New York City tickets, means I’m awake and logged in before 6am. My group chat is ready, all of us poised to hit refresh repeatedly on the app and on our laptops. The clock ticks down; the site spins its wheels. The tour sells out in seconds. None of us get tickets.

Harry’s solo album hasn’t even been released yet.

I’ve never been a ‘true’ fan. I’ve never camped in line for anything, never waited at a stage door hoping for an autograph, never screamed myself hoarse for anyone. But in the last few months, I’ve realised that distinction is completely meaningless. I have stayed up late to watch the All Blacks play and woken up early to watch the America’s Cup. I’ve tuned in for the season finale of long-running TV shows, and once went to a midnight screening of Star Wars. I’ve set an alarm for 5am to try and get a dinner reservation at The French Laundry restaurant in Napa. So it’s a lie, really. Of course I’ve been a true fan. Or, rather, the concept of a true fan is bullshit. We all care deeply about different things at different times and in different ways.

I discovered the internet in New York. The first time I went there was in the early ’90s as a fresh-faced university debater on my way to a tournament at Princeton. Manhattan was a much grimier, sketchier place. One of our friends stayed in a hostel in Times Square where he was adamant someone was murdered in the next room. Times Square is, of course, horrible in other ways now, jammed night and day with thousands of goggling tourists and people dressed as cartoon mascots. But the city itself is a different, cleaner, shinier (some would say, more soulless) place.

That first trip we went up to the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Centre, visited Ellis Island, and fought our way toward the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. We went to Radio City Music Hall and saw the Rockettes. And the American college students I met on that trip were the first to tell me about ‘electronic mail’ and the text-based Lynx browser they used to get to their school information. The web was barely a thing, but I came home to New Zealand determined to dive into that world headfirst.

Fandom predates the internet, of course. Fans came together around the things they loved in ‘zines and at conventions long before dial-up modems stuttered into life.

Fans haven’t changed, only the tools that they use. My own fan journey over the last two decades has migrated through Usenet groups, Yahoo mailing lists, fan-built forums, and now the monolith of Tumblr. The internet didn’t invent fandom, but, like everything, it made the concept of fan communities global and all-consuming; on-demand and instantaneous.

One Direction went on hiatus in January 2016. As the boys each embarked on solo careers, the fans themselves started to go their separate ways. I found myself spending more time away from Tumblr in a group chat of women who helped me with my original talk about the 1D fandom. Most days we’ll swap a link or two about what’s going on with the band, but the majority of the conversation is just about our lives. The group has weathered the loss of parents, the loss of jobs, vacations, kids, a wedding.

I’m invited to join a Slack team called 1D-for-Olds. There are a hundred adult members – published authors, professionals, software developers, journalists, grad students. I realise these more private communities are yet another evolution of the form. Aaron Edwards, writing in praise of the group chat recently, says, “These spaces, particularly for people of color, aren’t like social media. They don’t by design put anyone at risk of harassment or of a stranger taking something out of context that wasn’t meant for them. If the space is intentional, it’s a digital therapy in your pocket.”

It seems natural, if somewhat circular, that as social media makes every stitch of Harry’s embroidery immediately consumable, fans should retreat back to these smaller, more intentional circles. There’s no judgment in the group chat.

The first weekend I’m in New York I meet a friend for drinks after her wedding in Central Park. The brides are gorgeous, swishing through Greenwich Village in their wedding gowns. They get stopped for congratulations on every corner. Strangers ask them for photos in the street. I can’t stop smiling. We connected over two years ago because she had a huge Tumblr following and helped me by reblogging my survey about 1D fans and tech. We’ve talked almost every day since. This is the first time we’ve met in real life

Harry’s solo tour kicks off in San Francisco a week later, and the fandom kicks off its nightly routine: gathering on Tumblr and Twitter for the first low-quality pictures of whatever extravagant suit he’s emerging in that night. The livestreams start – fans holding up their phones from the second and third rows – true MVPs who periscope the whole damn thing for their friends who can’t be there and the internet at large. Later come the higher quality images, the videos uploaded to Youtube, the faithful recording of changes to the setlist.

The next night we do it all over again.

At the first gigs, Harry takes a pride flag from someone in the audience each night and dances around with it for a bit before looping it on his mic stand while he sings.  

In Nashville, fans start to tweet from the line at the theatre saying their flags are being taken away by security. At first, there’s a rumour that it’s conservative politics rearing its head, but it turns out to just be a small venue not wanting anyone’s view to be obstructed. Before the encore, Harry asks everyone in the crowd to hug a stranger, throwing his arms wide as he yells at the crowd to “EMBRACE!”. Then he fetches a pride flag from the drum riser, “I heard this was removed from somewhere, and I’d like to put it back in its rightful place.”  The crowd lets loose with deafening screams and applause. Harry hooks the flag on his mic stand and cries “EMBRACE!” one more time.

I buy a ticket for the New York concert on Stubhub and I promise myself I won’t tell anyone how much it costs. It’s actually not the first time I’ve done this. The first time was to see Hamilton, but somehow telling people you mortgaged your soul to see that show is socially acceptable in a way this just doesn’t seem to be.

Harry’s tour merchandise is pink and black, emblazoned with the words “Treat People With Kindness”. Abruptly, he puts it up for sale on his website. The alert goes out. We hit the site in droves.

Fans who have been to the concerts so far, and tried the clothes on, post information about the sizing. Ordering online is all very well but the one thing you can’t order is the sought-after show-specific shirt. The one with the date and the venue. The one that says you were there.

Harry’s team announces on Facebook that his merchandise will be going on sale a day early at Radio City Music Hall. At 9am the first reports filter in on Twitter: fans are there to buy the shirts but the staff don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t seem to have any merch. By 10am there’s a limited range in store, but not the all-important show-specific shirt. By 4pm there’s a channel-wide announcement in Slack: they have the show shirts. “Ugh,” I post. “I guess I’m leaving the house.”

It’s 30 degrees in Manhattan, and so humid you feel like you’re sweating out of your earlobes. Still, once I’ve grabbed two shirts (one for me and one for a group chat friend) I duck into Anthropologie at the Rockefeller Center and tug the shirt on. “Excuse the sweaty AF changing room selfie: this is a size M,” I post, giving my measurements and joining the string of other similar pictures (in response: four hands-up emoji, two hearts, ten Harry Styles).

Some of my ‘real’ friends continue to tease me – sending me links to pictures of Harry performing and concert reviews. Others have fallen firmly down the rabbit hole themselves. I get a text from one who barely knew what One Direction was when I first gave my talk: “I think he is in the zone with this show. He had a more natural ease. Like any jitters were gone. This frightens me because basically? I have watched every available Harry vid on Instagram.” I mean, you’re welcome.

On the day of the concert, I get bubble tea and work out of a friend’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “You must be excited,” he says, and I realise I’m not, yet, really. Don’t meet your heroes and all that. Not that Harry’s a hero, exactly, but I figure there’s no way the show can live up to the odd Harry-shaped space that now exists in my life. It will turn out I’m wrong.

Before the concert, I meet a bunch of the women from the Slack channel for beers and loaded fries. It strikes me that the last time I was at Radio City, the internet basically didn’t exist, and now here I am having dinner with a group of people I’d literally never have met otherwise.

We’re all sitting in different parts of the theatre, so when we clear security we hug each other and wish each other a great show and go our separate ways. MUNA, the opening act, is delightful. I discover my leg is bouncing in anticipation.

Some of the reviews afterward will maintain with that standard sly cynicism that it’s just a theatre full of teenage girls. As if that would be reason enough to dismiss their enthusiasm.

They’re wrong. Harry’s fans are all shapes and sizes, colours, ages, and stripes of the rainbow. Creative director Molly Hawkins posts on Instagram after the show: I’ve been lucky enough to see something incredibly inspiring every night since the tour started: the audience. Harry works hard to create a loving, safe space for his fans and it shows by how diverse the crowd is- honestly something I didn’t expect. In such a terrifying historical moment it is giving me so much energy to see so many strong, intelligent humans come together from different races, economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, for some unabashedly joyful celebrating.

Joyful celebration is the only good way to describe it. A sold-out room without a single reluctant attendee. The Sad Dads at One Direction concerts are long gone. Groups of friends pose for selfies with Harry’s signature pink curtain behind them. Around me, concert outfits are gorgeous tributes to his signature style: floral jumpsuits, silk rainbow bomber jackets, extravagant boots. Literally everyone is here to have a good time, perhaps most of all the man we’ve all come to see.

“Hello,” he says, after belting out the opening numbers. “I’m Harry, and I’m from England.”

The crowd goes wild.

Harry’s been touring almost constantly since he was 16 years old, and yet he looks like he’s never been happier than when he’s on stage. The contrast to the dead-eyed Bieber performance I endured earlier in the year could not be more extraordinary. He prances and shimmies and whirls. One verse into rock-banger ‘Kiwi’, he stops the whole band and chastises the crowd. “You’re good,” he concedes, “but I think you can be better.” We scream and he launches into the song again, flinging himself about the stage singing at the top of his lungs, “I’m having your baby! It’s none of your business! Any ironic detachment I’ve managed to maintain while talking and writing about Harry and his fans over the past two years is long gone. I love my noodle-limbed, Gucci-clad, rockstar son.

None of this is to say that this moment with Harry is unique, or even that his fans are. The night is both magical and also completely universal. While Harry is performing, Beyoncé releases new music in support of hurricane relief charities and the Beyhive is in rapture. The same week, Star Trek: Discovery premieres, unfolding new universes for its devotees. I attend a talk given by Frank Oz in honour of Jim Henson’s birthday with some of the most dedicated Muppet experts I’ve ever encountered.

Had you been at Radio City Thursday night, you might not have burst into tears, the way the theatre major next to me does when Harry springs a surprise cover of One Direction’s Story of My Life, but I’ll bet there’s been something in your life at one time or another that you’ve cared about just as much. And if not, maybe there should be.

The night after the concert I go to a karaoke bar at a Korean restaurant in Brooklyn to meet half a dozen of my new concert friends. We spend two hours drinking whiskey on the rocks and belting out One Direction songs. We sing Harry and Niall and Zayn’s solo songs. We even do an epic rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’, the song that launched One Direction to stardom on The X Factor seven years before.

When we part ways on the street, I know it’s only temporary. We’re seeing the film Call Me By Your Name together in a couple of weeks. One has graciously started pre-reading the novel I’ve just finished writing. We flap our hands at each other about the latest update of a Harry Potter fanfiction we love. Besides, Harry Styles is performing in Boston tomorrow night, so we’ll all see each other online.

Fans have always been some of the most open-hearted, generous, creative and passionate people I’ve ever met. I count myself so lucky to be among them.

Harry’s performing in Auckland in December. Maybe we’ll see you there.

Harry Styles plays Spark Arena in Auckland on 2 December. Listen to all the music you love, including Harry Styles self-titled album, on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.

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