How Teen Girls' Hysteria for Boy Bands Became an Unstoppable Force
From the Beatles to One Direction, all-singing and all-dancing pop groups have claimed the hearts of many teenage girls.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Boy band hysteria officially began outside the London Palladium on the October 13, 1963. The Beatles could barely get to their own concert through the mob of violently excited fans. Women screamed and wailed, pushed through security and tried to mount their car.
The black and white photographs are iconic; it was the moment four young men from Liverpool undid feminine decorum. When you hear the term "Beatlemania," you instantly picture hoards of screaming female fans. It's so powerful an association, you'd think women didn't know what to do with their larynx until they'd heard Paul McCartney sing," She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah."
We already know that kind of display makes men nervous. This is what journalist Paul Johnson wrote in New Statesman in 1964: "Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures..." What those Beatles fans did was a beautiful thing. Yes, they were having fun, but they also discovered a sacred formula: four young musician guys with terrific hair.
The origins of hysteria
These days you're most likely to find the word 'hysterical' in a weary father's complaint about his teenage daughter at a 5 Seconds of Summer concert. But actually, women have been dismissed as 'hysterical' for centuries. Plato told the Ancient Greeks that a woman's uterus could roam around her body, blocking organs and causing her to faint and fret, lose her appetite, sleep too little or too much, get nervous and—Zeus forbid!—feel sexual desire. In the 19th century, women diagnosed with hysteria were told it was their inability to orgasm or ejaculate that made them emotional, irritable or tired.
As soon as doctors started using clinical research rather than antiquated sexism to write about biology, they quickly dismissed 'hysteria' as a medical condition altogether. But the word still has a sexy, roaming-uterus connotation. When a male journalist reports on the 'hysterical' girls waiting outside a hotel to see Harry Styles, he's evoking Plato's disdain for female lust. When actually, fantasizing about a celebrity from a distance is a perfectly delightful way to explore your sexuality. That's just one of the reasons we scream.
I scream, you scream, we all scream
There's a guy in Atlanta literally harvesting human screams. Psychologist Harold Gouzoles started studying monkey screams decades ago, but now he collects human screams from Youtube and asks people to identify the reason for the sound. Is it terror, pain, pleasure, anger? Is it Justin Bieber?
Whatever the motive, he says "the ability to belt out a scream is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and is no doubt critical to our survival." So could the deafening squeals at a One Direction concert possibly be a survival instinct?
Well, yeah, actually. People yelling in a crowd is a bit like monkeys screeching in a tree. It's about belonging to a tribe, be it pop music, football or simian. We know instinctively that to survive, we have to stick together. Fandom operates on pack mentality: to scream in a crowd is to belong. It's human nature.
Sociology professor Michelle Jennings told the Washington Post in a video interview that fan screams are "the embodiment simultaneously of collective identity and individuality. So if you're chanting with fellow fans at a soccer game or booing a politician or yelling amen at a church service, you're using your body and your voice to show that you're part of a larger group with a common identity."
Anyone who's survived adolescence, works in an office, has a family or interacts with other humans knows how important it is to feel like you're part of something. When Beatles fans, Beliebers and One Directioners scream, they're just asking for that.
Zayn is gone and Backstreet's Back
When Zayn Malik left One Direction in 2015, nearly 500 gainfully employed people in the UK requested 'compassionate leave' from work to cope with the emotional fallout. Several distressing hashtags promoting self-harm in response to the news started trending worldwide. When the remaining four members of One Direction announced they would be going "on hiatus" at the start of 2016, millions of young fans expressed their grief with varying levels of 'hysteria' online.
But it's not the first time a boy band disbanding has caused mass distress. Gary Barlow caused a similar fan panic when he confirmed that Robbie Williams was leaving British band Take That in 1996. Following a sombre press conference in which Barlow said, "From today Take That is no more," the Samaritans set up hotlines to help counsel grieving young women through their grief. I happen to believe the grief is real because para-social relationships with celebrities can be a genuinely healthy way for teenagers to understand themselves. But perhaps it's the wandering uterus.
Take That members have reunited, split, reunited and split with the regularity of a soap opera romance since that grave moment in '96, because boy bands are for life. The Backstreet Boys and New Kids On The Block did a combined arena world tour in 2011 and just this week, Westlife and Boyzone have merged to become Boyzlife.
So long as middle-aged men can still qualify as members of a 'boy band,' women of any age can be fans. Who's coming with me to the One Direction / The Wanted concert in 2036, then?