IIn the last days of December, the assumptions that Rihanna might be about to release her ninth album, known to fans simply as R9, went into overdrive. Despite numerous articles and posts on social media that have lost headlines about the work in progress over the past four years, Rihanna has never shared official details about the project, although she once said that her next album would be released in 2019.
It is because of this launch comment in 2018 that the relationships between Rihanna and her “stans” (super fans) reached a kind of mania in late December. The star released insults on “listening to R9 alone and refusing to release it”, while her fans gleefully joke about breaking into her house and keeping her sleeping to get the album. Whatever Rihanna’s post, be it Australian forest fires or a friend who has died, the answer is the same. Rihanna’s first tweets in 2020 included a carefree selfie. The first answer came from a fan: a picture of a boy holding a knife, with caption: “Where is the damn album.”
When fans started to believe it deserve albums of their favorite pop stars? New albums were once “eagerly awaited”; now fans believe that the job is, in effect, held to the ransom. Similar chaotic energy surrounded Frank Ocean in 2016. He hasn’t released music for more than four years; like Rihanna, she casually made fun of appointments for new music just to not meet her deadlines. For a while he was not spotted in public without being criticized on social media for not being in the studio. “Frank Ocean is acting like an idiot,” said Ringer critic Justin Charity, although he said that Ocean fans with their “songs of the psychotic crowd” were worse. The mood became so bitter, it was difficult to say if the fans really wanted new jobs yet.
The situation is aggravated by the music media. In the 2010s, online news broadcasts began to behave like fans themselves, scouring the social media of artists for clues on major publications and then publishing their findings as a gospel. These days, we know a lot about an album before the work is officially announced. (Search for “everything we know about R9” and you will find many results.) Publications and blogs report on every Tumblr post on Ocean, contributing to the already frantic anticipation of fans. Grimes has also been hit hard by this continuous cycle of news. In 2013, he posted an angry letter on Tumblr, stating: “nothing I write here is an official statement and I’m really sorry that this shit turns into news.”
If new music materializes, but fails to meet fans’ high expectations, the backlash is quick and brutal. In the summer of 2016, Ocean streamed a live stream of himself building a ladder for an ambient soundtrack entitled Endless. Endless is a beautiful, disturbing piece and its introduction to the world seemed to convey a message about patience and perseverance. But fans were simply shocked that this was not the traditional album they felt promised. (That record, Blonde, arrived days later.)
In stan culture, everything is hyperbolic. This race of extreme fandoms has emerged from a connected world where fans can access (and scold) the stars with the click of a button. In her book Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, Hannah Ewens notes that music fans have long been the first to adopt and innovators in the world of technology. Today, their rhetoric permeates online culture. The binary tendency to declare something “hit” or “flop” has rippled through the increasingly polarized music press: in an economy driven by page views, it pays to pay for everything that is a masterpiece that defines the era or a pile of rubbish.
In 2014, Peter Robinson, founder of Popjustice, described how online fandom supplanted the traditional top-down fan club. With the bodies of fans becoming more autonomous and organized away from the control of artists and labels, Robinson described a strong imbalance of power, saying that many artists felt “trapped by fanbases who invariably look unfavorably on an artist who wishes to advance his sound “. He predicted that the relationships between fans and artists could go headlong towards a “siege full of real life”. A look at Rihanna’s mentions on Twitter suggests that her prophecy is coming true.
Stan’s power can make or break an artist. As hinted at by Justin Bieber’s recent cynical appeal to his fans to stream his return single while sleeping and use US proxy IP addresses to help him reach the top of the charts, hardcore fans are well versed in how manipulate streaming and sales figures and mobilize to make sure their favorites are successful. They regularly fight other fandoms indicating the latest streaming figures or the rankings that their icon has reached and are proud to have influenced those numbers. In this regard, some stan factions – usually at the forefront of digital culture – seem slightly archaic. Their obsession with the “era” album, charts, sales and commercial success is out of step with the way the music industry works today.
The traditional “album cycle” is certainly not the only way for artists to do more. Some have completely abandoned this model: German pop star Kim Petras recently said that she likes to make her fans feel “connected” by dropping music as a weekly event, “like a TV show”. Many artists have ambitions beyond music. Journalist Tshepo Mokoena explored how black artists, especially Beyoncé and Rihanna, reshaped what it means to be a pop star in the 2010s. Their careers are no longer focused on album releases, although the most important moments remain publicly advertised. Instead, with initiatives such as Ivy Park by Beyoncé and his film Homecoming, or the lingerie line Fenty Beauty and Savage by Rihanna, they have positioned themselves as curators, designers, entrepreneurs, directors and animators in the round.
The mourning artists for not releasing the scheduled albums seem anachronistic in 2020. As the critic Alex Pappademas claimed the vehement support of comic book nerds for film studies in the 2010s, he represents a “populist well serving the status quo, corporations and power “. For the series of essays from Slate’s Music Club 2019, the critic Jack Hamilton wrote about how poptimism calcified on the music press in this decade, creating a world where every time an artist publishes new music, it is characterized as a “gift” . As Hamilton points out, your favorites don’t generously give you gifts, they sell products. Describing pop stars as benevolent donors plays in the hands of music industry executives who want us to believe that we are fortunate to receive what we receive. To borrow a phrase from foal frontman Yannis Philippakis, he interprets the musicians as a kind of Pez distributor, and their legions of fans as eternally outstretched hands, waiting for the next surprise.
Despite everything that defines itself as people who truly get an artist, this request for satisfaction – by product – basically misunderstands creativity and fails to appreciate the ebb and flow of human life. Any artist they perceive as loose may not be in a music production phase; they could go through some sort of personal turmoil, the writer’s blockade or simply be busy with another project. Armies of fans who annoy idols increase the pressure that labels, managers and other invested parties can apply to artists to fulfill their contractual obligations and therefore obtain greater profits. As Zayn Malik’s second album showed, no one wants to hear churned records to reach a quota. Keeping loved ones tied to the treadmill of content until they disappoint fans is not love.
For me, the musical fandom in 2010 was defined by the release of Beyoncé’s surprise album in 2013: one of those rare, exciting moments when you remember exactly where you were when you heard something for the first time. That album, Beyoncé, remains one of Beyoncé’s most mature and complex works, but it can never be separated from the surprise stroke that brought him to the world: “I changed the game with that digital drop”, he rightly boasted of Nicki Minaj I feel like two years later.
That kind of shock released by any big pop star doesn’t seem possible anymore in 2020. Fans are too attuned to the minutiae of clues released online, too well trained like internet criminals. The promise of the number of retweets you could get from being the first to discover a new song recorded on ASCAP is too great; as well as the number of page views you could get from posting a fake tracklist leaked as news. Fans are even circumventing the lax security of streaming services to upload fake albums, usually consisting of old demos, on Spotify and Apple Music: a joke that has brought flashes of success in the badly earned charts and royalties.
At the beginning of a new decade, what could be a better model of fandom: to maintain the joy of being part of a global collective with a shared passion for an artist who changes culture, but not to favor constant publications and sales as a measure of love?
Firstly, we need space to listen more and have nuanced discussions. In this column, Tom Ewing argued that online forums could be the future of fandom, explaining that fan behavior “is driven by limits and predefined values built into technology.” Subtitles like r / popheads provide the format for stans to go deep in a way Twitter and Instagram don’t. In forums for individual artists, such as Kanyetothe, there is an even greater desire to dive into an artist’s back catalog and explore what already exists. Podcasts like Dissect and Song Exploder are taking deep critical and technical readings of pop into the mainstream and are proposing subtlety.
The rhythm of pop culture means that fans are constantly expecting more. Against the waning attention and falling album sales, artists have learned to push harder to avoid disappearing from sight. As we move forward – with a deeper awareness of the impact that a culture that always asks “what’s next?” It is having both on our planet and on our minds, we ask for less.
In late 2010, sustainability became an urgent concern for the music industry, with artists such as 1975 and Coldplay leading the discussion on how to make it greener. But sustainability is also a mentality: not demanding news, not giving priority to economic growth and not considering art as disposable. The next phase of Fandom could be rooted in caring for what we have. While Gen Z resists over-sharing on social media and everyone feels overwhelmed by connectivity, perhaps in the 1920s, the performance of the fandom will become less important than the intimate connections that we all form with music.
As usual, Rihanna is far ahead, operating with the fantastic detachment of someone who knows where her best interests lie. His latest album, the joyful weird Anti of 2016, was his first after leaving the Def Jam label and purchasing his masters. He published it on his label, in collaboration with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. It is likely that R9 will arrive the same way. Last year, he told Interview magazine, “there is no point in rushing it.” It is not according to anyone’s program, except yours. For this reason, I really stop forever.