Here’s a confession that I can guarantee a lot of male readers will probably also share: I spent the entirety of my time in secondary school (our equivalent to high school for American readers) snobbily dismissing boybands out of hand. Not just snobbily dismissing them, but with a proper disdainful hatred. They weren’t real music, they were annoying, they were stupid and childish and everywhere, and numerous other coded language for ‘this thing is primarily aimed at young girls instead of me, a growing White man, and therefore this is an outrage that must not stand!’. Now, if boybands and that kind of factory-assembled pop music are just not to your personal taste, then that of course is fine, nobody is forcing you to like the music of Five or Blue or (*shudders*) *NSYNC. But there’s something about liking boybands that is equated to a massive shame-magnet and a supposed reflection of immaturity, and that something is the toxic masculinity inherent in our patriarchal society that takes great pleasure in shaming women over their lifestyle choices, using any perceived enjoyment of a feminine-targeted outlet as an indicator that women are hysterical messes who don’t know what they really want or like. In the 40s it was talking out of turn one too many times, today it’s having a sincere fandom of BTS. Much of my social circle in secondary school, as it has been for most of my life, consisted of girls; girls who liked Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy and Paramore and all that cool music of the time, but they also had things for JLS and One Direction which would reliably bring about a round of mocking from myself and the other male friends in my group.
Like a lot of my shitty sexist faux-feminist behaviour pre-university, I woke up to the realisation that I actually had no good reasons for hating this kind of music. That I was genuinely incapable of properly articulating why I had such a staunch distaste for boybands, which, as a critic, is the best indicator that your opinion may in fact be total bullshit. Over the years, I’ve opened up to the joys of boybands, although I have more of a preference for girl-groups thanks to my greater identification with women and femininity (Heidi-Kiesha-Mutya-era Sugababes forever FIGHT ME), and learned to let the young girls have their fun, free from judgemental assholes like me. But in recent years, there’s also been a shift in the music critic community towards a soft-acceptance of certain boybands and manufactured pop music under the idea of ‘respecting the motherfucking craft’ involved in the songs themselves. And whilst it’s a nice idea in theory, in practice Poptimism is just as much bullshit as snidely sexist dismissals of the very music they’re supposedly praising. It’s the (heavily) White male-dominated music snobs deigning to legitimise certain kinds of Pop music under a condescending guise of nobility, the insinuation being that the whole genre of manufactured Pop music is still childish and stupid but they’ll grant the genre a pity-acceptance by throwing around names of producers and songwriters like Max Martin and Julia Michaels as status symbols indicating which interchangeable identikit boy-toys of the hour are worthwhile because of the craft and which are still for stupid teenage girls with their cooties and PMS-ing.
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The fact is that the boyband doesn’t need some bullshit goalpost-moving condescending approval from snobby male critics to be worthwhile. The devoted screams and unconditional love presented by millions of teenage girls the world over is approval enough. And this, finally, brings us to Jessica Leski’s long-in-the-making documentary about boyband phenomena, I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story and it is sincerely one of my favourite films of this entire Festival. A witty, moving, unashamed love letter to boybands and fandom that adores these things for what they are to such a degree that its mere presentation like this effectively constitutes a feminist reframing of the issue. Yes, boybands are cynically designed by bottom-line obsessed record executives to prey upon teenage girls and resultantly line their pockets with fat stacks of cash; Leski admits that almost right away. But that fact does not negate the connection made to the boys, or the emotions released from listening to their music, or the personal growth and better understanding of oneself that can come from this music and this group, and to stand there and act like it does otherwise is a total dick move on the person who tries to do so.
To further this point, Leski structures her film around four subjects, filmed over several years, which means that I Used to Be Normal is more a story about four women personally explaining themselves and their own lives, rather than an all-encompassing examination of boybands and fandom in all their forms. This is a masterstroke and the absolute firmest rebuttal Leski could make against the misogynistic falsehood that young (and old) women can’t articulate themselves properly, don’t know what they like, and are too dumb to understand otherwise. Her four women – who, for the record, are high-schooler Elif (One Direction obsessive), writer Sadia (Backstreet Boys obsessive and former head of an online newsletter dedicated to them), Dara (Take That obsessive and whose current job is too perfect a reveal for me to even dream of spoiling), and the elderly Susan (Beatles obsessive in a LONG-OVERDUE reminder that they used to be a boyband and dismissed as such before they got ‘weird’) – speak candidly and with great eloquence, which I fear sounds really condescending coming from myself but it’s the truth. In doing so, they dive into not just the boys of their bands, the imagery of each, and the music the bands were pushing, but also the personal upbringings and life experiences outside of those boys that led these women to form such a strong attachment.
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Elif is the eldest of a family of traditional Turkish immigrants and she’s adapting to American culture far easier than her often-unsupportive parents can or are comfortable with. Sadia is the daughter of conservative Indian parents who found her passion for writing through her obsessive message board-enhanced Backstreet fandom. Dara was able to understand her homosexuality thanks to the connection she made with Take That and Gary Barlow specifically. Susan rebelled against her conservative Australian hometown to get swept up in Beatlemania and gained shared solace in their music when tragedy struck one of her friends. These are real natural connections, the kind that anyone can make with any musical artist (‘real’ or manufactured), ones that help a young woman develop and discover herself, and something that they should be allowed to take pride in rather than being constantly belittled and shamed over.
Lest you get the impression that I Used to Be Normal is some kind of stern moralising lecture, let me assure you otherwise. After all, just because being a fan of a boyband isn’t inherently embarrassing, doesn’t mean there aren’t some actual embarrassing facets and stories to share. Much fun is made of the 90s fashion choices that Take That and Backstreet were draped in. Sadia reads us an extract from a book of published Backstreet Boys self-insert fan fiction (that she didn’t write) and only half-sarcastically laments its chaste nature, and the adolescent fantasies these women would have with their favourite boys despite their minds not yet comprehending anything more scandalous than playing tag in the forest. All of these stories and more went down a riot at my almost-full public screening, that rare kind of laughter that came from a collective understanding of a shared experience rather than derisively mocking the thing in question. And Leski also grapples on occasion with the negative possessive sides of fandom – romantic fantasies interrupted by real-life girlfriends for the boys making an appearance, for just one example – and the questions of when fandom turns unhealthy and at what point does a boyband’s antics turn into nothing but cynical opportunism – touched upon when Saaria talks about her experiences going on the official Backstreet Boys Cruise and finding her life-long devotion being seriously challenged for the first time based on the circus she witnesses.
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But, first and foremost, Leski’s film is a celebration of womanhood and a celebration of the things young women like that they shouldn’t have to apologise for liking. So, you can gripe about the film’s refusal to explore the hypocrisy in society’s shaming of boyband fandom but mainstreaming of geek fandom, or how it doesn’t critique the homogeneity and racial and sexuality issues at the centre of the boyband concept – the closest it comes to such a thing is when, during a brief detour to outline the general rules that define a boyband, Boyz II Men are disqualified from boyband designation because they sing too explicitly about sex – but that’s not the point of I Used to Be Normal. There are other days and (hopefully) other documentaries to look at all that. Leski instead wants to provide an earnest, charming, long-overdue corrective to decades of sneering condescension and, given that the post-film Q&A alternated between breathless soapboxing to thunderous applause and breathless admiration to thunderous applause (both of which were actually a lot better than they sound on paper and this was genuinely one of the best Q&As I’ve been to), I’d say it worked gangbusters. I know it worked on me, because I was beaming the entire way through and for hours afterwards.
To end, allow me to co-sign Festival Programmer Anna Bogutskaya by quoting an interview Harry Styles gave Rolling Stone in 2017 to sum up this whole debate: “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music… have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy… Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”