Monday, 5 January 2015

I Wanna Hold Your Hand: A Short History of Teen Girls in the Beatles Fandom

The Beatles’ music is considered to be more or less universal, with fans all over the world and of all ages. But in my 11 years as a Beatles fan, I have found that the most active participants in Beatles fan culture are still teenage girls. They put up Beatles posters in their bedrooms, collect vinyl records, spend their allowances on the myriad and sundry Beatles memorabilia, and share and trade pictures, stories, and rare audio clips with other teenage fans. The bulk of their interactions happen online, in fan communities or on social networks such as Tumblr, where users can create a personal page reflecting their interest in the Beatles and re-blog other fan’s creations (graphics, gifs, mash-ups, fan art, and fan fiction).

My most formative experiences as a teen girl Beatles fan in the early 2000s centred around online fan-forums and fan-pages, since my peers “in real life” found my new interest weird, boring and alienating. I ventured online to find out more about my new obsession, and I was met with a plethora of Beatles fan sites run by teenage girls. The content was often quite similar to what you might find on fan sites for contemporary groups such as *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys: Top Ten lists, light-hearted humour, and pages and pages of dreamy photos. It was through these websites that I found a sense of community with other fans and learned how to develop critical thinking skills about my favourite media, as a common theme on these pages was the good-natured mocking of the more humorous moments of the band members post-Beatles careers, including Ringo’s stint on Shining Time Station and Paul McCartney’s ill-fated marriage to his much-younger model wife, Heather Mills. The most popular fan sites at the time were run by teen girls and hosted by third-party websites such as Angelfire, Geocities, and Xanga. 

One of the most prolific webmistresses was Sabrina (no last name known) who ran “God Bless the Beatles”, a Beatles fan site which was unabashedly teen-centric in its use of raunchy, sarcastic humour, teen slang, and breathless rhapsodizing on the physical attractiveness of the Fab Four. “God Bless the Beatles” was initially hosted on a single Tripod page, and eventually expanded onto four different Tripod platforms, as the webmistress churned out enough writing and rare photos to constantly surpass the set limit for uploaded content. “God Bless the Beatles” was comprised of a sprawling assortment of themed pages- some devoted to humorous fan fiction, some to Beatle biography reviews, and some tributes to deceased members of the Beatles’ entourage. Also among these were many pages devoted to the Beatles’ former wives and girlfriends, which included information about their lives, photos, and guides on how to imitate their fashion, hair, and make-up style. One could argue that the fan-worship that sprung up for the Beatles’ wives and girlfriends was tied to cultural norms about rock music which teach boys to aspire to be musicians and teach girls to aspire to date musicians. However, I counter that the fan-worship of these women is linked more to young teen girls’ efforts to carve out a niche for themselves in the Beatles fandom, and to create a space that was explicitly feminized, something that would alienate the middle-aged men who, up until that point, had been the most vocal (if not the most active) members of the Beatles fandom in popular media. 

Why did teen girls in the 2000s feel the need to claim a space of their own in the Beatles fandom? Weren’t all the Beatles’ fans originally screaming teenage girls, anyway? They certainly were, and the Beatles’ female fandom persisted throughout their 11-year run as a band, from the following that began when they were playing gigs in their native Liverpool in the early days, to the young girls who stood outside the court house bawling during Paul McCartney’s 1969 marriage to Linda Eastman. Their music grew and changed over the years, and their fan base widened as they experimented with more daring musical forms, but their core female fan base stayed with them throughout the course of their career. 

The Beatles fandom persisted in the 1970s despite the split of the band, and the demand for Beatles-centric discussion and content was strong enough to lead to several different fan publications (newsletters, magazines, and fan anthologies) most of which were published semi-regularly during the decade. Unlike mainstream coverage, which only offered reviews for the separate members’ solo output, these fan magazines focused on the Beatles as a group, placing emphasis on their chemistry and group dynamic and offering speculation on a possible Beatles reunion. Most of these fan publications were either spearheaded by women or contained a majority of content contributed by women. Aside from the reunion speculations, the fanzines also offered interviews with Beatles hangers-on, stories about fan encounters, fan art, and fan fiction. By the end of the ‘70s, the Beatles had become widely recognized as extremely influential in music and gained a large, diverse fan base, but the most active participants within deeper fan culture were still female: women who had grown up loving the Beatles, and young girls who were just discovering their music for the first time. It was not uncommon for a teen girl in the ‘70s to list the Beatles as her favourite group, along with those other teen girl favourites of the ‘70s, The Bay City Rollers and the Jackson 5.

It was not until John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 that the mainstream’s idea of the “typical” Beatles fan began to change. Upon Lennon’s death, fans worldwide were plunged into very public mourning. But the thing about Lennon’s death is that it wasn’t just the hardcore fans who were mourning his death- it was also people who, although not “fans” per se, grew up in the era of Beatlemania and associated his music with their carefree days of youth. Lennon’s death symbolized the end of innocence for many of these people, and, in order to legitimize their mourning of a man they’d never known or met (and who, for a good part of his life, was associated with screaming girls), they began the deification of Saint John Lennon, a radical peacenik, spokesperson for a generation, and “the thinking man’s Beatle”. In contrast, Paul McCartney, whose post-Beatles career was dominated with love ballads and odes to family life on the farm, was “for women”. 

Although the John vs. Paul dichotomy began in the ‘70s, it was certainly exacerbated by Lennon’s death, as male fans began to infiltrate female fan spaces, many of the fanzines folded, and fan conventions began to focus more on the then-typically masculinized pursuits of tribute bands and record collecting. This would continue throughout the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, and although there were plenty of female Beatles fans out there, both young and old, they weren’t given the recognition that their male counterparts were, often being left out of retrospective documentaries and magazine articles, despite their contributions to fandom and knowledge of the group. 
Things changed in the ‘90s as the internet began to pick up steam, and more and more households began to have working internet access. By the late ‘90s, website-hosting platforms such as Angelfire,, and Geocities provided an easy template for teen girls to create a web space of their own, and teen girl Beatles fans, feeling alienated by the rest of the fandom, saw it as an opportunity to re-claim their voice in a fandom that should always have belonged to them. 

The Beatles occupied several spaces in the life of a young teen female fan in the early 2000s. Often, the music served as a link between these girls and their parents or older family member, the shared love of the music bridging the gap between young and old. The Beatles mythos/legend served as a guiding force and stability for teens who lacked it in their lives. And the Beatles themselves were rendered as crush objects, or, to put it more bluntly in the post-Sexual Revolution 2000s- as sex objects. These websites and message boards allowed girls who might have felt disenfranchised among their classmates (but also disenfranchised at male-dominated Beatles meet-ups) to talk about their shared interests with girls who were just like them. As I’ve said, the enthusiasm and approach they took towards the Beatles wasn’t much different from what their peers might write about any of the boy bands du jour. But the internet allowed these girls a space of their own, a place where they could freak out about a band that split up over 30 years ago, a place to be teen girl-y about something that they might be teased for by their teen girl peers at school. 
As an adult, I can now look back on my time in the Beatles web-based fandom as an extremely positive experience. At a time when my life was unsure and unstable, I gained several older female mentors. I learned that it was okay to be crazy over things that YM magazine and MuchMusic weren’t shoving down my throat, and through writing fan fiction and creating fan art of the Beatles, I honed both my writing skills and art skills. 

Men may try to claim the Beatles as their own, but they will always belong to teen girls. It was teen girls that made the Beatles popular, it was teen girls and women that championed them relentlessly, and teen girls will always be there- discovering the Beatles for the first time, and excitedly proclaiming their love for the four lads from Liverpool. After all, weren’t their best songs written for girls?

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