The image of waves of frantic faces, each contorted mid scream, utterly devoted and uncontrollable, is in modern times linked to the likes of Justin Bieber or One Direction. But long before those pop stars and their legions of adoring fans, the Beatles witnessed the hysteria firsthand — and created it.
In many ways, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — otherwise known as the Fab Four — spawned the birth of pop itself. Their loyal following was unlike anything seen before, popularly referred to as Beatlemania.
Those 1960s glory days of large turnouts and piercing screams of support have been captured in Ron Howard's documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. But what lies beneath the fandom?
Beatlemania Swept The World
The Hulu documentary focuses on The Beatles' peak period, between 1962 and 1966. Through those years, Beatlemania swept the world, with legions of young females turning up en masse. An incredible 73 million viewers tuned in when the band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. That's 9 million more than the current population of the UK.
If the magic ingredient behind the Beatles' frantic following and success could be bottled up and sold, it'd make a fortune. Many have speculated on why the band had such an impact, particularly on young girls. They certainly weren't the first to cause mild hysteria. In 1841, German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine referred to fan behavior toward pianist Franz Liszt as Lisztomania, the assumption back then being the behavior was some form of insanity.
Before the Beatles, the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley enjoyed a similar show of support. Yet in the '60s, something clicked on a larger scale. Due to the Baby Boom following World War II, there were masses of girls at the perfect age for fandom. The Beatles also fulfilled classic troupes of what could now be seen as the boy band criteria; they were nonthreatening, sung songs of devotion, and dressed in their Sunday best.
Such was the puzzlement around the fans' behavior, a study was taken into the mindset of those involved. In 1966, the British Journal of Clinical Psychology concluded that, unlike Heine in 1841, these fans weren't deluded. In fact, the response was a healthy way of expressing themselves:
The passing reaction of predominantly young adolescent females to group pressures of such a kind that meet their special emotional needs.
What are those emotional needs exactly? The principle of fandom applies across the spectrum, from the Beatles to Bieber. Essentially, the appeal for adolescent girls may lie in the safety net of sexual expression, within the confines of a society that imprints polarized views on teenage girls. As author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in a 1986 Chicago Tribune article:
To abandon control — to scream, faint, dash about in mobs — was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture. It was the first and most dramatic uprising of women's sexual revolution.
Ehrenreich isn't the only one to link fandom with sexual expression. Referring to the delirium surrounding Justin Bieber in a Psychology Today article, psychologist Mitch Prinstein notes the psychological motive behind girls' behavior, which typically varies from their male counterparts. He also identifies the boy band image to "serve many important psychological functions."
Aside from sexuality, being part of a fandom creates a sense of togetherness. On one hand, that creates a community vibe, and functions in a positive way. On the other, it can create what is referred to as crowd psychology, resulting in the loss of individualism and inhibitions. Not to mention how the experience of music can release dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, or organic chemical, that discharges pleasure in the brain. That explains the screaming, then.
The Impact Of Social Media On Fandom
This leads us to social media. On some levels, no fandom has ever reached the heights portrayed in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, at least not in public. But the rise of the likes of Twitter and Facebook has had an interesting impact on fans. Not only is fandom now more transparent than ever before, that community vibe is no longer contained to a two-hour concert — it transfers to the internet, 24/7 (or eight days a week).
Mix in performers like Bieber or One Direction, who openly interact with their fans on social media, and the result is frantic and quite frankly disturbing. These fans have been known to threaten self-harm, or even issue death threats to band members' girlfriends.
Is fandom obsessive? Yes. But as bizarre as it looks from an outside perspective, that doesn't mean it's not healthy for the majority. The Beatles may've started the first true pop fandom back in the '60s, with tens of million tuning in for that TV appearance, but there are no signs of the fandom slowing down. And social media has a huge part to play in that.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is available to stream on Hulu now.