We are standing in the way of revolution. And we are doing so on behalf of the state, capitalism, of The Celebrity, all because they require us to.
I am writing to you today as a former, self-identified member of The Navy. I followed Rihanna’s career from the very beginning. I can hum and sing my way through every album transition. I know the stats. I know what went #1, how many weeks it took, and if it didn’t go #1, I can tell you why. I can look at a haircut or outfit and tell you exactly what year it’s from and who styled it. I own two copies of her coffee table book, gifted to me by friends who know how deep my love has run. Nothing that follows this paragraph comes from a place of judgment—I understand what it means to stan, and that’s why I’m hoping you’ll hear me out.
So much of my attachment to Rihanna and the growing Fenty brand was about identifying things in her that I felt I needed to absorb in order to become the person I wanted to be. A lot of us come to stanning as already marginalized kids in even further marginalized communities. We are Black/brown, poor, LGBTQ+, women, disabled, and/or otherwise othered. And as a kid, watching Rihanna embody everything that I thought was necessary to move through this world with ease, gave me a model. It gave me something to aspire to. Watching her effortlessly clap back at haters, and the way she lived outside of the constructs that had been imposed on her was inspiring. And in those early days of stanning, before Twitter and inside of fan forums, I wanted badly to protect that identity. Fans watched her get relentlessly slut-shamed, we defended her from online xenophobia, and in 2009, we were young kids watching TMZ report the brutal details and images from the incident where Chris Brown nearly fatally assaulted her. We were also young kids watching adults in the media make up nasty and vile rumors that placed the blame of that assault on her. We needed to protect her and we did.
As consumers, we have to ask ourselves if we are engaging with our favorite artists as genuine creators or if our gaze is being filtered by the lens of Celebrity. Artists are people who make art because something in their spirit compels them to. They put their art into the world, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s always open for interpretation by audiences. But Celebrity is a creation of capitalism; it is a function of various industries sustained by systems like Billboard and other hierarchies designed to measure performance and disseminate propaganda. Yes, people thoughtfully engage with work created via Celebrity, but ultimately, the art itself takes a backseat to the quantifiable performance of the art. That’s what capitalism is about, money over everything. Stans know how The Charts work. It’s time to ask ourselves why it means so much to us.
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Stanning requires an investment in a parasocial relationship. The term “parasocial relationship”, coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, refer to one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. In other words, “intimacy at a distance”. This phenomenon that holds so many of us captive is the same force that leads adult men to blows over professional athletes. It’s what keeps otherwise smart people from being able to think critically about their favorite politicians. It’s a condition that has existed long before social media but continues to worsen under capitalism. It affects everyday consumers who like to consider themselves superior to the stan but are still unknowing victims of the effect. A huge and overlooked part of standom is the community we build, but we don’t have to abandon those relationships; we can just approach them through a different lens.
Our faves, while still making incredible art, are extensions of Celebrity. They have multi-million dollar budgets and contracts, PR factories, lawyers, circles of influence, and layers of protection that the average person could never imagine. And this is not to say that they don’t deserve love or respect, but they do not require us to protect them in the ways that we once did. Their wealth enables them to shift the narratives about them, and they often do.
Beyoncé will likely only ever encounter a tiny percentage of the most critical things said about her online at this point in her career. Fenty Corp does not need us to gate-keep negative reviews about Fenty Skin. Stanning requires, even to the tiniest degree, for you to behave like a cop. Police exist to protect the ruling class and their property. So what does it mean to fight tooth and nail to preserve the sanctity of a celebrity and their brand(s), which in the current context, function as property?
Our faves are launching historic fashion houses with legacy brands like LVMH. They are in partnership with global empires like Disney. With a big enough check, they can completely take over your favorite streaming service for the launch of a new project. They are in control of their own narrative in ways that artists of the past, and artists without their means, could never imagine. Their identities are businesses and corporations within themselves. And that is where their material interests lie. For us to experience Beyoncé as we’ve become accustomed to knowing her, her accumulated wealth is necessary. The same is true of Rihanna and Jay-Z and so many others. As with “luxury,” Celebrity is a status defined and upheld by the gaze of those who are not the elite. If it were possible for all of us to move through the world like our faves under capitalism, the entire idea of Celebrity would cease to exist.
The material condition of a stan and that of Celebrity is so vastly different that it’s difficult to scale for comparison. The difference between being worth a billion dollars and being working-class or poor in the middle of a pandemic is a stark and difficult reality to comprehend, but for the sake of understanding this difference, it would take the average person their entire lifetime to count to the number “billion”. Not to make a billion dollars. But just to sit and count to it.
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Capitalism and Celebrity require your service as a stan. They require your obsession with The Charts. They require your ability to trend topics online. As much as it may feel like you are performing love, you are performing labor. Celebrity is an entire industry that functions to move us beyond engaging with art, to performing on behalf of it.
Meanwhile, there is a war going on outside. We are about to experience one of the worst mass evictions in our country’s history. There is a global uprising around police violence against Black and brown people. A pandemic is ripping through our planet and continues to claim the lives of thousands every day. And here’s what we know: charity is not helping. Philanthropy is not helping. And these foundations do not help, at least not in substantive ways. To understand why they don’t work, you need a deeper understanding of the history of the nonprofit industrial complex, and how these systems function to maintain the status quo in a society like the one that we live in. If you don’t have that understanding, it’s not your fault. But that’s why it’s important to be open to learning from those who do. When people with years of study and a solid understanding of systems and structures attempt to critique our faves and we lash out violently, we are standing in the way of knowledge sharing. We are standing in the way of revolution. And we are doing so on behalf of The State, on behalf of capitalism, and on behalf of Celebrity, because that is what those systems require us to do.
Right now there is a revolutionary spirit in the air. More people than ever are talking about things like abolishing prisons and getting rid of police. People are waking up to the threat that the US military poses to Black and brown countries across the globe. There are big conversations happening every day about imagining a new world. Radical solutions require imagination, and at the vanguard of that imagination is young people. Particularly young Black and brown people. From the moment we are born to the moment we die, we experience a deliberate beating, daily, that aims to rid of our imaginations. The only reason we continue to accept things as they are is because we lack imagination. Imagination gives us the fuel to shake shit up.
Don’t let this moment pass you by because of a parasocial relationship. The hard truth is we will never benefit from Celebrity. In fact, if you understand that Celebrity is a function of capitalism, then you have to understand that Celebrity will always require the vast majority to live without. We will likely never enter the sphere of Celebrity ourselves. We will never live like them. We will never have their experiences. The time has come for us to look around and identify our own material conditions. How are you living? How is your mama living? What’s the state of your neighborhood? Do you have access to everything that you need? Are you safe? There is a struggle outside that wants to help you answer these questions. And it’s not asking you to abandon your favorite artists or never engage their work again. It’s asking you to open your eyes and look at the world a little differently.
We need to release the attachment and accept that even the kindest among us can be toxic when we stand between Celebrity and principled critique. In 2016, scholar and professor Robin D.G. Kelley said, “It is the critique that advances us… A lot of young people think critique is hating on somebody, when it’s actually loving the project of liberation. […] it’s not about challenging a paradigm, it’s about challenging systems that continue to reproduce themselves.” Critique is the only way we move into the future. Who are you inside of that future, outside of the realm of fandom?
Take some time to ask yourself what you believe in. Do you believe that housing is a human right? Do you want an end to gender-based violence? Would you like to see prisons and police abolished? Do you believe Palestine should be free from occupation? Do you believe in land sovereignty for Native peoples? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will help you create a set of values that can guide you through life. More than the political party you might align yourself with, these are what people refer to as your politics.
I also suggest some reading that can help you ground yourself in the urgency of the moment we find ourselves in. Assata: An Autobiography by revolutionary freedom fighter, Assata Shakur, is a timeless work that I recommend to everyone because she demonstrates what a political awakening for a young Black person can look like.
Take what you learn from these moments of introspection and use it to build community around the kind of future you want to see. Let’s move beyond only sharing change.org petitions and actually start learning about the root causes of things like racism, poverty, and war. Get involved with groups or organizations that are fighting for radical change. And never stop asking “why?” In the process of trying to peel the curtains back, we’re going to be wrong a lot. Get comfortable with that.
The movement outside needs us. It needs our brains. It needs our time. It needs our creative energy and resources. It needs us to re-invest the large amounts of energy that we devote day in and day out to Celebrity and to The State, into the people around us. It needs you to unlearn old things and learn new ones. Even though so many of us come into stanning as kids as a form of escape, many of us are adults now. It’s time to ask ourselves why we passively live in a world we so badly need to find an escape from. It’s time to get active in true struggle together. Celebrity no longer requires our protection. Our communities do.
Mack (he/him) is a young Black person living, learning, organizing, and tryna get free in Brooklyn.
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