Unless you’ve experienced boyband fandom, it can be difficult to square the contrivance of commercial PG pop acts with the overwhelming, boundless, alchemic devotion felt by their teenage fans. The cultural default is to deride, dismiss and pathologise teenage girls undone by fandom (see, a century before boybands, Lisztomania). In sharp contrast is I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, Australian film-maker Jessica Leski’s generous, observational documentary of boyband obsession across four pop generations.
The film takes its title from a tearful lament by then 16-year-old Elif, a One Direction superfan in New York, in a viral YouTube video of her melting into tears/panic/excitement at the idea of meeting the band’s Niall Horan. At school and in the clip, Elif is chastised (by herself among others) for her deeply unchill display of feeling. But the 90-minute documentary subtly skewers that idea of normal. Leski smartly understands that fandom is not so much a condition as a portal for universal teenage emotions: a transformative experience of coming into your own, of feeling alive and seen.
The film offers a breezy skim through this phenomenon; the bulk of the footage is just listening, in first-person testimonials, to four personal experiences. Dara, a 33-year-old Take That diehard in Australia, provides a succinct overview of the genre’s defining characteristics (three to five band members, categorisable personas, lovelorn lyrics, no mention of sex). Susan, 64, also Australian, recalls Beatledom in the early 60s as an evergreen, unmatchable catharsis. Elif and 25-year-old Sadia, a Backstreet Boys devotee, discuss how online fan communities both alienated them from immigrant parents and helped soothe feelings of unbelonging in the US.
More uncomfortable images of gawking or obsession – no-longer-teenage fans, for example, following Nick Carter on a Backstreet Boys cruise like camera-laden hyenas to a gazelle – are unprocessed, as Leski never presses into discomfort or shame harder than the subjects themselves. The film also sidesteps fandom’s potential for toxicity, especially on social media. I Used to Be Normal feels like a balm to anyone who’s watched a music video and fallen into hours of yearning – an experience that is quite normal and even, years later, still formative and viscerally real.
• I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is released on 31 May on digital platforms.