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Our Mothers As Fangirls

I’m working on a project about the history of groupies and fangirls as it relates to women’s rights. Cool, right? It’s really interesting.

In much of the research, the conversation revolves around how fandoms—from The Beatles to One Direction—are an expression of acceptance, that these fans turn to artists to legitimize their point of view while the artists seek support in their career. It’s a cool circle of entertainment as comfort, as therapy, as political act. Everything has a deeper meaning when you stop to chew on it.

In one story, Alexis Chaney‘s thorough Vox essay “Swooning, Screaming, Crying: How Teenage Girls Have Driven 60 Years Of Pop Music,” you get a picture of how teenage fangirls were so much more than The Beatles, that they were working in America since Frank Sinatra to guide pop music. Her story is very interesting but a parallel narrative that is briefly touched upon is race as it relates to teen girl fandom and how our mothers are windows into political landscapes adjacent to taste.

As Chaney points out, most talk about teen girl fandom is generally “teen girls.” But what does that mean? Young white women.

My mom was 12 in 1964, a prime age to have caught the Beatlemania bug, but I never heard her talking about them as her favorite artists or listening to their music. I asked her why she wasn’t a Beatles fan, and she said part of the reason was that her family didn’t have a television.

Growing up poor and black in segregated Mobile, Alabama, meant there was a whole realm of pop culture that was cut off. “We listened to black radio, and that was all Motown,” she told me. “My brother and cousin were six years older, and we danced to what they danced to, and that was all black music.”

She said because of Ed Sullivan, she had heard of them but nothing that black teenagers at the time were consuming had anything to say about the Beatles: “They didn’t cross over onto the black airwaves, so we didn’t really listen.”

The music industry remained segregated for decades, and that segregation lingers today, so although we tend to think of “teenage girls” as encompassing girls of all races, at their beginning the musical interests that were starting to be seen as “teenage” were explicitly white.

Hearing this, I had an ah-ha moment: our mothers, our soft power fangirls who guide our taste, are a reflection of history. This is obvious but thinking about this in relationship to other people I know’s mothers (Say, my boyfriend Bobby.), their narratives follow the Sinatra / Elvis / Beatles, etc. storyline of whiteness. My mother? Like Chaney, all these artists are absent, replaced by various Puerto Rican singers and 1970s disco sensations.

Where some mothers may love their oldies stations and can prattle on about Elvis shaking his hips, my mother always dug into Gipsy Kings and could mount a cover of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” at any moment. Her history is tied to that of the late twentieth century urban disco boom through the lens of immigration and Spanish culture in Jersey City. Were Elvis and The Beatles a part of that narrative? Not at all. I’m not even sure if she knew who they were until she met my father in the eighties. I have a feeling she wasn’t hanging out watching American Bandstand: she was too involved with Soul Train.

(Related: my mother repeatedly tells us the story of how she didn’t realize that The Wizard Of Oz was a movie that turned into color until she had kids. She only knew it to be entirely in black and white because black and white televisions were all her family could afford.)

As we emerge from our Mother’s Day hangovers abuzz with familial history, it’s fascinating to examine your own lineage with that the larger frame of pop culture. Where do you fit in? Is your story from that of the mainstream norm or were your parents from left of center, whether intentionally or pushed there by racial or economic status? In thinking of our mothers as teenage fangirls, you can unlock a bit of that narrative and find yourself painting a picture of their history.

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