Illustration: Jess Kessler Cavaluzzi; Photograph: Ken Grand-Pierre
As my time in college came to a close, I realized it was time to wrap up my final letter to the fangirl, to myself. This letter is, in part, a eulogy to the younger me who valued herself primarily as reflections and projections of gendered stereotypes penned by straight, white boy rockers. Moreover, this letter is a vow to other fangirls: I promise to do my best to shape a world that values and empowers you for who you are.
Where to start.
Precisely, let’s begin at the end: May 17, 2016. On this not-so ordinary Tuesday, I found myself physically inhabiting the realms of a dual-consciousness feminist. From 3-7PM, I strode across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, eyes wide in awe at the grandeur of the venue. I shook the hand of our President, Debora Spar, and said goodbye to my formative years in school.
Barnard College, the Women’s College of Columbia University, changed my life. As I like to say, I would be a shit human being if I hadn’t gone to Barnard. Growing up in Utah made me a rather surly teen: close-minded, bitter, alone, judgmental, and silently infuriated about being treated differently as a girl and all the implicit gender role stereotypes that followed in a highly religious culture in which I was a sinning outsider. During my time at Barnard, my peers helped me undo my unhealthy ways of approaching the world. Instead, they taught me to be compassionate, to listen instead of argue, and to value people for their differences even more so than their similarities. And sure, I took classes along the way – learned about Intersectionality, the Scientific Method, and French verb tenses.
From 7-11PM on May 17, I stripped off my Columbia blue robes, revealing a beaded and lacey, white vintage dress I hadn’t had the guts to wear before. I threw on my black Docs and velvet bomber jacket, and rode the metro out to Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. This was set to be the most historic day of my life so far. I graduated from college after four years of reading, testing, and endless nights. And I was about to see my favorite band, The 1975, play NYC in an arena for the first time. What I didn’t realize, flouncing about in my quasi-nuptial dress as I ran up the stairs to my nosebleed seats, was that that night was actually the end. The obsequies.
I discovered The 1975’s first EP’s the summer after my Freshman year and did everything in my limited power to win them radio play on the station where I was interning. (This is probably why the old Music Director there hated me so much. He had a fangirl in residence reminding him every damn day that narrow-minded “bastion[s] of good taste” like him are on the outs.) On days when men at the radio station were particularly horrible to me, I’d get in my car at the end of my shift, turn on “Me”, and let my eyes well up as I drove home. “Don’t you mind, don’t you mind.” I wouldn’t let them know they’d gotten to me, but my car and The 1975’s music provided a haven from the bullshit I endured during the day.
That summer, I convinced one of our DJ’s to interview Matty Healy before their Conan performance. I was even able to procure their debut album before release date and probably played “Girls” for the first time ever on radio. I’d spent days beforehand whittling down the tracklist, trying to decide which song to debut. (That album is full of pop singles – I almost couldn’t go wrong.) To this day I feel conflicted about the message in the song: ‘They’re just girls, breaking hearts / Eyes bright, uptight, just girls”. Why did I pick that one. (Answer: the guitar riffs and immediacy ensured that the hosts wouldn’t tear into me for picking a “boring” song.) Such is the brief history of my conception as a fangirl of The 1975 and my first battle against “the man” in the music industry.
My first letter to the fangirl was a cheeky idea I had after seeing The 1975 play their second headline date in NYC at Webster Hall. This was December of my Sophomore year. In it, I admit my fangirl credentials, but I also belittle other fangirls for their eccentric passion. I didn’t yet have the broadness of mind (thanks to a Liberal Arts Education) to more complexly comprehend and deconstruct the (completely acceptable) contradiction of being both a fangirl and feminist. This double-consciousness. In fact, that letter is really an appeal to myself thinly disguised as condescension to other fangirls. “Your life is just as important and cinematic. Go fall in love with your own life.” That line was really for me.
Harkening back to my youth, I never did anything “stupid” out of passion or impulse. I never fell in love; I just let my mind run in circles over boys that weren’t worth it. I don’t drink, I don’t get high. I couldn’t give less of a shit about going to parties or looking “pretty” (whatever that means). Choosing not to partake in these rites of adolescence/girlhood/college made me feel alone and naïve, so I used The 1975’s debut album as proxy for living my own life. Every time I’d fly back to NYC from Utah for the new school year, I’d listen to “The City” to remind myself that magic is supposed to happen in this metropolis and in my own life, even if it never seemed to. It took me until Senior year of college to actually fall in love with my own life.
In the second letter to the fangirl, written in the spring of my Sophomore year, Aly (my best friend and co-DJ) and I were able to see The 1975’s third headlining show in NYC at Terminal 5. We had interviewed opener Bad Suns beforehand and snuck into the empty venue before the throngs of girls bolted in. That was the first time I looked behind me.
Since that show, every time I’ve seen The 1975 I look behind and around me during “Girls” to see what kind of reaction this song elicits. As I’ve distanced myself from a song that (through one perspective) minimizes “girls” from a straight male perspective, I’ve been able to observe how strongly fans relate to that song. Maybe it’s ironic? Maybe they think it’s funny that Healy things they’re heartbreakers. Maybe it feels like power – their power to send Healy head-over-heals merely by being “girls”. I don’t know.
In letter #2 I used feminist theory from Audre Lorde to attempt to explain a major wellspring of power for the fangirl – sexuality, and embracing the taboo of “erotic” expression through live rock music. Healy presumably wrote this song more as commentary about himself than about girls, though I’m not sure he expected the song to take on a life like this. I still don’t truly understand why “Girls” is such a touchstone to The 1975 fans.
The first time I missed The 1975 in concert in NYC was last December during my Senior year. Why? Because I was busy smashing the patriarchy. (I’m only sort of kidding.) The weekend of December 5th when they played Terminal 5 in preparation for the release of their second album, I was busy running my own all-women music festival, Gigg On, Girl. I was sick of the privilege white male rockers receive for festival lineups, so I created my own music festival where women are seen and heard. Even though it was small, I’ve come to realize it was fucking worth it. That was also the first time I let feminist me outweigh fangirl me.
Gigg On, Girl, as important as it was as a small pocket of resistance, sent me into a tailspin physically and mentally. I had high expectations, and the attendance was so minimal that I didn’t even break even. The next morning I cried, feeling like such a goddam failure. I spent my next and last semester of college recovering from depression. I had so much time and nothing important to do with it. I’d failed at the one thing that was important, and I didn’t believe I was capable of anything anymore.
The 1975’s second album, I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, was released in the middle of these bleak doldrums of mine in the winter/spring of my Senior year. The first time I listened to the album front-to-back, it was sunrise on a frigid February morning. I was taking the 7AM train from NYC out to my Grandma’s funeral in Rhode Island.
As we weaved through dead trees and umber landscapes, I heard “Nana”. I was moved to tears by Healy’s own grandma’s death, the way his voice cracks on the last line: “I haven’t been doing too well,”. Tears, like when I first heard the single “Somebody Else” debuted on Zane Lowe’s radio show on a glum, slushy day in NYC. The song made me feel alone and empty in my oversized black sweater, in a body I didn’t like or trust anymore. That was February.
One day in March, a mentor lured me out of my funk the only logical way there is: with a dare. “You seem like a rather fearless person…,” they observed, so why was I emotionally paralyzed? The thought of being a coward ate away at me. The challenge then, was to face my fears and rediscover the audacious girl who believed she could change the world with a music festival. Naturally, the first fear I wanted to tackle was having to look someone in the face-place and tell ’em what my heart-place was feeling. In other words, I blushingly stammered to this guy I’d been interested in for like two years that, ya know, I had some feelings. Why not.
I fully expected the worst, because why wouldn’t I? But when I told him, he just stared at me for what felt like ages then asked me out, as if that was the obvious next step. I just expected the worst for myself and had painted myself into a self-fulfilling prophecy of failing. But why would I expect the worst? Why couldn’t anyone like me? [Retrospective me: not to toot my own horn, but I’m actually pretty cool and fun to be around.] I was literally so giddy that he hadn’t said no (I know, backwards thinking) that I smiled ear-to-ear like a damned idiot for – no joke – six hours straight. While I was bartending at a party. That was an actual slice of life that a song couldn’t give me.
I decided I’d start throwing weird shit at my brain, a solution my Mom had suggested (in slightly more conservative terms, as mothers do). If my mind was stuck in nonproductive patterns that only maintained my depression, then the only way to get better would be to throw it off its balance.
So I started embracing the unexpected. I learned how to do some basic HTML/CSS coding and built a website about my hand-knit socks. I went on a couple dates since all the sudden it was raining men, then stopped going on dates because I wasn’t ready to let people love me yet. One of the most optimistic girls I’ve ever met taught me how to play ukulele after class one evening, reminding me how to giggle again. I wrote a 26-page paper on the canine ability to understand human language and proved to myself that I am still a capable intellectual. Finally, in an independent study I researched the Riot Grrrl movement to better understand if there is a need for a women-centric music community now, and how I could build such a space through Gigg On, Girl. By the time May 17th – graduation from Barnard College – rolled around, I was relatively rehabilitated. Dare I say, content.
That brings me to letter #3. Girls.
At Barclay’s center on the evening of May 17th, I was having a mediocre time. I was frustrated to be so far away from the stage. I’d seen The 1975 five or so times from the pit – never in a seat next to people who left halfway through the show. Maybe it was because I wasn’t with my people in the throes of it all, but the music didn’t really make me feel anything anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, Matty was just as wonderfully obnoxious as usual in those wonky ‘70s-style glasses, surprisingly wearing a suit AND a shirt at the same time. (He’s got a propensity to wear one or the other.) The stage setup was more massive than ever before with LED towers, cityscapes, and fuchsia lighting. The drummer filling in for George Daniel was keeping up, though he didn’t quite flesh out the songs like George does.
Matty took a moment to thank their fans. As he’s always said, they are a fan-propelled band. The old, white, male patriarchy aka Mass Media hesitates to accept The 1975 because they can’t give credit to a band that is mainly supported by fangirls: “How good could a band be if they play to a sold-out room of screaming teenage girls every night?” (MTV). Yet, it is the fangirl that made international arena tours possible for a band that started with bedroom-produced tunes. We are the powerful majority. We buy tickets to their shows. We purchase their merch, preorder their album – even when ridiculously titled, I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.
If we are so powerful that we alone can support a band’s worldwide arena tour, my question is: where are we putting our money, our time, our brainpower? What are we putting our vital recourses behind?
Per usual, I took the time during “Girls” to dial into the show’s demographic. The entire venue – from the nosebleeds to the pit – jumped up on their feet when the “Girls” guitar riffs echoed out. This would be the last song before encore. Look at us, singing platitudes about femininity to each other. (As I wrote in my notes, “Is this the formation Beyoncé asks us to get in?”) I refuse to dance. I refuse to sing along. I feel disconnected. Look at this arena, an entire stadium as proof of the problem.
They come back for a four-song encore and end – as always – with “Sex”, which had been my favorite song of theirs live. As I explained in letter 2: “Maybe that’s why my favorite song to experience live is ‘Sex’. Because when else can I just yell, ‘If we’re gonna do anything we might as well just fuck.’ When else can I accept my loving, sexual, sensual, beautiful, honest, empowered…erotic side? Because I sure as hell can’t embrace all of that out in proper society without someone trying to regulate my body, my mind, or my heart. That freedom is what all of us women connect to.”
You know what, I did need The 1975’s recordings and concerts as an escape, because it was the only one I had at the time. “Music is my erotic, my outlet, my power source. Concerts are my boudoir. Band tees are my lingerie. Through the music – through the erotic – I become more whole,” I wrote. That liberty is why I loved singing along to “Sex” live. Girls/women are socialized to be quiet, to be ashamed of our bodies and desires. But at a rock show you can be as loud as you want. I could be my most free self. Still, I was escaping living my own life by only allowing myself to be free in dark concert halls surrounded by screaming strangers.
At Barnard graduation on May 17th before The 1975’s show, student speakers touched on the import of our college. It’s a place to figure out how to think, analyze, question, and listen; a sanctuary in which you can learn to love yourself, but most notably, you can learn to speak. After four years in this community, my biggest takeaway is the power of my voice as well as my silence. My voice can bring together women from different genres and cities to play an all-women music festival; my silence makes me complicit with the status quo that privileges some and ignores others.
The fangirl is here, at shows like these, because she needs to find and use her voice in a space where she has the liberty to express herself. That’s what I needed, at least. But I no longer need a male role model to empower me, and perhaps that’s why The 1975’s music ceases to move me. I’ve been fulfilled with friends, a community, women musicians all around me from Gigg On, Girl – a dream I’d built myself.
Thus, in my third and final letter, I come full circle. I embrace the contradiction of being both a fangirl and a feminist. The dual-consciousness – of having to live as a woman in a world that devalues and belittles me, weighed with the power to be able to build my own radical space apart from society – was represented in the two venues I inhabited on May 17th: my graduation as a feminist at Radio City and the decease of me as a passive fangirl at Barclay’s Center.
I can now live in this contradiction. No, I no longer need The 1975’s music to feel alive or to be brave, because I found the thrill in my own life. I realized that it wasn’t The 1975’s music I needed all along. I was holding myself back this entire time, and it was me that set myself free, not this band of boys.
More importantly, this letter has always centered on me, but now it’s time to hear from you. Hi there, fellow fangirl. You’re cool. You like music. No, you LOVE music. If people had a smidgen of the passion you have, the world would be a better place, of that I have no doubt. YOU are powerful.
I’d like to create a space for fangirls to explore women-centric, gender non-binary, and queer bands that offer different perspectives, a space I began to create with Gigg On, Girl. I envision a community of conscientious listeners and concertgoers. Can you tell me what you’d like to see and how I can create this space for you? Send me your fangirl letter at email@example.com.
Letter: Syd @sydthegiggs
Illustrations: Jess Kessler Cavaluzzi @jejejejeska
Thank you so much to Jess for the beautiful illustrations! Check out more of her amazing work on instagram!