Saleem: It's a brisk cold by North Carolina standards day. We're walking through the area near my house. It smells like barbecue or grilling or frying things. Cause it's Durham, North Carolina. It kind of smells amazing.
Saj: Yeah. Just smells like a lot of things being fried.
SALEEM: This winter, I took a walk with someone whose voice might sound kinda similar to mine. It’s actually my brother Sajid. We sound alike. I mean even relatives get us confused sometimes. Now, if you know my brother, you might know that he does all kinds of interesting experiments. This one time, he decided to try to write an entire album in a single month, despite not really having much experience making songs. Another time, a guy challenged him to a triathlon in a bar, and he just kind of did that triathlon, to see what it would be like. So what I'm about to share is kind of weird, but consistent with my brother's vibe. In 2019, he took on an interesting experiment.
Saj: I really wanted to dive into some music that I liked. It was in this moment where I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I really love Enya.
[clip of live performance of “Orinoco Flow”]
Saleem: Yes, Enya - the soothing, new age-y, Sail Away, Sail Away, Lord of the Rings soundtrack, Irish siren that you’ve probably heard of. She’s got a very particular vibe. It’s not really high energy club banger, and not what you’d associate with my tall, very in-shape, sharply dressed brother.
Saj: Anytime I was either working or hanging out at my house, or anytime I was listening to music, generally it would be Enya. So I decided, you know, what the heck, why don't I just listen to just Enya for a month and see how that feels?
Saleem: What did you think of Enya when you were a kid?
Saj: I thought it was really just cheesy. It was one of those things that we, I felt like we just always made fun of around the house.
Saleem: Enya is what we probably would have called mom music. Not just because we think some moms listen to Enya. Because our mom specifically listened to Enya. So much so that it was the first birthday gift my brother and sister gifted my mom.
Saj: It was one of those, typical childhood birthday moments where you're trying to sneakily buy something for your parent, who also knows that you're trying to buy something for them. So she actually came in the store with us. And it got to the point where she basically was pointing to the cassette tape that we needed to pick out and buy it for her.
Saleem: Decades later, as an adult being bombarded by music on the internet, and with a lifetime of widely varied musical experiences, Saj decided to try an experiment — listening exclusively to Enya for a whole month. He wanted to see how it would change his mood and also get some insight into why listeners like our mom were such big fans. There were some clear takeaways.
Saj: It was one of the calmest, most peaceful months of work that I've ever had. I mean it sounds cheesy and over the top, but I do think it helped me understand my mom a little bit better too. This music makes me feel tranquil and at peace and calm. What was it that my mom was experiencing, that she wanted to feel this tranquility, this peace and this calm? Maybe it says something about, you know, a group of people that maybe needed some tranquility and calm in their life.
Saleem: Tranquility, peace, and calm. I mean, those are some things a lot of us want in our life. If Enya is one path to getting more of those things - shoot maybe more of us should be Enya fans. But can you even do that? Just choose to become a fan of something?
When I think about fandom, I think about being in high school, wanting to know everything about Nirvana. Or freshman year of college when I heard of this band Cornershop that was fronted by an Indian dude and got kind of obsessed with them. I had the poster in my dorm room and everything. I know that's a particular time and place, for me. But I also know that every generation’s got tribes that form around sports teams or films or books or you name it.
[Montage of clips of cheering fans - The Beatles, One Direction, football fans, DMX merges into theme song]
Saleem: Why do so many of us give that up when we become adults? And what are we missing when we stay away from fully embracing something that might end up bringing us joy or community? It's not just Enya that some of us think is uncool. Sometimes it's being a fan in and of itself.
Saleem: I'm Saleem Reshamwala and this is More Than A Feeling. In this episode we get intimately acquainted with the joy and shame of fandom. I'm not here to sell you on Enya specifically. I mean, she does live in a castle and has been sampled by the Fugees, both of which are pretty cool. But we’re gonna talk about fandom as a whole, and what it makes us feel, and all the different ways we can think about it. After the break.
Saleem: Hi y'all, it's Saleem. Welcome back.
Saleem: It's felt like years since I went all in on being a fan of an artist or band. I mean, I love music, but what makes someone a true fan, all in with all your heart and soul? As college went on, it became hip hop for me. And after college, I ended up in the very lucky position of getting to spend a ton of time on the road, filming young rappers and beatmakers. But something unexpected happened when I ended up filming all the time. I've spent way more time in work mode than fan mode.
Don't get me wrong. I still definitely dig shooting videos and working with MC’s and DJ’s on projects. But that early feeling of bliss melting into a crowd of enthusiastic hip hop heads, bouncing with hundreds or thousands in a sweaty club. Well, I'm just not often in that full on fan mode anymore.
Am I missing something, some emotion, by not having that part of my life that's full-on fan? Can I regain that bliss by giving into being a fan of something totally new? So I recently noticed my friend Sam had started tweeting about Korean pop culture a lot pretty suddenly, and it felt like something had shifted. And I talked to her and something had.
Sam: My name is Samantha and one of my favorite things in the world is the Korean group BTS.
Saleem: That's K-pop super group BTS. So popular among millions of people that their fans are called ARMY. And one of the newest of the millions is my friend Samantha.
Saleem: I'm just gonna be honest. I intentionally didn't look up anything more about BTS. So I'm coming in almost cold on BTS knowledge. I mean, I know Korean boy band. Maybe a song called “Dynamite?” Is that…?
Sam: Yes! Yay. See you do know. People know more about BTS than they think.
Saleem: Okay. Tell me their names.
Sam: So there's Kim Nam-joon, who’s the leader. Who's also known as RM, who was originally called Rap Monster…[Sam’s answer continues, ducking under Saleem]
Saleem: Sam's BTS fandom is kinda random - that’s a little sing song-y I know but it’s par for the course when we're talking about pop music. Sam self-labeled as someone who was generally into Korean culture and K-drama. And when she saw that her niece was super into BTS, Sam did a really awesome thing. She got BTS concert tickets for her and her niece. And Sam, in "superstar fun aunt" mode, felt she needed some prep work.
Sam: So I joined their online group. So I had to get the presale code. And took off of work so I could get her these tickets. And I got the tickets and they were so expensive that I said, “Well, I should listen to some of this music so I know what I'm enjoying when I take her to the concert.”
Saleem: If there's a “stages of fandom” chart, Sam probably hit all the markers.
Sam: It's very, very slow. You don't even realize when you're involved until you're like, “Oh wait, I now have a cat named after a member of BTS.” And so I think that was peak. I love you, Min Yoon-gi.
Saleem: And I think a lot of people have an image of fandom, especially pop fandom, as something to be embraced by massive groups of teenagers. Not, you know, people with mortgages.
Sam: A lot of people, when I would say, oh, I'm interested in Korean stuff, they would be like, “Oh, you're into that K-pop crap.” And it was so like a negative thing. I felt like maybe I was too old for it.
Saleem: What feelings are around that? What's happening when you feel like you're too old to get into something?
Sam: Like it's not for me. Like it's for younger people or younger girls. Like when I was younger, I was into boy bands. I loved NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. And the image of those fans are young girls. And they're typically young, white girls. So with K-pop, it's the same thing. It's like young girls. They assume that they're very young white girls and everyone forgets that like, well, music is for everybody.
Saleem: Fandom and the emotional display of it can feel like it's regulated and super gendered. Like fans are being judged. And I’ve probably been guilty of this, thinking that adults screaming at a group of teenage boys in coordinated outfits on a stage is silly. While adults screaming at a group of teenage boys in coordinated outfits on a soccer field is normal.
[clip of football fans chanting]
Sam: There is this judgment with women, especially young girls, being fans. I mean, with sports they can buy all the sports, um, memorabilia. They can spend hundreds of dollars. They can have rooms dedicated with jerseys and signed things. But if someone comes to my house and sees that I have a BTS plushy on my couch, they might say something like, “Oh my gosh, that's so childish.” And I'm like, “But how is that childish? But your Chicago Bulls Starter jacket from 1996 is like the most treasured item in the world.” So it's a weird, weird thing to experience when you're a fan of something and wanting to be open about it. But knowing that people are going to judge you for it.
Saleem: But Sam also felt the other side of fandom, Which isn’t being judged, it’s being seen by community. Sam started feeling this welcoming energy once she started digging around for more info from long term BTS fans. And again, the BTS fan community is called ARMY. It's gonna be a running thing throughout this episode.
Sam: There are people who are very, very dedicated, wonderful members of ARMY who have created like Google Drive folders of, “Oh, you're new to BTS? Here's all of the information that you need. And this is how you can get started.” And they're so organized that you're like, “Well I can't help, but just fall in love and become into it.” And you're just like surrounded by this community of other like-minded people. And it's like, I like this.
Saleem: I don't know if I right now have the same intensity around fandom of things as I used to. So I'm curious about what you feel like you get from losing yourself, what you would say to someone like me who's like, I don't know if I know how to do that anymore.
Sam: There is a level of escapism for some people. I went to my first Bruno Mars concert at the PNC arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, with two best friends. And the lights dropped and the curtain dropped and Bruno Mars was just standing on the stage.
[Clip of live concert of Bruno Mars introduction and fans cheering}
Sam: I started to sob. I was so happy, but I started to cry and I feel like it would, it would be like a similar feeling of just feeling so much joy and being so overwhelmed that the only thing I would know how to do would be to cry and then just start dancing, like crazy.
Saleem: Ok, I want to point out something here. Let's take what Sam just said about this experience — being so happy that she was sobbing. Now, remove Bruno Mars, the entire concert and let's place Sam or any of us doing that in a grocery store or at work. In any other context, we might look at someone doing this and cross the street to avoid them. We've been trained to not express extreme emotions, even if it's something a lot of us deem positive like joy or happiness. And what I’m curious about is how we can access those deep feelings in the first place.
Saleem: What should I do if I want to feel the kind of energy and joy and intensity that I see spilling off of you when you talk about BTS?
Sam: Come hang out with me.
Saleem: So I decided to do a version of hanging out with Sam, but just musically. What if I took my brother Sajid's Enya experiment, and replaced it with a catalog of music from one of the biggest bands of the 21st century? And so I didn’t get lonely, brought along a partner in crime?
Saleem: So my friend Sam became a BTS fan during the pandemic. Uh…
Saleem: Oh, shoot, you don't know what BTS is or do you?
Laww: What is that - behind the scenes or…?
Saleem: That would be my friend, John Laww. Who goes by Laww.
Saleem: This is perfect. That's the perfect response. So BTS is a Korean boy band. They're huge. They're like one of the biggest bands in the world. And here's my ask for you. If you're game. First of all, how big would ask, is it for me to just be like, you're going to exclusively listen to BTS?
Laww: That's not a hard ask at all. Like I always…
Saleem: You don't even know what they sound like.
Laww: Right. But I always, I always take in music from everybody. So I'm always about suggestions, definitely.
Saleem: I'm gonna talk to Sam and see what her suggestion would be to turn you, John Laww, into a BTS fan. It's okay if it doesn't work, I'm not saying you've got to love BTS. This is just an experiment. I'm going to do it with you. How long seems reasonable? Like, a week? A month? Like how long?
Laww: A month of listening? Or are you saying…[laughing]
Saleem: Listening exclusively BTS in your free time.
Laww: Oh man. A month is tough. Maybe give us..
Saleem: A week?
Laww: Give me a week. [crosstalk with Saleem] Yeah, maybe a week. Maybe two.
Saleem: A week or two.
Saleem: And we came back to Sam for some guidance.
Saleem: Sam , Laww, we are gathered here today to prepare to experience about a week of BTS Fandom. I would love for you to tell us what we should do for a week of BTS fandom.
Saleem:I love that you're laughing already.
Sam: I would start with their first album, and then I would jump around. Like from there you could go to like “Blood, Sweat, and Tears.” Which is a really good song.
Saleem: “Blood, Sweat, and Tears.” Got it.
Saleem: We got mixtape recommendations…video recommendations…
Sam: I also recommend listening to the mix tapes that different members have released There's Agust D. And then RM’s Mono, which is probably one of my favorite albums just in general.
And to keep track of our experiences, we decided to keep audio diaries and a WhatsApp group at the request of Sam.
Sam: Can this be in a group chat? Cause I'm very excited about this journey that you two are... [crosstalk]
Saleem: A week’s worth of boy band indoctrination
Sam: I'm sorry. My cat just fell off the couch.
Laww: Is that one of the cats?
Saleem: Oh. What’s your cat’s name? Is that one of the BTS cats?
Laww: Yoon-gi. Oh yeah. It's like, is that. That's not Agust D?
Sam: Oh, that is Agust D. You’re so…
Laww: That is?
Sam: So this is Min Yoon-gi. Who’s also known as Suga. Who's also Agust D!
Saleem: Fandom is like getting into any activity or group…where we often look for clues on how to dress and act. Think of the first time you walked into a bar that was packed with people watching a sport that’s not your sport. Or saw a line of Harry Potter fans spiraling down a block outside a bookstore. Even if you aren't immediately part of the pack, you quickly pick up on some of the important cues, the t-shirts or capes or whatever. And as someone who’s not currently a super fan guy, I thought it would be cool to talk to someone who was once a skeptic but who became a fan of fans. Particularly, fangirls. And very particularly, the call of the fangirl…
[clip of fangirls screaming]
Saleem: The shriek.
Saleem: What do you mean when you say the shriek is the superpower?
Yve Blake: The idea of, of letting your expression out in that way, fearlessly, I think is powerful, and I think that…[Yve ducks underneath Saleem]..
Saleem: Yve Blake is the writer behind the musical called Fangirls.
Yve Blake: What the musical Fangirls is really is about, is about, uh, how we tell teenage girls lies about themselves and who they have to be.
Saleem: She actually came around to appreciating fangirl culture, even though she herself wasn't much of one when she was growing up.
Yve Blake: I was never a fangirl on the outside. In fact, I was really afraid to ever be seen as someone who's a fan of something because of what I now, uh, sort of see as internalized misogyny. Like I really was afraid to be seen as a fangirl because I thought that would be so embarrassing. Why is it that, you know, if something is perceived as being to the tastes of teenage girls, it's almost immediately binned as like low-brow, embarrassing, pathetic?
Saleem: This fascination kicked in for Yve came when she had this epiphany while attending a Justin Bieber concert with tons of young people.
Yve Blake: It felt spiritual because it's like, no one on the, on the train or on the walk to the arena or in the, like inside the arena was kind of performing themselves for the gaze of someone else. And this, this piercing sound of these shrieks and the way they kind of amplified each other. It was a profoundly euphoric experience. I was full of endorphins. My brain was like drenched in dopamine.
Saleem: When was the last time you can claim having a euphoric experience? And when was the last time you shrieked in ecstacy along with a room full of people? Personally, I have no idea. Have I ever full-on shrieked?
Besides all the ways we might restrict our emotions moving into adulthood, there's something strikingly distinct and really important to point out about the gendered aspect to all of this. Take the vocalization of "fanning out" for a pop star - shrieking, yelling, crying - there are a lot of men, and much earlier, boys, who may prevent themselves from displaying certain emotions in this way for fear of being labeled feminine.
And the distinct ways boys and girls perform their voices, when displaying emotions…it starts pretty early. Some studies suggest as young as six, and possibly even earlier. And there are some interesting ways many girls perform their voices as they mature…
Yve Blake: Maybe they introduce like, um, some breath to perform maturity, or maybe they introduce vocal fry to perform apathy. And I thought that was so interesting. What's more interesting: what age do you think that young men in this study began to perform their voices? It's suggested that they began to perform their voices as young as four, because that's when they begin to receive the message of like boys don't cry, boys don't scream. That's, that's a girly sound. And so they began to modify their voices to make sure that they didn't sound feminine.
Saleem: I find myself wondering about how this whole vocal distinction might apply to myself as a man.
Saleem: I've never thought about the fact that the times I've cried, I don't make any sound.
Saleem: And it got me thinking, is there some relationship between totally letting go as a fan and learning to feel good by expressing ourselves emotionally in other aspects of life?
Yve Blake: So there's an American psychiatrist called Dr. Peter Calafiura and he says, yelling might trigger some endorphins and natural high. People might feel calm and it might even be a little addictive. It's similar to a runner’s high; people are getting the same effect in a different way. And I just think it's so interesting that like shouting and loud vocalization literally releases feel-good chemicals in the brain that give you a sense of catharsis and release. I think of an arena full of fans, screaming their lungs out and I'm like, that's so powerful. That's a powerful act of, of expression and expressing love for something without any apology. I know few adults who know how to do that about anything, to love it without apology or qualification.
Saleem: In Yve's estimation, all of us adults should take more of a cue from the adolescent joy and emotion that fills packed arenas all over the world.
Yve Blake: Being a teenager is traumatic. And so you need a handrail. And I think everyone listening to this podcast will recognize that feeling. When you are met with a challenge in your life that seems insurmountable and like a song enters your life at just the right moment and holds your hand. Or, you know, there's an album that you listen to on repeat to get you through a really tough time in your life. And it feels like a spell that was written just for you. I think everyone can relate to that. And that I think is really the foundation of where all like boy band fandom comes from. I need this song. I need to hear these words right now. I need this feeling. I am scared. I'm alone.
Saleem: And there's an emotional state Yve's been after with fandom. It’s one she’s seemed to unlock again as an adult, and one that sounds pretty appealing.
Yve Blake: I want to reconnect with that sense of joy. So, I think that's, that's what it's done for me.
[sounds of fans cheering for BTS, fade out]
Laww Diary: So an hour into BTS on the Spotify playlist that Samantha provided and uh…it's pretty good.
Saleem: Okay. So we're back to that. WhatsApp chat, that Laww, Sam, and I started to track our BTS fandom progress. I was so curious to hear Laww’s take – him being the person who had literally never heard of this pop supergroup.
Laww Diary: Actually, I like it. Overall it's pretty interesting. Like they’re able to take a lot of genres and make their own individual sound based on, by using a lot of the sounds and music from other genres, so...I got about an hour left on my drive ah so I don't think I'll get to all of it tonight. But uh, I think we're on to something.
Saleem: And even though this experiment was just a week, the reality of life was quietly creeping in.
Saleem Diary: Okay. So I've been at a meditation retreat for a few days, following a monk for a story. A Tibetan monk. It was not an environment where it was easy to, uh, listen to BTS or be an engaged BTS fan. Uh, I'm going to try to be a little better about doing my listening. I fell off when I visited that monk and I’m gonna be getting really back into it today.
Saleem Diary: Okay. So I talked to Laww the other day. He confessed that, uh, some of the poppy type stuff was tricky for him to get into.
Saleem: Fandom takes a lot of work. And as a working adult, I’m maybe a little less inclined to put in the time. That's a major reality for a lot of people – where do I have the time to do this? This feeling like do I have permission to do something that might seem unimportant or goofy when I already have things that I like that are hard enough to schedule — like going to the gym, dinner with a friend, shoot, listening to music that I already know I like. But also time for work, travel, taking the car to the shop, kids, all that stuff. When we come back, we find out how it's possible to have your family and your fandom cake too.
Saleem: Hey y'all, it's Saleem. Welcome back.
Saleem: Before the break we were talking about the time it takes to be a fan of something. And how limited that time can be for most of us. Whether it’s following a band on tour to binging and writing fanfiction about your favorite TV show.
And these decisions on where to dedicate our time affect every adult who’s a fan of something — from the hypothetical full-time employed Grateful Dead following middle-aged uncle to the very real professor, researcher, psychologist, full-time mom and Supernatural superfan, Dr. Lynn Zubernis.
Lynn Zubernis: I had little children. I really walked away from all of that. And I was not really fanish for a long time. I think this was not a conscious decision, but I think there was a part of me that absorbed that message of, okay, that was fine when you were a teenager, but you're a grownup now and it's not okay for you to have those kinds of strong, emotional feelings about something. And for you to be passionate about anything that is not getting your degree and getting married or partnered and settling down and having children and carrying a briefcase and being very serious about life.
Saleem: Dr. Lynn Zubernis isn't just a superfan of the TV show Supernatural. She's also...
Lynn Zubernis: …a licensed clinical psychologist. It's true. Um, I'm also a professor at Westchester university in Pennsylvania, but before I was a professor, I was a clinician for many years.
Saleem: If you haven’t seen the show Supernatural, it’s about two brothers who drive a cool car and battle the paranormal. Years ago, Lynn found herself with a personal catalyst for researching fandom.
Lynn Zubernis: The impetus for my research was kind of a selfish one. I really wanted to know like, is this okay for me to do? And that meant, as a researcher, as a psychologist, dig into the research and find out whether this is a healthy thing or whether you should listen to your partner and your little children who are kind of going, “Shat has happened to you? Like, who are you right now? What do you mean you're in love with a TV show called Supernatural? What is happening?” And I was grateful for my clinical experience because I had seen that it could be a positive and a healthy thing for a lot of people.
Saleem: Again, there's something that's a reality for folks like Lynn, myself, and maybe you. We're much busier than when we were middle schoolers finding things for the first time. We have more people depending on us. I could see it being hard to justify cosplaying or following a band on the road when you're a mom or dad. Lynn saw it happen in her own life when she started getting into Supernatural.
Lynn Zubernis: My kids were little.They were littler, you know. They were still kids who needed their parents there. And so when you stay up till four o'clock in the morning reading fan fiction, and then you have to get up at six o'clock in the morning to get your kids to school and then go to work. It doesn't actually work too well.
So it became more a question of how do I balance this new thing that is now a part of my life and that feels really important to me already and feels like it could be healthy with the possible slippery slope that it could become? Which would be a downside and which my partner and my children are constantly saying, uh, but are you really gonna spend money on, you know, going to Comi-Con? Really mom, you're going to go to Comicon?
It's all wrapped up with these like cultural messages that we have about who is it okay to do these things? And I think it's gendered as well. You know, when, when you're a mom you're supposed to be a mom, that's your priority. You can't take off for the weekend and go to Comic-Con and line up for twelve hours to get into a Supernatural panel. Except that's what I wanted to do.
Saleem: I mean, Comi-Con or Supernatural may not be your thing. But I'd say all of us have things we like and would prefer to do more of the time, if we had the time.
Lynn Zubernis: I think most of the time, the emotion, the connection, the attraction comes first. And then because we, you know, the way the brain works, we, our brains sort of develop that If we like something, we want more of that thing. Like there's a reinforcement cycle in our brains where if you like something you want more of it. Now it developed, you know, to help us find our next meal, not to help us become very obsessed with Supernatural but brains work the way brains work, right? So once you really like something, you want more of that thing. And one of the things that you want is to connect with other people who get it. You want to be validated in that liking.
Saleem: And whether your fandom is more Supernatural or Super Bowl, Lynn says there are three emotions that are relevant to that fandom.
Lynn Zubernis: Joy, shame, and belongingness would probably be the three emotions. One of the really reinforcing things about fandom is that participating in that fandom, immersing yourself in some way in that fandom brings a tremendous amount of joy. You see it described, as people will say, it's almost like a religious experience to go to a concert and see the band play live. Or to be at a sporting event for a team that I'm passionate about and see them win. Or to go to a fan convention and be able to stand next to an actor who portrays this fictional character who has changed my life in some way. That is an experience of joy. And the research bears that out. There is research that shows that being an invested fan brings a high level of what they call collective happiness. So doing something like that within a group, that experience of collective happiness is in some ways, even more compelling than individual joy and happiness. And fandom brings both of those things.
And then the other reinforcing thing is that sense of belonging. I mean, it's an evolutionary thing, right? Our brains are still back there knowing that and feeling that. So we have this as humans, this profound sense of, “Oh my God, I need to belong. I need to feel like I'm part of a group. I need to feel like the group has my back.” But then there are all these cultural messages, that keep saying, hmm, but is this a good thing? Are you really allowed to do this? I mean, how much in our culture do we value joy?
Lynn Zubernis: How much do we value happiness? To do these things, to really experience these things requires us to put down our briefcase or have the privilege of not working three jobs or, you know, lots of things that we don't entirely have control over and we’re kind of socialized to feel it’s not okay.
Saleem: Here's where we get into the complicated emotion of shame and where that shows up in gender norms around fandom.
Lynn Zubernis: Freud called shame like the quintessential female emotion. We are really good at it. We are socialized to feel ashamed about all kinds of things, including what we love and what we feel and what we're passionate about. And God forbid what we might feel sexual about. Like all of that brings a tremendous amount of shame. Certainly men feel shame too. I'm not saying that they don't, but women have sort of an extra dollop of that when we try to step outside those socially prescribed roles.
By the way, no real difference between sports fan, music fan, media fan. Like it, it really is pretty much the same phenomenon. But there's more research in sports fandom than media fandom, at least certainly early on that was more positively skewed because there's a lot less shame around sports fandom, you know. It's partly a gender thing, but partly just, you know, you're, you're allowed to be a sports fan.
I think it says a lot about what we shame people for and what we try to gatekeep people about in terms of gender because the stereotypical shaming of a male fan. It's the loser guy who lives in his parents' basement and can't get a girlfriend, right? That's, that's how we sort of shame men for being fans.
Saleem: Along with all the fascinating insights of why we want or don't want to be fans of something in our lives, Lynn acknowledged another complication that comes with devoting your energy so passionately to something like a band or TV show – what happens when it goes away.
Lynn Zubernis: Sometimes. I mean, that feels like a big loss because you're losing those connections and you're losing that sense of belongingness that came from that.
Saleem: But that fandom investment might be a sort of practice — loss in fandom may help us prepare for loss in life.
Lynn Zubernis: I actually think if you can navigate those experiences, they are really helpful learning experiences that land you with really good coping skills for other things that happen in life. The coping strategies that you're going to use for all of those things are the same coping strategies that you're going to use for any kind of loss and any kind of grieving. And that's to understand that it's a process. And that just like, it's a healthy thing to let yourself feel those feelings of joy. It's also a healthy thing to let yourself feel those feelings of sadness. You can't keep moving forward in the process if you just push the sadness away, or if you, this is what often happens, both in sports and media fandom, if you push that sadness into anger. And you just attack other people to express the anger, but you're never really acknowledging the pain of loss that's underneath. You need to do that. And then you need to find ways to incorporate that love of that thing that is gone into the rest of your life going forward.
So there've been tons of what were called, fix it fics that have come out for Supernatural since the ending. Fans who’d like, I need to work this through. And it, it works almost like kind of a self-narrative therapy to work out your own ending in the way that you wanted it to be. And that feels healing. So there's strategies that you can use and these are the same strategies that people use for any kind of grief and loss. Making sense, transforming the narrative, finding that sense of belonging that you lost with other supportive people. Those are the things that you need to do.
Saleem: This loss was something Lynn dealt with personally when Supernatural ended its run after 15 years on the air.
Lynn Zubernis: I didn't like fall into, uh, the depths of depression, but that's not to say that the ending wasn't hard for me. It was really hard for me. This is for me a thing that's really important to me personally. It's also a thing that's really important to me professionally. I've written six books on this show. Like this has been a big part of my professional life too. So the idea of it ending was sort of profoundly terrifying for me. I really didn't know what it was going to feel like and what coping strategies I was going to pull from.
Saleem: Lynn had some takeaways we can all expect as fans - even if it's just for a short window of time.
Lynn Zubernis: Part of our affection for things does come from familiarity. So if you do immerse yourself in something for a period of time, You know, our brains are wired to, you know, we like things that are familiar, things that are familiar are safe in an evolutionary sense. That's the way our attachments develop when things become familiar to us, we're more likely to be attached to them. And attachment is certainly a component of fandom. We develop a real attachment relationship with like fictional characters that we see on television every week for 15 years. That's a strong attachment.
Saleem: Those takeaways extend to looking at other areas of our lives with or without fandom.
Lynn Zubernis: If they're feeling that real sense of loss about not having that passion in their life, that probably means that there isn't something that's taking its place. In order for humans to be, you know, mentally healthy and happy and kind of well adjusted, we do need to be passionate about something.
Lynn Zubernis: Joy is a very human emotion and it's something that, you know, even infants feel joy. It's something that we're born with the capacity for. So if something is getting in the way of that, usually the best way to remove that barrier is to figure out what it is that's getting in the way, you know, who told you at some point in your life that it wasn't okay to feel joy? Who made you feel ashamed of expressing your emotions openly? Cause often it's about emotional expression and there, you know, people are raised sometimes in an environment that says, “I don't want to, I don't want to hear your emotions, good or bad. I just want you to do what I tell you to do.”
So where did you get those messages that are kind of damping down your capacity for joy? And if people can understand that these things are learned. It's not that you instinctively can't feel joy. It's that you learned somewhere along the line that this was not okay or that it was only okay in certain prescribed circumstances. Most of the time, if people understand, if something is learned, it can be unlearned.
[clips of fans for Enya, Justin Bieber, Fangirls, Supernatural, BTS]
Saleem: After talking with so many experts and spending a short window of my life on a diet of K-pop, what exactly happened with our experiment? I can't say how many hours or how many BTS songs Laww and I consumed. But a bit after seven days of trying to fit pop fandom into our lives, Laww and I met up with Sam to hold our BTS experiment exit interviews.
Saleem: How was the attempt and what happened?
Laww: Uh, the attempt. It was an attempt. [laughs]
Saleem: For Laww, it came down to a few simple things: he only has a few spots he listens to music and that's also limited by time and who’s in the room with him.
Laww: I don't really listen to music at the house cause it's nice and quiet there. I had to listen to it while driving to different spots. Had, uh, that, that playlist I shared with my daughter by the way, who’s 14. We were listening to it when I was driving and she was like, “Can we turn it?” I was like, “I'm doing research, honey.” She was like, “Yeah, but there's something else I want to show you.: Then she put me on to one of the artists that she liked and I was like, “Okay. Alright.” Well, but…So that was honestly like the only time I could listen to it when it was by myself.
Saleem: One outcome of this experience is I think it's hard to manufacture fandom in one week. Because, you know, when I talk to people about how they became fans often it was about timing. So something was going on or they got introduced to just the right person. But you can manufacture a kind of appreciation. What I did realize was like, oh, it doesn't take that much to understand someone's fandom. To appreciate someone's fandom. Like that's already a huge step away from being dismissive of someone, you know? That was like the biggest takeaway for me was like, oh, I could come to understand almost any kind of maybe almost any kind of fandom pretty quickly. So somebody who's fandom, I on some surface level don't relate to, I can get to an appreciation of that without a ton of work becoming a true fan might require a lot of work.
Sam: That makes a lot of sense. And as you're saying that I'm like, that's so true. Like just because something might not align with what you're interested in or the thing that brings you joy, but to see someone else. You're like, this thing brings them joy. I can appreciate that. And I can respect that. And I think that's important too.
Saleem: And this is kinda wild – even people who we are fans of, are fans of people too. I know that's confusing to follow but I'll let Sam explain by an example of what happened when she went to a Bruno Mars concert.
Sam: I was super excited with my friends. And then we see these guys come in and I was like, “Huh, that looks like Hobi.”
Saleem: So you were at the concert of your other favorite artist and your current favorite artists walked in as fans?
Sam: Yes. And I was like, [excited whisper] “It’s BTS!” And she was like, “Where? Where?” And I pointed. And her girlfriend was like, “How did you spot those three Korean men out of like this crowd of thousands of people?” And I could not explain it, but it's just like I saw Hobi. I say, I saw J-Hope and was like, that guy looks like, “Oh my God, that's Tea. Oh my God…”
Saleem: Name two artists that you're like a super fan of.
Laww: I think I would, may have geeked out over Eminem back in the day,
Saleem: Name one other artist.
Laww: I was listening to a lot of Mos Def “Black on Both Sides.”
Saleem: Okay. Classic. So imagine you are at a Mos Def show and Eminem is in the audience just really, really, really flipping out.
Laww: I can see that. I can see that happening. Yeah. That'd be cool.
Sam: Kind of like brighten, like he started thinking about it. I could see it in his eyes, like, and then his like, smile got a little bigger. And was like, “Yeah. Yeah.” It's like going to, like, I feel like a big Barbra Streisand's fan and then like you get there and there's like Celine Dion sitting in front of you and you're like, “Oh my gosh.” So yeah. See? You had that moment when you thought about it. I want to hear final thoughts. Would you leave any songs of BTS on your playlist?
Saleem: In our house, we've got “Butter” on rotation because of Javid playing it on piano.
[clip of Javid playing and singing along with “Butter”]
Laww: I tell you this. The one time I did have the music on in my house, I was folding laundry and BTS was playing. I mean, it got me, got them perfect squares for my shirts and it was great.
Sam: We’re gonna be friends. I don’t know if you know this, but you’re my friend now. [Saleem laughs in background]
Saleem: So here’s where I gotta be really straight with you all. I don’t think BTS fits into my life right now. But there are some disclaimers — there’s a difference there between what my brother did with Enya and my own experiment here — the time he put in. He took a month, where I only took days. Who knows what would have happened with some luck and three more weeks?
But the other difference — he was already listening to some Enya. There were times when I popped on BTS and felt like I had somebody else's radio playing. Like when a coworker is playing music and it doesn't drive you crazy or anything, but it also doesn't spark anything deep in you.
This experiment made me think a lot about how much I use music in my life, and just how specific and intentional I am in choosing songs and playlists, like “I'm exhausted, this song is going to help me get from the couch to the kitchen.” And I didn't realize it was that specific until I was listening to music that I felt less connected to all day. As we’ve talked about in other episodes, so much of how music hits you is tied to experience. And timing, and sometimes, I’ll admit in my case, silly ideas about what cultural tribes I do and don’t belong to.
So that’s one takeaway. Sorry ARMY. The music is just not totally my thing, at the moment. But you’re my thing! I love y’all, and I have gained an appreciation for the fandom that y’all have. I’m officially a fan of fans. And even the music being not totally my thing – that could change! Who knows? Fandom was unexpected for some folks we talked to in this episode, so I’m open to the possibility of getting suddenly teleported into BTS fanworld at some point in the future.
The other takeaway here. An openness to letting out a joyful holler every once in a while or just simply giving someone the grace to do that...from BTS to The Beatles to the Cincinnati Bengals… (I think that’s the first time I’ve said the Cincinnati Bengals name out loud, but alliteration is fun)...I gotta recognize the emotional magic that comes from being a fan or just being around fans.
Sam: There used to be this Korean, um, karaoke bar somewhere in Durham where you could have like your own little private rooms. At some point, we just need to go and like sing “Butter” together, cause clearly he and I have a connection over “Butter.”
Saleem: I commit to my family going to karaoke with you and singing some BTS.
Sam: Yes, absolutely. I will bring other children of age.
Saleem: [laughing] I love it.
Saleem: On the next More Than A Feeling. You gotta know at this point, on this show we love to ask the experts for insights into our internal worlds. Next week, we look at something pretty questionable that has passed for scientific fact for ages. The idea that women are naturally more emotional than men.
Adriene: We know that hormones influence emotion. So that’s out there, but what’s not out there is this kind of assessment of highs and lows, the pattern of ups and downs.
Saleem: That’s the psychologist we’re going to meet, who just put this so-called fact to the test. And we’ll try her experiment out on ourselves.
[montage of voices taking the PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule) survey of emotions]
Saleem: And we’ll also hear a pretty messed up story from the 19th century that helps explain where some bad science came from in the first place. I’ll just say that it involves women’s rights, some men with hatchets, and an extremely arrogant psychiatrist.
Kate Moore: The men hack their way into her bedroom to cart her off to the insane asylum.
Saleem: If you like what you heard in this episode, let us know by giving us those five stars on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show.
More Than A Feeling is produced by Reva Goldberg, Mark Pagán, Wille Coley, Palace Shaw, and Kim Buikema. Our managing producer is Kimmie Regler. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. Scoring, mixing, and sound design provided by Ultraviolet Audio. Production support for this episode was provided by Connor Donohue. Our theme music was composed by El Michels Affair. Thank you to Danny at Big Crown Records. Additional music provided by APM. Music supervisor Rebecca Grierson of SixtyFour Music. Fact checking for this episode provided by Jeanette Beebe. Special thanks to E Badique and Nicole Santero for their behind the scenes expertise and conversations about fandom and BTS ARMY, Jess Goldberg, Ben Rubin, Dan Harris, Matthew Hepburn, and Toni Magyar.
And - I gotta say. This episode left me feeling pretty hype…perhaps not as hype as these folks...
[insert clip of fangirls screaming]
See y’all next time!