Since the explosion of Beatlemania in the 1960s, boybands and their fans have been a regular part of our cultural landscape. Jessica Leski’s new documentary I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story follows the stories of four very different women from different generations, their love of boybands and how this obsession has impacted their lives. It’s a tender examination of the eternal fascination of boybands, teenage girls and the emotions that drive them.
Elif, a young woman from Long Island who loves One Direction, is sixteen when the documentary begins, and it is through her that the film centres itself around. While the other participants have the benefit of hindsight when it comes to their obsession with boybands, Elif is still in the middle of the heady rush that familiar to teenagers everywhere when you discover something that feels so personal. Throughout the filming she develops from a girl with braces and One Direction themed wristbands to a young woman trying to navigate her place in the world, battling against the wishes of her first generation Turkish parents who will not allow her to go to her choice of college to study music.
Sadia, aged twenty-five from San Francisco, credits her love of The Backstreet Boys for sparking her career creative writing after she began a dedicated newsletter to the band when she was twelve or thirteen. She also talks about how her childhood focused on figuring out America as the child of Pakistani parents who had very different ideas of what they wanted for their children, and the fact that The Backstreet Boys and the people she connected through that world were part of that ‘figuring out’.
Dara’s relationship with the UK band Take That is one that has changed throughout the years as she began to understand her sexuality – realising that she wanted “to be Gary Barlow” rather than be with him— and how that has impacted her relationships when she feels like has to “come out” as a boyband fan. Susan, a sixty-four year old woman living in Melbourne, was there in the huge, swelling crowds when The Beatles first visited Australia. She talks about how this phenomena allowed teenage girls to truly express themselves during a period of time that was still steeped in patriarchal expectations.
The film is composed in such a way that it feels a like collage of images stuck with copious amounts of blu-tack onto the wall in a teenage bedroom. Archive footage is combined with shaky videos filmed on iPhones, pictures of various boybands are presented against a background of rainbow pastel colours, and the imaginations and fantasies of the women are represented through hand-drawn animation that resembles a fan-drawn painting.
It’s hard not to be moved by the love and comfort that all four women have experienced from these bands, whether its real friendships with fellow fans, or the imagined relationships with the bands themselves. Sadia, after a traumatic incident in college, found that re-listening to the music of The Backstreet Boys allowed her to find a place of safety that made her feel at home. It is also moving in the isolation that this fandom has created, as Elif states early on that she can’t talk to most of her friends about One Direction, that they wouldn’t understand, while Dara admits that telling significant others about her love of Take That has been detrimental to relationships.
During one particular scene, in which Dara breaks down her ‘Boyband Theory’ which looks at how and why boybands are presented in a particular way, the common themes and personality types that seem so neatly condensed into these groups, it is hard not to look at this with a degree of cynicism. Music is, at the end of the day, a business, and managers and labels trying to get as much money as they can know that they can package these bands in a way that appeals to the emotional needs of teenage fans. However, this perspective is rejected by the participants of the documentary, who state that the idea that the girls who fall for the boybands and the contrieved nature are stupid isn’t true – that being able to express and truly explore such huge emotions is exactly what teenagers need during the difficult and often complicated years of growing up.
Blurry, maniac camera footage of a One Direction concert reveals just how much seeing these bands in person – even from a significant distance – can be the experience of a lifetime. The love and appreciation for the band and the solidarity of the crowd as they collectively go through something close to a religious experience allow for an understanding of why and how the fascination of boybands in something that will likely never fade.
I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is now available on various digital platforms Amazon, inDemand, DirecTV, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, AT&T, FlixFing, Vudu, FANDANGO, Sling/Dish)
by Rose Dymock
Rose is a budding film critic, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She’s currently living back home in the Black Country in the West Midlands, juggling working full time and trying to break into criticism. She loves thrillers, great female characters, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema. She’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial and she wants a Lord of the Rings tattoo. Find her on twitter @rosedymock or on her website https://rosefd.wordpress.com/