Ringo Starr would later say he could “feel” the city as they landed, the day the Beatles came to New York, could feel the energy that came along with a frenzied reception the Fab Four had recently become accustomed to: armies of shrieking young girls.
The Beatles were among the first pop acts to tap into the roiling emotional undercurrents of what we now call the tween and teen female demo.
They weren’t the last.
Fifty years later, I stood near a side entrance of the Pasadena Convention Center, as a shrill chorus of adolescent screams built into a thunderous if high-pitched roar. A glimpse of an idol, one of the dozen who had gathered that morning to spend the day performing and greeting their fans, had sparked the ruckus, and the shrieking spread like a wave at a baseball game.
“It’s Ricky!” one yelped.
Six young girls, dressed in short shorts and flannel over crop tops, a not-so-subtle nod to the 90s, a decade they were not alive during, pounded their fists against the glass window as Ricky Dillon, a Justin Bieber-type walked by and waved to the line, now hundreds of girls and parents deep. He smiled mischievously, then disappeared into a meeting room labelled press.
The crowd went wild.
It was 8am and I was at InTOUR LA, a convention-style event that featured some of the most massive YouTube and Vine stars, there to hang out, perform, entertain, and meet their fans — almost all of whom were girls, ages twelve to fourteen. Since the fans were minors, each purchased ticket included a complimentary ticket for a parent or guardian. Thought somewhat less excited, the mums and dads stood in line with their daughters, sipping Starbucks from across the street and looking bewildered as their kids yelped and gasped and squealed.
I watched girls line up, jittery and shaky, waiting to angle their camera just so, in order to get a selfie with their idols.
There was no security guard, no one pushing them off. Hugs were encouraged.
I ran into two girls who were standing at the front of the line. Alissa and Maria, 13 and 14, respectively, stood quietly, holding signs and talking to each other. Their mothers flanked them on both sides. They told me they were there to see Connor Franta “mostly, but everyone is really good.” Franta, whom we wrote about, is a YouTube phenomenon who creates vlogs and posts them a few times a week. He has 3 million subscribers, a smile that could charm a snake, and, the girls tell me, “a really good personality.”
The two girls met via Twitter, they said, and they had been talking online for months before meeting for the first time in line that morning, waiting to see their teen idols.
“I think it’s good,” Maria’s mum told me. “I think in the beginning, you worry — worry that your kid is in the other room talking to someone not good for them or someone dangerous, and then you realise it’s ok.”
Attending INTOUR gave me a lot of insight to the rising popularity of online celebrity, but most of all it proved one thing: if you’re a 14-year-old girl with an internet connection, it’s a beautiful time to be alive.
“It’s a culture of access,” Maria Gonima of Fullscreen, a company that represents and manages YouTube talent, later told me.
And that access is increasingly posing a real threat to mainstream celebrity.
Think about the teen bubblegum pop of the late 90s. There was Britney and the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and 98º. Before them, New Kids On The Block. All of them had fans — loads of them — but they remained at a distance, penned behind barricades both literal and psychological. Except for an occasional autograph, there was no way to break the fourth wall.
There was no Twitter, no YouTube, no Instagram commenting system or the hope, the dream, that a celebrity would see something you created for them. Unless, of course, you knew where to send them fan mail. (Author’s note: I am still waiting for a letter back from Candace Cameron, who played eldest daughter DJ Tanner on “Full House.”)
The closest thing we had to today’s digitized groupie nation were membership clubs we had to pay for; the going rate was around twenty bucks a year for a headshot with a copied signature and maybe some bullshit trading cards.
There was no telling who else was in the club, no making a new friend through a shared appreciation for a favourite star. And while our lockers were plastered with pictures ripped out of Teen Beat magazines, today’s superfans create Tumblrs dedicated to their crushes, drawing followers and fans of their own.
As Taylor Swift put it in her July oped in the Wall Street Journal, “I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento “kids these days” want is a selfie. It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be ‘how many followers you have on Instagram.'”
Today, the hordes of screaming girls are more than a demographic — they’re a community. Sure, they can be marketed to and exploited by advertisers, just like we were, but the power has definitively shifted.
The stars of YouTube and Vine don’t just owe their success to their fans, as celebrities always have, at least in some abstract way. They would scarcely exist without them. Follower counts are power — perhaps the only power that truly matters anymore. Record deals and marketing budgets are nice, but they pale next to the potential viral impact of a few million Instagram followers, or Twitter followers, or Facebook friends.
Today’s stars are made not from the meetings rooms of big-time executives packaging a picture-perfect ideal of teen lust, but in the bedrooms — or wherever the screens are — of “normal kids” all over the country, all over the world.
It was apparent at INTOUR, as I watched hundreds of teenage girls get their phones ready before meeting the dozen or so YouTube stars — people like Connor Franta, Ricky Dillon, and JC Caylen — who were in attendance: the barrier between fans and celebrities has all but fallen. We all exist somewhere on the spectrum of renown. A selfie with a superstar is still a selfie — by its very nature it insists that the idol and the worshipper be on precisely the same plane. Well, not precisely, since the fan is the one with the real power: the one who owns the camera, selects the shot, controls the image, and publishes it for the world to see.
The biggest celebrities know this, and the court their fans online assiduously. Rather than constructing an image of perfection, as stars and their handlers have long done, they’re falling all over themselves to prove they’re normal.
Because fame today increasingly has to be measurable and trackable in order to be monetized, and if the fans lose drift away, there’s not much left to work with.
Don’t let the squeals fool you. Social media has put 13-year-old girls in a rare position of power, and they’re not afraid to use it.
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