Sylvie Tongco was an angsty preteen living in Manila when she discovered Pearl Jam in the early ’90s. “I was drawn to Eddie Vedder’s voice [and] the realness in it,” she says. “It didn’t hurt that he was a tremendously good-looking guy.”
Two decades later, the now 37-year-old, who lives in San Francisco, has attended 41 live Pearl Jam shows, and she has no plans of giving up her adolescent crush any time soon.
Tongco is an adult fangirl. I’m one, too. And the current object of my adoration is Brendon Urie from the pop-rock band Panic! At the Disco.
I’m a relative newbie to the Urie bandwagon, and compared to some of his longtime fans, I score low on the scale of intensity. But to anyone outside his circle of devotees, my admiration might be considered excessive. In two months, I memorized the lyrics to almost every song in Panic!’s five-album catalogue and binge-watched way too many of Urie’s old Vine, Periscope, and YouTube videos. I even held my poor parents captive and forced them to watch his live performance of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” (They dug it.) And in a week, I’ll be traveling more than 2,500 miles to see Urie make his Broadway debut in Kinky Boots. I feel more than a little stupid about this.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been totally consumed by an entertainer. I attended three *NSYNC concerts in the hopes of wooing Justin Timberlake to my seats in the nosebleeds. At an early-2000s album signing, Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus drew a smiley face on my hand that I refused to wash off for longer than I’m proud to admit. I went through a fairly intense Kid Cudi phase, and Robert Pattinson stole about two years of my life.
But I was younger then, driven by hormones and a general disappointment in the behavior of actual, real-life males. I experienced a lull in fangirling behavior around 2009, shortly after convincing my boss at SPIN that it was imperative I cover the Twilight sequel’s red-carpet premiere. (I asked RPatz one question. He answered. I died.)
Then I went to graduate school and spent time trying to figure out how to make a living in a dying industry. (Ideas? Anyone?) I let some real-life guys bum me out. Shifting my celebrity-focused attention to myself took so much time and energy that I began to believe I’d finally established myself as a certified adult who had outgrown the role of perma-teenybopper.
Then, Brendon Urie came along and ruined everything.
The second I fell down the Panic! rabbit hole, I instantly reverted back to maximum-strength fangirl. I was surprised to find how quickly that overzealousness possessed me as I started deep-diving into a decade’s worth of Panic! material I’d somehow missed while busying myself with the drudgery of boring adulthood. I’d suppressed my fangirl tendencies far too long, and they sprang eagerly and aggressively from the recesses of my soul the second I popped the lid. Soon, I found myself losing tons of time that should have gone toward filing my taxes because I had to watch a 62-and-a-half-minute video of Urie making breakfast. What the hell?
I started to wonder: Was all of this behavior actually healthy? Was it OK to feel the giddy rush of being 14 again when I had real, adult responsibilities? Was it just a distraction from my own life, or was there some legitimate psychological benefit I wasn’t aware of?
“I think ‘fandom’ can be escapism, but that’s not always the case,” says Dr. Juli Fraga, a psychologist in San Francisco. “I think it’s escapism if it prevents someone from working on their psychological or emotional concerns or if someone neglects other relationships in real-time because they are always reading their favorite musician’s Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds.”
OK, so maybe fangirling helped me escape a little. But I’m fine with escapism. It’s the pathological creepiness that I’m worried about. We’ve all heard about the extreme, sometimes violent or irreversible behavior of so-called “superfans.” I didn’t want to be even remotely associated with that brand of crazy — but was I somewhere on that spectrum?
Dr. Fraga helped alleviate my concerns. “There’s a difference between fandom and obsessive delusions,” she says. “I think we all need heroes. We admire musicians, artists, actors, et cetera, because their work speaks to us. This can be very inspiring, as long as it does not interfere with our real life relationships and we use our fandom for entertainment and personal growth.”
Dr. Fraga even praises the emotional benefits of fan behavior and believes the communal aspect of fandom can be therapeutic. In light of the horrific tragedy at Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert, that’s nice to hear. As once-safe havens turn into targets, it’s becoming harder for even the most cynical critics to dismiss the significance of pop culture. And to think that communities can find comfort or solace in their shared interests or passions — no matter how seemingly trivial — is powerful.
“We heal from tragedies by knowing that we’re not alone,” Dr. Fraga says. “I imagine that many of the fans at Ariana’s concert may feel that their fandom made them targets, but I think this way of thinking is one way to blame ourselves for something horrific that we can’t control.”
Anyone who’s ever relied on a particular song, or album, or artist to get through a trying time knows the emotional rehabilitation music can provide.
In Tongco’s case, being a Pearl Jam fan helped her cope with her father’s cancer diagnosis. “We practically lived in the hospital for months, and I remember listening to Pearl Jam day-in and day-out,” she says. “Their music really got me through some tough times then.” When the band toured the Philippines in 1995, shortly after her father’s death, she says the show was her “saving grace.”
“I think music is very healing — there’s even scientific research that shows how listening to music benefits the brain,” Dr. Fraga adds. “I also believe song lyrics can provide a form of therapy. For example, how many of us have felt sad, lonely, or grief-stricken because of loss? Sometimes an artist’s lyrics can really summarize an experience we’re not able to capture into words, which can help us feel understood and even prompt us to reflect more deeply.”
At least in my own experience, Dr. Fraga’s words are totally on-point. Whether I was ogling Davie Jones in The Brady Bunch or compulsively trying to tape-record Radiohead’s “Creep” every time I heard it on Live 105, being a fangirl has always offered me some kind of catharsis or sense of security. So why should anyone let go of all those benefits just because they’ve hit adulthood?
I, for one, am not going to do that. Being a fangirl might seem juvenile and frivolous to some, but without it, life is just a series of deadlines and tax return filings. No thanks, I’d rather let my fangirl freak flag fly and wave it with pride. Broadway, here I come!