On the power of teenage fangirls, with love, and strength, and solidarity.

14:16

When I started typing I didn't know that I'd ever post this, because I don’t want, in any way, to make any of this about my own experiences. It feels insensitive to even write (at all) to an extent; to be doing what I always do, day in, day out. But I read this amazing quote once, after the Boston marathon bombing, written in a piece of fiction published on the internet, that said something along the lines of “those people had dreams. And you have dreams. Don’t you think they would want you to carry on because they can’t? It’s alright to still have your dreams”. I don’t know what any of those people would have thought because I don’t know them. I can’t and won’t say they would have wanted life to go on as “normal”. I just don’t know. I do know, though, that I write when I don’t know what else to do. 

And I don’t know what else to do.

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There has been a lot of emphasis in the media the past few days that the horrific attack on Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert was specifically an attack on teenage girls. As the predominant audience at these huge arena shows, particularly by an artist so fiercely feminine as Ariana, it makes complete sense that it's an angle the press are running with. It's true, to an extent. I’ve been reading as much news as I can emotionally deal with since Monday night, and something in my mind was niggling. I felt as if something about the way this was all being reported was wrong, but I couldn’t make my brain still for long enough to figure out what. Then I read a throwaway line, so insignificant I can't even remember where, that said something about the inherent vulnerability involved with being a teenage girl involved in (specifically) music fandom.

Um. 

There it is. 

This particular attack hit home for me. The reasons why are something I’ve touched on on the internet before, but I’ll re-cap. When I was a teenage girl, I eschewed the typical South London pastimes of drinking cider in a park and pretending not to look as you walked incredibly slowly past the boys school next door, in favour of something a little different. If you don’t mind, I'd like to tell you some stories. 

When I was 14 I met Gareth Gates. I say that as if it was a coincidence, but it wasn’t at all. I had roped a friend from school in to coming with me, and through eavesdropping (can you eavesdrop on words?) on threads on the Official Gareth Gates Message Board, figured out that the cool girls spent their Saturday mornings waiting outside the CDUK studios, trying to catch a glimpse. It was on the South Bank, near where we grew up, so our parents let us go. He signed my book, I took a picture through some railings, it was over in seconds. And so it began.

My ‘real’ friends grew tired quite quickly of the early starts and long stints in the cold, and so the girls from the message board became my real friends. We would meet at concerts, and outside TV studios, and talk about what Gareth had been doing that week, red ribbons on our wrists as a flag to fellow fans. We were part of the same thing. We wanted to be seen by the people who recognised that.

We spent our Summer holidays seeking thrills where we could find them; if we didn't know where Gareth was, we’d try our luck at the BBC to see who else we could stumble upon, all the while learning each other, and laughing ‘til we couldn't speak, and taking photos to report back to the message board later, calling cards to teenage life before the selfie was commonplace; a snap of our newly formed girl gang in places even I don’t remember the significance of, proclaiming look at us. We’re here.

One of those days we met a boyband.

Our world expanded.

The band were called V, back in the days where it apparently didn’t matter that one letter band names are incredibly hard to google. They were still at the stage of their career where it was a good look to have teenage girls turning up wherever they went, so instead of the cat-and-mouse game Gareth Gates was playing, their tour manager just... gave us the schedule. The weather was glorious, and we sunbathed just like the girls in the parks with their cider, except our towels were spread on the concrete outside the BBC, in the middle of a main road in White City. We spent so much time together that it wasn't long before we had little new to say about the boys in the band. We talked about school, and family, and dreams, but never too much because there was an unspoken rule that we were in a bubble now; a subconscious knowledge that something special was going on, and we wanted, as much as we could, to avoid letting the real world in on the secret. That meant our conversations got deep very quickly; not only were we teenage girls, burdened with all the emotions that entails, but, somewhat narcissistically, the safest topic of conversation was ourselves. 

We felt part of the inner circle, because we were the entire circle. We flirted with ticket touts, but only if they had space for all of us in the front block at Wembley Arena. Sometimes even if they didn't, that was fine. We’d take what they had, then kick open fire doors to get the others in. If the stewards knew, they mostly turned a blind eye. The thing about 15 year old girls on a mission is that they’re hard to reprimand if you’re a steward paid to facilitate the joy of live music fans. Every move we made was with enough bravado, born of just being in the vicinity of our favourite band, that people tended to believe what we told them. Once at a Mcfly concert, 8 of us squeezed in to 3 seats. Once at a Busted concert, a tout paid us to take the tickets. 

We were so innocent, and so harmless, and so completely reckless. Untouchable. 

The band parted ways, and it was a good thing. Our lifestyles were unsustainable. The most horrific telling off I ever got as a teenager happened walking over Tower Bridge with my Dad. He had purposely, I think, got me to a place where there was nowhere to run, to tell me I had to get serious about something other than chasing stars who were never even really stars. He didn’t get it. Nobody did, except the others. Most of us had been given similar talks, it turned out. So yeah, the band parted ways and everything changed, but I think the things that shape you as a teenage girl stick somewhere deep in you forever, ready to be drawn back out when you need them to remind you how fearless and free you can be. And the girls were my friends now. Even if everything else in the whole world changed, that never would. One example of teen girl faith that has so far turned out to be true.

It was the most wonderful community, even wider than our closest friends. People you didn't know became people you saw around, then talked to a little bit, then, with the birth of social media, learned more and more about. One of my best friends had a baby recently. I was reading her cards, and came across one from a woman always on our periphery but who I had never known well. My friend told me they had never even met. Simply by being part of this special special thing, they had become online friends in the years that passed. I love that. We all look out for each other.

When we were in our early 20s, we wanted to go to a big Summer festival show, and didn't have tickets. We turned up anyway. My friend walked off for five minutes and came back with a tout we used to know, way back when. It had been six years, at least. The show was sold out. He didn’t have three tickets, but wanted to help some old friends. He asked his competition to help. We all got in. 

A few years ago, I found myself in a work situation that ended with Gareth Gates driving me to Shepherds Bush station at the end of a recording session. Standard. I sat in his car and I texted all the women I know because of him, and I didn’t care who was reading over my shoulder. It was ‘cause of them, and the specific breed of magic that was born of us, outside a TV studio in the cold, before we thought to drink coffee to keep us warm, that I was even there.

At dinner a few weeks ago, we laughed until we almost cried that ‘normal’ teenagers used their fake ID to buy alcohol, or sneak in to clubs. We used ours to prove we were over 18 so they’d let us in to recordings of Top of the Pops. 

There are very few fundamentals of my life that I can trace back to the specific moment they began. A Saturday morning, the December after I turned 18, a boy from that band sang a line from Wicked to me somewhere behind Oxford Circus Topshop. Fifteen seconds, maybe. Just one line of one song of the many I’m sure he sang that day. It's why I work in theatre. I’ve never told him that. 

Every time I’m scared. Every time I feel inadequate. Every time I want something I feel is out of reach. Every time I have something to prove. Every time I wonder how the hell I got here; how everything that happened came about; how I saw New York and Barcelona and Chicago and New York again and again and again, I remember being 15 and thinking (knowing) I could do anything. It all comes back to this.

I hope these stories don’t make you emotional, because they’re not supposed to do that. I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I think about what putting my life in the hands of a rock and roll band made me, vulnerable is the last word that comes to mind. We were invincible. Oasis were wrong, they won't throw it all away. They’ll make you who you were always supposed to be. These stories are meant to prove the point that music is a haven, but actually, if you’re doing it right, it stops being about the music at all before long. Those teenagers became 20-somethings who were first to know about all my firsts. The girls with an abundance of love to give became women, and that abundance didn’t diminish, and now we give it to each other’s families too, and each other’s children, and still (always) each other. They’ll be at my wedding. Some of them will be in my wedding.

A little while ago, I went to a boyband concert with two of my friends from my teen years, to support a friend on their team. We stood upstairs, in a quiet balcony, tired and happy to hang back, recognising that the front row and the eye contact and the gathering of moments was someone else’s story now. It was fun. I had a really great time. Towards the end of the show, I looked down at the front row. All I could see were the backs of their heads. Long blonde hair and afros and pixie cuts and highlights better than ours ever were. So many different kinds of head, leaning in to each other; hands grasping hands. Mouthes open, singing even though it was too loud to be heard, I imagine. I bet some of them had their eyes closed. And I remember thinking it could be us. They looked exactly like us. And I wondered about the girls who came before, looking down at our front row from their own quiet balcony, and what they thought of our 15 year old innocence. ‘Cause what I felt was jealousy. What I’d give to experience that invincibility; that passion; that purity of loving something so loudly again.

But you know what? It never went away. It never really can. I think there is a general consensus that part of the beauty of the power of a teenage girl is that she doesn’t know how powerful she is. I think the stereotype brings to mind insecurity, and awkwardness, and the kind of beauty One Direction sang about in their first single. But I don't think not knowing is what makes you beautiful at all. I think the most powerful a girl ever can ever be is when, even quietly, she knows. And the thing that made my teenage girl gang so powerful; so untouchable even if only for tiny moments at a time; so beautiful? We knew. We absolutely knew.

And that was entirely because of music. 

I hope beyond all hope that the girls who love Ariana, or Harry Styles, or Taylor Swift or Zayn or whoever they may love can hang on to that. In the face of hate, knowing the power that comes with just being who you are? It'll always be your strongest suit. 

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