The American Historian

Courtesy Library of Congress

Where the Fans Are: Listening to Music and Fandom

Nicolette Rohr

When the Beatles landed at New York’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1964, there were thousands of fans—most of them young women—there to greet them. There were more fans waiting, standing in screaming watch, outside the Plaza Hotel where the band stayed during their visit. Two days after the band’s frenzied welcome, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show to a television audience of over 73 million, at the time the largest television audience in history. The broadcast provided an introduction to the Beatles and to their smiling, screaming, fainting fans who, meanwhile, were causing pandemonium in and out of the theater, interfering with the production schedule, and making so much noise that the soundmen could not hear the music and cameramen and crewmembers could not hear directions.[1] Outside, streets were blocked and traffic halted.

As the Beatles played live shows on two U.S. tours in 1964 followed by more in 1965 and 1966 before their final live performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, their fans kept screaming, crying, and fainting. First aid booths and cooling-off tents were set up at concerts for fans to recuperate. At Shea Stadium, New York DJ Murray Kaufman (“Murray the K”) remembered, “I went under the stands, and it was as if I were in a disaster area. The New York police and special police were carrying girls out in dead faints, others in hysteria, screaming and thrashing around.”[2] As the Beatles departed New York, three policemen “were felled,” their ribs crushed as the “crowd surged forward,” and six girls “collapsed in a crushing mob” of over 5,000 “Beatlemaniacs.”[3] In Seattle, “a screaming crowd of teenagers” reportedly “trapped” the Beatles in their dressing room for an hour as police and “a group of sailors” worked to help the band exit amidst a “milling, hysterical throng.”[4] At a 1964 performance in Cleveland, a group of fans broke through the police barrier and managed to make it on stage. Police ordered the Beatles off stage mid-song and threatened to cancel the rest of the show. The same thing happened in Kansas City two days later.[5] At the Hollywood Bowl, a pool divided the audience from the stage, but fans jumped in anyway. When police in Washington, D.C., sought to control the crowds gathered at Union Station awaiting the Beatles, one girl shouted as police seized another fan, “‘You can’t throw her out, she’s president of the Beatles fan club.’”[6]

It was called the British Invasion, but fans were the occupying force. Those screaming young girls were the boots on the ground that made the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, and the world of popular music in general so significant to the sixties. Fans made popular music important, not only by the meanings they claimed in music, but because of the public ways they lived their fandom. In an age of national media, one did not need to be a Beatles fan to live through Beatlemania, and while for fans Beatlemania was about the Beatles, to many observers it seemed to be about crazed young women. Although music fandom was not the exclusive purview of girls, it was their public displays of fandom, often unruly and charged with sexuality, that showed the force of fans and underscored its political implications. In their screams, their physical occupation of space, and the crossing of police barricades, they often made way for other kinds of boundaries to be crossed at the height of the storied sixties. “What is happening here is significant,” David Dempsey wrote in the New York Times in 1964; “Although idolatry in popular music is nothing new, the method of expressing this idolatry seems to be changing.…an audience that once swooned in the presence of its favorite singer, or at best squealed, has given way to a mob that flips.”[7]

This mania, the intense reactions and the pandemonium it created, was grounded in interior experiences and feelings of connection. Postwar consumer culture encouraged teenage consumption, especially among young women, and large-scale marketing campaigns generated excitement and revenues by selling Beatle wigs, socks, posters, pins, and records, but most fans’ connection to the music went far beyond the purchasable. Women at the time and in retrospect discussed how “alive” the Beatles made them feel. One fan described an “out-of-body experience, almost—taken to a whole different place.”[8] The whole experience—the band, the music, the other fans—were full of fun with a taste of freedom that was often inspiring, and the acts of fandom—such as screaming at the top of your lungs or running away from policemen—offered similar liberating potential and, sometimes, power.

If you listen to a live recording of the Beatles on the Anthology or recently re-mastered Live at the Hollywood Bowl, or to the Rolling Stones’ 1966 Got LIVE If You Want It!, you’ll hear the energy and exuberance of rock and roll accompanied by screaming that doesn’t stop. Screaming fans made an indelible mark on the sonic record of the sixties, and while those screams might be unpleasant sometimes, they’re the voices that help us hear the broader cultural, social, and political histories of popular music.

This history, in part, was informed by the rigid gender roles of the postwar era and the emergence of and anxiety surrounding rock and roll in the 1950s. “What is this thing called rock ‘n’ roll,” an article in the New York Sunday Times Magazine asked in January 1958. “What is it that makes teen-agers—mostly children between the ages of 12 and 16—throw off their inhibitions as though at a revivalist meeting? What—who—is responsible for these sorties? And is this generation of teen-agers going to hell?”[9] Aptly reflecting the tensions of the era, the advent of rock and roll sparked fear about the music’s implications for the teenage audience and American culture at large, driven mainly by the physicality and sexuality of the musicians, music, and soon, the fans. Bobbysoxers had swooned for Frank Sinatra, but Elvis Presley, along with rock and rollers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, created an energized fan base of teenagers wild for rock and roll music. In the many ways that it countered the dominant culture’s expectations of behavior and trespassed racial and sexual boundaries, rock and roll was laced with the dangerous. “Good Golly Miss Molly” may sound kind of silly now, but it wasn’t then, not to parents anyway—“when you’re rockin’ and a-rollin’, you can’t hear your mama call.” And what was Little Susie, in the Everly Brothers song, going to tell her mama and her pa? Ooh-la-la! Rock and roll challenged many boundaries governing American culture and society, laying the groundwork for the redrawing of ideas about sexuality, race, and respectability that were to come. Still, while Elvis made the papers with his hips and hair and pelvis, the story was also about the crowd, the fans, and the girls. Music can be subversive, but fans do the work of making that matter.

Concerned parents and perplexed journalists had already connected rock and roll and young women’s fandom to unruliness and the threat of other rebellions, but it was the sixties that made their case more clearly. In the wide music world of the sixties, young women also found refuge and inspiration in the sounds and spaces of the folk revival, not to mention the example of different kinds of women who challenged postwar femininity in their dress and display—how they wore their hair, how they sat, the clothes they chose—and, in many cases, the political affiliations they represented at the height of the civil rights, student, and peace movements. Girl groups sang songs that sounded like “girl talk,” inviting girls to join in from their bedrooms or wherever they listened, topping the charts with a confident femininity.[10] In 1963 Lesley Gore recorded “You Don’t Own Me,” one of the few songs to rival the Beatles’ chart positions, which should tell us something about what was going through the minds of the record-buying public.[11] As the sixties went on, the serious act of listening to records was a central force in the counterculture, representing personal connection and meaning as well as community—a whole world of people listening to Sgt. Pepper. Meanwhile, live music became one of the integral shared experiences of the counterculture, as the era’s famous festivals suggest. The innovative music of the high sixties gave many young people ways of imagining new possibilities for their lives, and devotion to it often led them to travel from suburbs to cities to see concerts, to trek to festivals and form communities of listeners, and to embrace alternative ways of dressing, thinking, and living. In a range of ways, women-as-fans invested personal, sometimes political, meaning in the music they listened to and trespassed gendered codes of public behavior by displaying their fandom in a highly visible, audible, and public way.

Music and music fandom, from Beatlemania to rock festivals to the very serious act of listening to records, held great significance in the lives of individuals, the communities they formed around music, and the national culture in which they participated in the 1960s. Fandom lived in bedrooms and living rooms, in front of televisions and radios, at music festivals and concerts, in school, on the subway, and in the street, illustrating the ways in which music and fandom shaped women’s participation in a vibrant music culture and in political culture as well. Although there was certainly a difference between what was tolerated in leisure culture versus political culture, and although this distinction was marked by race, these claims to space were significant affronts to gendered codes of public behavior, especially in their proximity to the embattled politics of the sixties and the women’s liberation movement in particular. Girls didn’t just want to have fun, and their transgressions, even when temporary, were not only part of generational, cultural, sexual, social, and political rebellions that transcended popular music, fandom, and leisure culture, but were also shaped by them in important ways.

In the recent series of fiftieth anniversaries, commemorations, and retrospectives of the 1960s, in news coverage, special edition magazines, television programs, and museum exhibits, music often plays in the background and fans, especially screaming girls, sometimes make an appearance in familiar narratives. Audiences are essential to the stories of popular music—no one becomes popular without an audience—but fans are often relegated to numbers—one million sold, an audience of 20,000—or, at best, simplified aggregates—they screamed, they cheered, they booed, the crowd went wild. The popularity of music during the sixties remains widely recognized but told through the stories of big names and personalities—Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—rather than the people who listened to their music and embedded it with their own meanings.

Leaving fans out of the story echoes longstanding gaps in academic histories and an elitist tradition of seeing fans as “other,” non-intellectuals drawn to mindless entertainment.[12] In many cases, ignoring fandom has also excluded women, young people, and people of color, especially from cultural histories and histories of leisure culture.[13] In the 1970s, scholars at the School for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England, including Simon Firth and Angela McRobbie, devoted scholarly attention to popular music and what it meant to the people who listened to it, recognizing music and music fandom as complex and worthy of far more study than it had previously been granted.[14] Building on this foundation, more scholars have come to view fans with greater agency, ascribing political connotations to fandom, and illustrating that fans are, of course, historical, by tracing the ways in which fandoms—music, movies, sports—have been shaped by modern technology, media, and other developments and considering fans as generative rather than merely responsive.

Journalists have charted this terrain best, and perhaps not surprisingly, women—Ellen Willis, Ellen Sander, Lillian Roxon—were the first and most insightful guides. After her groundbreaking article on Dylan published in Cheetah in 1967, Willis became The New Yorker’s first rock critic in 1968 and wrote over fifty pieces published in the “Rock, etc.” column between 1968 and 1975. Willis was both rock and roll fan and radical feminist, and she insisted that the two were related, at least where the 1960s were concerned. Rock criticism was born in a quest to distinguish rock music as serious and worthy of criticism, which in context included making clear that it was different from the things women liked. Jann Wenner created Rolling Stone as a place where rock and roll was taken seriously. At the time, he later reflected, “it just was considered somewhat rude and very much a teenage-girl phenomenon.”[15] Fifty years later though, doesn’t it seem like those teenage girls were onto something?

In her study of mass media, Susan Douglas wrote, “we must rewatch and relisten, but with a new mission: to go where the girls are. And, as we consider the rise of feminism, we must move beyond the standard political histories of a handful of feminist leaders and explore the cultural history of the millions who became their followers.”[16] Though the approaches and achievements of the women’s movement included traditional realms of political organizing, its changes were so far-reaching that we must look to a range places and parts of life, including the prosaic world of everyday experience, to see how they were enacted. The music women listened to, the ways it made them feel, what it led them to imagine, and what music culture and fandom led them to do all contribute to a more complete understand of the movement in context. Thus when we go where the fans are, we see how, individually and collectively, they did something with the music they listened to and staged a range of rebellions both subtle and overt.

In spite of the screaming, the voices of fans can be hard to hear, but historians need to pay more attention to the music people listen to and what it means to them, as well as how and where and why they listen to live and recorded music. As Mike Marqusee wrote in his study of Bob Dylan in the sixties, “What matters in the history of popular culture, in the end, is not merely how many people buy a product but what that product means to them, the role it plays in their lives, its shaping power over their imaginations.”[17] The politics of music fandom are not usually intentional and seldom in concert; they are collective but not because of any traditional organizing, and compared to so many examples of dramatic political action in this era in particular, they are easy to miss or dismiss. But by placing fans in context and conceiving of the political in the broad, everyday terms in which it came to be seen in the 1960s, we are reminded that political and cultural movements unfold together, and that by considering each more completely, we can render a sharper understanding of both as well as pay closer attention to the forces shaping our own time.

Author

Nicolette Rohr recently earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Riverside, and currently teaches at the University of Redlands. Her article, "Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Sixties Screamscape of Beatlemania," was published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies and selected as the 2017 Best Essay in Popular Music Scholarship by the Popular Music Study Group of the American Musicological Society. In 2015, she was a Gladys Kriebel Delmas Visiting Scholar at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives

Notes

[1] Gerald Nachman, Right Here On Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America (2009), 359.

[2] Murray Kaufman, in The Beatles: An Oral History, ed. David Pritchard and Alan Lysaght (1998), 197–98.

[3] “Milling Mob Sees Beatles Off for Home,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 22, 1964, 8.

[4] “Ambulance Rescues Beatles From Fans,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 22, 1964, 3.

[5] Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1996), 171.

[6] Jerry Doolittle, “Beatles Arrive, Teen-Agers Shriek, Police Do Their Duty, and That’s That,” Washington Post, Times Herald, Feb. 12, 1964, A1.

[7] David Dempsey, “Why the Girls Scream, Weep, Flip,” New York Times Magazine, Feb. 23, 1964.

[8] Garry Berman, ed. “We’re Going to See the Beatles!”: An Oral History of Beatlemania As Told by the Fans Who Were There (2008), 127; 128.

[9] In Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (2013), 30.

[10] Jacqueline Warwick, Girl Groups, Girl Cultures: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s (2007). Also see Riley, Fever, xiv; 36–38.

[11] See Victor Brooks, Last Season of Innocence: The Teen Experience in the 1960s (2012), 62.

[12] For overviews, see Joli Jenson, “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa Lewis (1992), 9–29. Also see Mark Duffett, Introduction to Popular Music Fandom: Identities, Roles, and Practices (2014), 1–15, p. 5–6.

[13] As Brian Ward demonstrates in Just My Soul Responding, studying black music and consumption offers “a useful insight into the changing sense of self, community, and destiny among those blacks who rarely left the sort of evidence, or undertook the sorts of activities, to which historians are generally most responsive.” Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (1998), 4.

[14] See Nick Bromell, “Music, Experience, and History,” American Quarterly, 53 (March, 2001), 165–177, p.166; Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber, “Girls and Subcultures,” in The Subcultures Reader, ed. Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (2005), 105–112. See also Angela McRobbie and Simon Frith’s important article, “Rock and Sexuality,” which first appeared in Screen Education, 29 (1978), London, printed in McRobbie, Feminism and Youth Culture (2000).

[15] "‘Rolling Stone’ Founder Jann Wenner On 50 Years of Rock And Roll History." May 11, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/05/11/527773802/rolling-stone-founder-jann-wenner-on-50-years-of-rock-and-roll-history

[16] Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (1994), 10.

[17] Mike Marqusse, Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (2003), 4.