From boyband theory to Backstreet Boys cruises: I Used To Be Normal is a love letter to fangirls

·6-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Within the first 15 minutes of Jessica Leski’s documentary I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, Take That superfan Dana writes the words “boyband theory” onto a whiteboard before covering it in pictures and notes, attempting to distill a musical phenomenon down to a set of fundamental principles.

The optimal age range is 17 to 21; the ideal number of band members is three or five, though “four is definitely possible”; each one must fulfil a specific character type, from “the sexy one” to the less covetable “older brother” role. One scribbling simply reads, “Beards? NO,” with the second word underlined several times (moderate facial hair is allowed, though I’d argue that stubble is generally a bad omen, warning that the “mysterious one” is about to ditch the group to make “proper music”). “Brothers” get similarly short shrift (soz, Hanson).

It’s hard to argue with Dana’s authoritative framework for boyband superstardom, right down to an acknowledgement of the inevitable “forgotten one,” the band member you’d struggle to pick out in a floppy-haired identity parade. Being a fan, Leski’s film makes clear, doesn’t mean you can’t think critically about the objects - and nature - of your obsession. So, while she started out aiming “not only to talk to fans but to psychologists and neurologists and songwriters and stylists to try and put together and understand the whole package of the boy band,” the Australian director ended up realising “that the fans we interviewed were experts. We didn’t need those ‘expert’ opinions - it was more interesting to actually get to know the fans as real people,” as they “were so much smarter and funnier and insightful than I’d given them credit for, and most of the world has given them credit for.”

Harry Styles meets fans at the premiere of One Direction film This Is Us (Getty Images)
Harry Styles meets fans at the premiere of One Direction film This Is Us (Getty Images)

As well as Dana, whose favourite Take That bandmate is Gary Barlow (“There’s not many people in the Gary camp”), the film introduces us to Susan, who camped outside the Beatles’ hotel when they visited Australia in the 60s and wrote “Mrs Susan McCartney” in her school books. There’s also journalist Sadia, who founded a Backstreet Boys email newsletter as a teenager and has since set sail on the band’s themed cruises. Out of Leski’s four subjects, she is perhaps the most ambivalent and analytical about her fandom; in one striking moment, she considers the time and energy she has expended in her pursuit of the band, asking herself whether she “should be filling that up with [her] own life.” The filmmaker discovered her from an article she had written “about the first time she went on a cruise… I could tell she was already starting to have some of those conflicted feelings, so I could tell… she would be able to give that really interesting perspective on being a fan and being judged for it - and judging yourself as well as feeling like the world is judging you.”

Backstreet Boys fan Sadia (Handout)
Backstreet Boys fan Sadia (Handout)

The youngest fan featured is One Direction aficionado Elif, who inspired the film’s title: in one YouTube video, she bursts into tears when one of her friends suggests that their pizza delivery man is in fact Niall Horan (probably 1D’s designated “cute one,” if we follow Dana’s matrix). When it transpires that Horan has not started moonlighting as a delivery driver in Long Island, Elif sighs: “This is not good… I used to be normal.”

Elif is moved to tears by One Direction (Handout)
Elif is moved to tears by One Direction (Handout)

Other filmmakers might have been tempted to sensationalise, or poke fun at these stories: as Leski notes, there is “no shortage” of films with a cynical, almost mocking slant on the earnest world of female fandom. “That’s the easy route - to make fun of it,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I’d seen anything that treated this seriously, and that felt really important. That was a great motivation for making the film.” When she and her producer started pitching the project, “people would say ‘How are you going to fill 90 minutes with girls screaming and crying - this is not a film.’ They just didn’t get it - which is the whole point of the film. It’s trying to show people that there is more to it. But we had a real uphill battle, trying to convince people that there was something really important to talk about here, and a story that we didn’t see represented.” She spent three years filming, on and off; two years in, she launched a Kickstarter to help fund the project (and the Backstreet Boys ended up donating).

One Direction fans at the premiere of This Is Us in 2013 (Getty Images)
One Direction fans at the premiere of This Is Us in 2013 (Getty Images)

The result is a film that’s deeply compassionate and unexpectedly moving: we learn how these bands have been a crutch to all four of Leski’s subjects through difficult times, from the death of a friend in childhood to a depressive episode at university. Perhaps that empathy stems from the fact that Leski has her own tale of fandom, discovering One Direction when she was in her early 30s.“I’d never been interested in boy bands before, and I was in high school in the golden age of Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, 5ive, all those bands,” she explains. “I was very dismissive, judgmental… I thought people that liked it were dumb. So when One Direction came into my life, it was very confusing to me: why was I so interested in them and sucked into the whole thing?”

The first year of filming, she says, “was like therapy for me, trying to understand what I was feeling and why I was feeling it,” and she was drawn to her four subjects because “being a fan was quite a solo thing for me, and it is largely for the four fans in the film.” Their shared enthusiasm meant they quickly opened up to her. “It really felt like a dialogue, and as the years progressed, we did become closer and share more with each other as it went on. They were so used to being talked to in a way that was judgmental. I remember Dara saying to me, when we sat down to do the interview, ‘I’ve never had someone look at me the way you are when I talk about Take That,’ because I guess most people would laugh.”

Screaming at concerts is “sort of cathartic” (Handout)
Screaming at concerts is “sort of cathartic” (Handout)

Watching I Used To Be Normal, it becomes clear that, aside from the immediacy and “real feeling of connection” afforded by social media, the nature of fandom hasn’t changed all that much since Susan and her friends would attend “Beatles sleepovers” (weekend meet-ups devoted to listening to and discussing the Fab Four). “I think it shows that women and girls - they don’t have enough outlets to scream,” Leski says. “And it’s sort of cathartic… having somewhere that you can scream and be a bit wild with your friends, and feel like you don’t have to sit somewhere quietly. It’s sad that hasn’t changed, that in a way girls still need that outlet, but these bands are a really wonderful way to get that.”

I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is available on digital download from May 31

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