Death Threats & Stifling Dissent: Stan Culture Run Amuck

The term “Stan” was never supposed to be a term of endearment, or something to be proud of. Taken from the Eminem song “Stan” released in 2000 about an obsessed Eminem fan who ends up killing himself and his pregnant girlfriend after going off the rails, it doesn’t exactly paint an enviable picture of next-level fan loyalty.

But in this unusual time in society and social media, Stanning a celebrity has become considered by many as a virtue and admirable—akin to “allyship” for marginalized groups—with some Stans winning incredible amounts of attention and pseudo celebrity status themselves, while Stans for certain artists are now commonly embedded throughout the media and press corps.

In fact this is how viral star Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” came to prominence. By running a Nicki Minaj Stan account called Nas Minaj (and later Nas Marai), Lil Nas X racked up a six figure followership on Twitter, mostly by stealing the content of smaller Twitter accounts and re-purposing it in a practice called Tweetdecking—an activity his Stan account was ultimately banned for, but not before he was able to use the platform to launch “Old Town Road” to a massive and engaged audience.

New York Mag ran an entire investigation on it, concluding, “Regardless of the quality of “Old Town Road” and its viral success on platforms like TikTok and its shrewd manipulation of streaming charts, its real launchpad is rooted in the mildly seedy, artificially inflated world of tweetdecking.”

But Lil Nas X was fine when his subterfuge was revealed. Why? Because he had his own Stans in the media to run interference for him. He emphatically denied having any involvement with Nicki Minaj Stan accounts, and nobody challenged him on the overwhelming evidence in interviews. Stanning for Lil Nas X was seen as virtuous since the narrative became how he had been kicked out of country music due to racism, when in truth Billboard had concluded exclusively Lil Nas X had manipulated the metadata of “Old Town Road” to be included in country charts to game the system. In June of 2020, Lil Nas X finally admitted to using Nicki Minaj Stan accounts to launch his career—over a year and $4 million in net worth later.

Nicki Minaj Stans are notorious for being some of the most aggressive in music, sending death threats to journalists, bullying individuals from rival Stan armies, and often engaging in practices that fit into various forms of bigotry (Lil Nas X’s Stan accounts included), which has all been well-documented over the years.

But we never thought we would see this dubious and disturbing practice coming from the otherwise docile, suburban-dwelling Stans of Taylor Swift. Nonetheless, this is what happened last week after the release of her surprise new album, Folklore when the Senior Editor of Pitchfork, Jillian Mapes, received a barrage of death threats after the outlet posted their review of the record. Angry Taylor Swift fans doxxed the editor, sending out her personal information, phone numbers, emails and address. Soon her inboxes and mentions on Twitter filled up with death threats and other aggressive missives, including threats to burn down her house. She received threatening calls on her personal cell phone at 2 a.m.—mere hours after the review had been posted.

Even more alarming is that the Pitchfork review wasn’t even negative in nature. The periodical gave it an 8.0/10 score and praised the record, even though the (apparently) low score of 8/10 was the specific rallying cry of the Stans attacking Jill Mapes. When the review was posted, it resulted in a slight downtick in the overall grade on the review aggregator site Metacritic, which is specifically what made many Stans incensed. Also important to point out, 8.0 wasn’t the personal score of editor Jill Mapes. As Pitchfork readers know, multiple critics may chime in on an album, resulting in their famous aggregate scores often ending in decimal points.

Jill Mapes was forced to turn her Twitter account private after the incident. “I’ve gotten too many emails saying some version of, ‘you are an ugly fat bitch who is clearly jealous of Taylor, plz die,’ which is not the first time I’ve heard that from pop stans… It sucks to be scared of every person milling about outside or feel like you can’t answer the phone.”

The situation is similar to when pop star Lana Del Rey attacked NPR critic Ann K. Powers for a mostly positive review for her 2019 record Norman F— Rockwell. Lana Del Rey was specifically triggered by Ann K. Powers’ insinuation that she had a “persona,” and tweeted out an angry response to her some 6 million followers, resulting in many Stans attacking Powers. In that case (and the Jill Mapes incident), fellow journalists and fans of the writers rushed to their defense.

The Lana Del Rey incident was much less aggressive than the incidents involving Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift, but it’s part of an increasing trend where Stans seem to have lost all touch with reality (which is sort of the definition of Stanning), and even scarier, appear to be proud of it. Stanning aggressively for artists is a way to increase social capital for individuals who often have very little of it outside of social media. That is why Stanning becomes so attractive to them, especially in the era of social media where fans can interact directly with the artists, which platforms such as Twitter facilitate.

Often it’s the most aggressive Stan accounts that receive the most attention and social media engagements, incentivizing even more aggressive behavior and blind loyalty to artists who are often unwilling to reign in their Stan armies because they benefit via the built-in loyalty, and from having enforcers on the internet willing to challenge and stifle dissent, including from journalists and critics. Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and other artists have never addressed the death threats and other abuse being perpetrated in their name.

This is how the Stan culture is actively stifling dissent in music journalism, and eroding the important medium of criticism in the music marketplace. This is one of the reasons you see so little actual criticism in music today, while movie, television, food, art, and other disciplines still experience and value constructive criticism. If you will receive death threats for publishing positive reviews, imagine the backlash that can be stirred by neutral or negative ones.

After Shooter Jennings released the song “The Gunslinger” on his 2013 record The Other Life, Saving Country Music was sent multiple death threats by Shooter Stans believing the song was payback for previous reviews posted on the site. When Saving Country Music posted a respectiful obituary for the death of Shooter’s manager, Jon Hensley, it resulted in the doxxing of personal information—including address and personal phone number—and an onslaught of death threats and death promises to myself and my family, and further harassment and purposeful spreading of falsehoods that continues to this day.

The Stan issue has become so toxic, it has resulted in the outlet Junkee choosing to now post coverage of certain high profile pop stars and coverage of the Stan culture itself anonymously as opposed to using writer’s bylines.

“In my three years at Junkee Media, I can think of at least a dozen times our staff have been the targets or orchestrated harassment campaigns that range from childish memes to very specific threats,” says editor Rob Stott. “Staff have had their locations revealed online, their families and universities bombarded with emails and calls, and their social media profiles flooded with hate and threats. All because of stan culture.”

And the concern shouldn’t just be compartmentalized to music. In June when President Trump planned a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, K-Pop Stans launched a campaign to sign up for tickets en masse to the event to both dry up availability for would-be attendees, and to inflate expectations for organizers on how many people may attend. Though some have written off the effort as a non factor, this move is given credit by many for the famously low attendance the rally drew.

If you’re not a fan of President Trump, you may cheer the effort of the K-Pop Stans. However, this can work against one’s favorite politician or party as well. With the blind loyalty and the large numbers Stan armies boast, they could definitely influence politics and the results of elections in the future, not from personally-held beliefs, but via blind loyalty and bloc voting based off of the edicts of pop stars. That’s possibly one of the factors of how Trump—who enjoyed his own blind loyalty from his reality TV career—got elected in the first place. Stan armies could very well become a major political force in the years to come. The on again, off again flirtation to run for President by Kanye West is a perfect example.

Many approach Stanning similar to a video game, or a pastime. But it’s not a question of if, but when the practice goes far beyond online bullying, and parallels the story portrayed in Eminem’s song where people die, and there is no happy ending, only confusion of why someone would ever take their fandom for a performer so far.

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