Harry, John, Robbie, Nick. To many people these are just ordinary names, but to some, they are the names of gods, whose feet they worship at. Worshipping at the altar of the boyband has been a phenomenon since The Beatles, and ever since, millions of teens and tweens have flocked thousands of miles in the hopes of sharing the same air with their favourite idol star. Jessica Leski’s latest feature, I Used to Be Normal attempts to give faces to these millions of adoring fans.
Leski takes a generational overview to the boyband phenomenon, as we’re introduced to 16-year-old Directioner Elif, 26-year-old Backstreeter Sadia, 33-year-old Thatter Dara and 64-year-old Beatlemaniac Susan. It’s interesting that older individuals like Dara and Susan haven’t grown out of their obsessions – they’ve become adult but they still hold that strong teenage adoration, almost as though a piece of their childhood still burns alive within them. Despite the difference in generations, each of the girls have similar rituals and mantras that connect them, which really reinvigorates this idea of a boyband religion. Some may even call it a cult-like worship. It’s true that the fierce dedication and adoration the girls present is a little cult-like, it’s just the leaders have no idea of their followers’ intense devotion.
Leski’s approach to her structure is clever, as it outlines and signposts the typical behaviours and expectations of fangirls as an introduction – we see Elif quivering over a 1D sighting, Sadia talks about her self-appointed role as President of the Backstreet Boys online website. This intense devotion and dedication of the self could’ve been its own documentary because everyone knows fangirls can be more than a little fanatical – but Leski takes it to a more heart-warming and introspective direction, and it allows for an insight into fangirls that’s rarely depicted or seen. There’s a self-awareness to each of the girls when they talk about their obsessions, they’re fully aware of the perceptions around them and you can feel a tinge of sadness when they discuss hiding their passions out of a possibility of being shamed or mocked. By really engaging with the girls on an emotional level, Leski takes us from the outside looking in to the inside looking out – there are genuine, complex reasons why these girls adore these bands so much, and by mocking their boyband infatuation, in a sense we are mocking them.
The girls all have fascinating coming-of-age tales with boybands at their core, but the one that resonates most of all is Susan’s. Her generational bond with The Beatles, from tween-hood to motherhood, with them becoming a part of her family, a musical education for her children forming an iron-clad emotional bond is so touching to listen to. It’s a genuine testament to how, despite everything, these industry-created groups can elicit love in the most unexpected of ways.
There’s a genuinely heartfelt aspect to boyband obsession, and that’s the camaraderie between the fans. The friendships that’re formed over a shared love, whether it’s Susan hanging out with her friends and listening to Beatles records all day, or Elif having a sister for a cousin in their Direction journey, the love that these boys chant about may be artificial, but the love shared by the fans is entirely real. Speaking of the artificial nature of boybands, Leski does have a brief ‘Boyband Theory’ segment which is thoroughly enjoyable, watching her and her team break down the precise mechanics and scientific formula of the boyband. We all know that girls adore boybands – but how and why is this a phenomenon? It’s a clever way to deconstruct the boyband formula and nature that doesn’t feel like a mockery or a condemnation of the girls who offer to spill their soul to Leski and her camera.
Jessica Leski creates a human portrait of fangirls that causes you to reflect and adjust your perception of them – it never feels as though they’re belittled, but rather elevated through their shared love for these musical icons, and ultimately, their obsessions don’t stem from a childhood infatuation, but rather the ways in which these singers have made them the people who they are today.
I USED TO BE NORMAL – A BOYBAND FANGIRL STORY IS AVAILABLE TO DOWNLOAD/STREAM from 31st May 2021 (from all leading digital platforms)