Teenage girls are yelping. It’s just after four in the morning and a huge rat—a heaving, greasy, small-dog-size thing—is dragging its weight along the pavement next to us.
“Eurgh, fuck off!” yell fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, one pulling the cord of the hood of her sleeping bag tight so only her eyes are looking out. “You always see them this early, especially in London,” she says solemnly.
We’re all sitting or lying outside London’s Brixton Academy, one night in March 2017. Every ten minutes or so, girls arrive in darkness to wait for the pop-punk show happening the following night. Two friends, fifteen-year-old Lauren and fourteen-year-old Jess from across town in Bethnal Green, were already there at its steps when I shuffled over at three. They greeted me like I was another teen fan, not a writer in her midtwenties. “Come and sit down.” “Are you excited?” Their immediate assumption was that I was there for the same reason. They’d had waffles and whipped cream one of their mothers had made at about one and had been dropped off in her car. Both showed me their supplies for the night, day, and evening. Out of duffels come blankets, a full-size pillow, doughnuts, hair ties, makeup, portable chargers, money, exercise books, marker pens, T-shirts, CDs (very odd), phones, digital cameras, disposable cameras; enough for a camping trip. They are, I thought, camping, just with one of the ugliest backdrops I’ve ever seen. “We’re going to wait until security get here and set up the barriers and then we’ll sleep,” Lauren says. Along the grimy beige pavement down the left of the building, multiple girls are already passed out in sleeping bags like a row of wood lice, some savvy enough to bring foam mats. “Our mums didn’t mind us being here because it’s the last day of term.” She shrugs. “We’ll just say we’re ill or something.”
A girl wanders over timidly. “I was scared no one else would be here because I haven’t got friends to come with,” she says. Lauren and Jess welcome nineteen-year-old Simran onto their perch. Soon they’re chatting away about their favorite bands and talking the logistics of their joint mission. They’re annoyed because they don’t have signing tickets that allow you to meet the band. None could afford to be part of the exclusive paid-for fan club. “If I asked my dad to pay for that every month he’d probably laugh in my face,” says Jess. Simran empties a bag of mobile phones onto the pavement. “The things I do for bands,” she says. “Get all these fucking phones for a start.” They’re on various networks so she can get different priority tickets—the option to buy gig tickets a day or so before the rest of the general public. “I come to shows early all the time. I’ve never come more than two days early, though—until they get portable showers at venues I don’t know if I can do it.”
Over the next few hours, various groups play music off tinny speakers, knock back energy drinks, and share origin stories, not of their own life but of becoming a fan. One girl with bright blue hair, lying on her belly in a sleeping bag, is eating baby food from a jar. (“Hey! It’s only a fruit one, not weird, like a chicken one or anything!” she yells at me.) Quite a few need the toilet, including me, but the only nearby public ones are in McDonald’s, which opens at seven, so we collectively decide to stop talking about how much we could feasibly wet ourselves.
Through winter 2016 and early spring 2017 I’ve been waking up at two or three in the morning and taking the night bus across London from my Peckham flat to a music venue. I don’t know who I’m going to find but since there’s a pop or rock gig on the following night, the fans will be there, wanting to be first in. It doesn’t feel especially exclusive to any type of music, as long as the fan base includes a lot of them. When I say “them” I mean almost exclusively teen girls, since that is who I find every time.
The first time I did this, I arrived at a rock show a couple of hours early. Passing along the queue, I noticed a big group of laughing girls at the front chatting with a mother across a barrier. This would be the first of many times I met Bea and the others. This was a freezing cold night in February and Bea’s mother had brought them all hot chocolates. They only knew each other because they lived across the south of England and had met queueing for nights and days pre-shows. They told me that they did this for every show they went to, and they went to as many as they possibly could, regardless of artist. Since most young music listeners now are less bound by genre, many of the same faces were at shows as disparate as hardcore punk and bubblegum mainstream pop.
Waiting outside venues has been an integral part of the fangirl experience and something of an embodiment of their lifestyle from the very beginning. Columbus Day, New York City, 1944, a Frank Sinatra show, and the New York photojournalist Weegee was there when the first of the pop stars as we know them was about to take to the stage. “The line in front of the Paramount Theatre on Broadway starts forming at midnight,” he recalled. “By four in the morning, there are over 500 girls … They wear bobby sox (of course), bow ties (the same as Frankie wears) and have photos of Sinatra pinned to their dresses.” The three-thousand-seat house was quickly filled with girls waiting to see Sinatra for the first of his scheduled performances of that day. Apparently inside the theater the ammoniac smell of pee was heavy in the air because girls refused to leave their seats for food, water, anything, unless they were physically moved by attendants. Over the duration of the day, a riot bubbled over outside where, according to records, police had to deal with thirty to thirty-five thousand young female Sinatra fans, lining the streets around the theater, calling out to be let in.
Across the world, the practice has spread in astonishing ways. In Helsinki, Finland, during David Bowie’s 1976 tour, streams of girls who had been poised for hours outside his hotel propelled their arms through the open windows of his limo, hoping to get autographs as it passed by. London girls waited as his train pulled into Victoria Station ahead of his first shows in his home country in years, and some with multiple tickets stayed outside Wembley Stadium (then called the Empire Pool) overnight since he was playing a string of back-to-back dates. In Brighton, Bros fans—or Brosettes—in their bandannas and leather jackets and with packed lunches, sat from daybreak in the sea breeze before the 1988 Bros gig at the Brighton Centre. Decades later the same girls, who’d become women with families and careers, would wait in merchandise they had bought at those shows outside the O2 Arena for Bros’ 2018 comeback gig. High school girls with BRITNEY SPEARS IS GOD badges pinned to their chests came from all over California to watch Britney perform a few songs at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for her 2011 appearance on Good Morning America. Queuing from the early hours of the morning for more hours than she played songs was normal for Britney performances. In North Dakota, in 2009, teen girls waited through the night and even from the previous day, sleeping in the parking lot of the Alerus Center. Nicole Robertson, nineteen, and Beth Dennison, twenty, cuddled together on the tarmac for warmth. When asked by local media—who were there for a charming human-interest story—how long they’d been fans of Britney, Robertson answered with a sarcastic “Oh, please,” and added that they’d been fans since the nineties. This? For Britney? This was no sacrifice, of time or of comfort.
Later some sort of record was set in Rio de Janeiro. In 2013, Justin Bieber fans started queuing outside the Sambadrome a whole fifty days before his November 3 show. They constructed tents and took it in turns to sleep in this Belieber camp overnight. Before the authorities stepped in and banned under-eighteens from staying overnight, they had a brilliantly executed rota of names and times, like an efficiently run restaurant floor. Fans returned regardless, and local businesses were letting them use their toilets and showering facilities for a small payment. This effort was only to be bettered when Bieber returned four years later for his Purpose world tour. Camp Bieber opened five months in advance of his March 2017 date this time. Again, the 130 or so fans took turns to guard the camp, since they still had to pursue activities of a mundane nature, like going to school. One fan told the local paper, O Globo, “We are here for our idol and our love for him made us do this madness.” Madness, to most, but you can’t deny that commitment. It doesn’t feel like acts of individual delirium either, when girls want to do this together.
When waiting is thrust upon you, minutes and hours become prison bars across your current reality. Why wait, if there’s a choice, when our Western culture seems to be more and more about instant gratification, when a vegan tiramisu could be delivered to your door in the space of an hour or a taxi playing the music of your choice could meet you in five minutes? Both communication and validation are available in real time. Friends or lovers are even irritable if you haven’t replied to a message within the afternoon. We’re getting so bad at the skill of waiting that when we have to do so we find it utterly intolerable, anger inducing, sitting in it like it is a punishment. It doesn’t come naturally at all. As such, the younger you are, the more alien the concept becomes, and Gen Z, current teens, the first real digital natives, are frequently depicted as impatient and demanding.
The white band around the 1920s-built dome of the Brixton Academy the night I’m there reads ALL TIME LOW, the name of the band, in blue lettering. One girl has already taken a picture to share on social media but curses because it’s decidedly too dark. Lauren and Jess offer condolences. Era-defining and well-respected bands have played here before—the Rolling Stones, Nine Inch Nails, Alkaline Trio, the Clash, Blondie, Motörhead—making it one of London’s iconic rock venues. Whether tonight’s event will be written into the venue’s legacy or completely lost to history, it’ll have lasting meaning for everyone here.
Conversation turns to gossip about recent adventures in extreme queues. Fifteen-year-old pink-haired Nonny remembers her first. It was -3° C, snow and rain. They had to find somewhere warm or dry to sleep. She slept for a while under a bench, then was forced by security to move to a bus station, then a Tube station, dragging around her little sleeping bag. There were fifteen of them and they lay across escalators to go to sleep, before being told to move. “You’ve got to laugh at how bad your situation is. Scavenging for a toilet, security kicking you out of everywhere … We lost a girl at 4 A.M. or something. She just left. We were the first people there so we felt responsible. I’m like, ‘I’m fifteen! I have no idea what to do.’ I was so worried. We checked in the underground, all around the Tube. In the end she was in the toilets.”
One recent legendary wait was in honor of Twenty One Pilots, a group whose music has pulled in a die-hard fan base of young mainstream chart-pop fans. They played at Alexandra Palace on a Friday and Saturday in London, so hundreds of female fans camped all week. Notably mature eighteen-year-old Immy from Norwich was there that night. She sits slightly back from the others, smiling sagely, and speaks with confidence and clarity. She retells events: “One girl there had frostbite on her thigh. It was really bad, where she’d been laid on the concrete for three days and nights. I think she got taken away by emergency services.” Apparently, security had to bring in special cattle-pen-type barriers that none of them had seen before.
Another girl pipes up from inside her sleeping bag: “That was fun the first couple of nights but then when the younger kids got there it was so annoying. They brought ukuleles and kept playing Smash Mouth—‘All Star.’ I personally find ukuleles so cringey.” Ironically, only five minutes previously Immy and the others had vented frustration at older fans finding them immature.
What they’re describing, out of context, sounds like some sort of war zone. Being taken off to casualty, sleeping through turbulent weather conditions, minor altercations with security, rationing food. Once inside, it appears no better. A stampede, during which ankles are sprained and bodies fall down flights of steps.
You might wonder if there’s an element of hyperbole in these tales, but the exaggeration simply lies in the melodrama of the girls’ retelling, their grandiose gestures and the playing for laughs, as others shake their heads knowingly. Some of them offer queue stories that older teens once told them or that happened to their friends. What occurs when these girls wait passes into folklore; the only place these accounts are likely to be shared is on a pavement next to each other.
“On one of those nights, the amount of people who threw up in the crowd made me want to be sick,” says Lauren. I ask why and Immy says, “You get young kids who don’t understand that they need to hydrate and these are massive venues. It’s intense standing up and it gets so hot in the middle. They’ve not been drinking or eating enough throughout the days and nights if they’ve been waiting outside. They don’t think about it. Queuing people don’t eat.” Jess pipes up: “And the food inside is so expensive!”
There’s community feeling here between strangers or those who’ve met once or twice. Phones are used to document their time, play music, or give them more to discuss, like photos of them with their favorite artists—Immy proudly scrolls, showing me pictures of her with members of All Time Low’s support act—or videos of shows they were at. They’re not crutches: signs of social inadequacy or awkwardness. These girls are not inside, hiding away on laptops. Some are on camping chairs like a red-faced dad at a music day festival.
In the age of the internet where so much is done online, these spaces are the (albeit unauthenticated and sprawling) IRL fan clubs that don’t exist elsewhere. The waiting connects the public and private parts of fandom. Here the inner world of a person’s fan feelings meets their outside world; it’s both a personal and a group experience.
Eventually Bea arrives, to shrieks. Everyone knows Bea. She is a fifteen-year-old icon among fangirls of the south of England. She grins as she’s prancing over, her blond hair bouncing. I’ve seen her at multiple shows. Bea is always waiting.
Bea’s mother will get up at any hour of the day or night to drive her the three hours to London to leave her in the queue. She’ll entertain herself around town in the day, periodically coming back with anything Bea and the queue girls might need—blankets when it’s cold, sun cream when it’s hot. “My mum is such a legend,” Bea told me the first time we met. “Sometimes I’ll have concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and she’ll drive me to all of them.” I asked her mother how long she’d been supporting Bea’s fan trips. “Oh, she’s been bossing me around since she was born. I have a half-term rule: no waiting before concerts in term time, but it never works.” Parents and mothers in particular are crucial to the plans because without them—the consent, the transport, the money—it wouldn’t happen.
In the hierarchy of fangirls, charismatic Bea sits at the top. She has tens of thousands of followers on social media through her frequent access to bands, shows, and waiting to get to the front row. This has come with its downsides—people pretending to be her friend for clout, people she doesn’t know finding out her where her school is. Once someone sent a necklace to her home address in the post, and none of her friends knew who it could have been. Girls will approach her like she’s a minor celebrity, having seen her at the front, tagged in barrier photos, or recognizing her from posting prominent pictures on social media. She’ll talk among fans about meet-and-greet tickets and back-to-back shows while others reply with barely concealed envy that they’d love to do it more but it’s too expensive.
For a lot of fans camping out and going to shows exist more as a semiregular treat than a central part of the music-fan lifestyle. Eighteen-year-old Lucia shares her frustrations with me. After meeting girls waiting at shows she’ll follow them on social media, and this is where comparisons are easily made. “You see these fifteen-, sixteen-year-olds getting to go to London and spending all their time and money on shows. It’s not their money, it’s their parents’ money. It’s all right if you have parents who also let you do what you want with it.” She considers herself just as much a fan, but recognizes that how she and many others are able to show that love and dedication is hugely dependent on wealth and social class.
I can sympathize. A significant teenage friendship had allowed me to have experiences as a fan I’d never have been able to have otherwise. No boat to the mainland, no gig tickets. I wouldn’t have been jealous of other fans, because I didn’t know many. But I did know what I wanted to have. Any inequality in the fan experience has been slightly lessened since the internet; before, the only way to hear music by your favorite artists was to buy records or CDs, which cost money. Now, music is instantly accessible for free. Yet it’s also thanks to the internet that fans like Lucia are hyperaware of any differences in the fan experience, ones they’d have been mostly ignorant of before. Hierarchies exist in every teenage social group. The barely visible distinctions based on who your parents are, the school you go to, what you can and can’t afford. Fandoms are no different, which is especially obvious when you start seeing the same faces at these gatherings. You realize who arrives at what time, who keeps appearing, whose voices are loudest.
“Oh hi, I haven’t seen you since that concert last month,” Bea says, hugging every girl in turn. She speaks very quickly and with high energy, following every trail of thought. “I need to sleep today. I went to a show last night and I haven’t slept, I’ve just carried on going and at some point I’m going to get really tired.” She’s arrived later than other girls but joins the biggest group right by the entrance to the venue. They’ve saved her a spot. When I catch up with Bea in a year’s time she will have followed Fall Out Boy on tour to every date with her mum, and flown to America to see them.
Hannah Ewens is currently the features editor and a writer at Vice. She writes about youth culture, mental health, music, and film for publications such as the Guardian and the Telegraph.
Excerpted from Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, by Hannah Ewens, © 2020, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.