The concept of a pop culture idol has evolved and changed over the years. The term itself sounds contrived in today’s context where so many figures take up space simultaneously and fame can happen overnight, even if short lived, and for the most random of reasons. While massive fandoms like the Beehives, Belibers, BTS Army are still very much a thing, the entrant of social media, and constant churn of celebrity figures has ushered in a new form of fan-celebrity relationship.
A shift from a one-sided traditional celebrity worship to a mutual relationship
Social media has closed the gap between so-called idols and their followers. Beyond the fan-celebrity access that social provides, it has given fans a tool to unify their voices making them powerful and nearly impossible to ignore. The relationship between BTS and their Army never feels one-sided. K-Pop idols are using apps like fancafe, vapp, and weverse to have seemingly one to one chat with fans ranging from the ordinary like have you eaten? to conversations around bullying and mental health. Lil Nas X’s has been dubbed a marketing genius for how frequently he takes to Twitter to talk to his fans, artists like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B have had many moments of relating with and even arguing with fans online. Billie Eilish confesses that connecting with fans is her ‘number one priority‘ and that ‘there’s no reason to do any of this without the connection. Like, literally no reason at all.’ The verdict is that celebrities are prioritising their fans because they are well aware of the power fans hold.
The seat of ‘idol-hood’ is a delicate perch
This delicate balance of power between idols and their fans means idols are never too successful to be held accountable. At a time of massive distrust, audiences are policing celebrities themselves by unifying their voices to unseat those who don’t tow the line. K-pop fans are some of the most passionate and vocal fans but K-pop idols like Lesserafim’s Kim Garam, Stray Kids’ Woojin and G(I-dle)’s Soojin have all been cancelled, dropped from labels and unfollowed by fans. Celebrities are held under greater scrutiny, their sins equally punishable, and many have been hung by the same adoration that once bolstered them. Perhaps this is the greatest power that fans hold; the fan makes and breaks the idol. Their ability to control the narrative and make real life impact means new age idols understand that they owe their fans a sense of ownership and familiarity.
Plot twist: maybe the fans are the new Idols
Many celebrities have had to come to terms with this shift. Beyonce changed the lyrics in her song Heated after ableist criticism from her fans, Lizzo also apologised and changed lyrics to Grrls in response to fan clamour. Ticketmaster issued an apology after the Swifties sued them over the debacle around tour tickets sale and major movie franchises like Star Wars have had to succumb to fans’ petition to have releases like Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi erased from Lucasfilm’s official canon and it didn’t matter that critics rated it 91%. The voice of passionate fans overshadowed that of critics — another testament to their ability to control the narrative.
Idols however play a vital role as the centre point around which communities are formed
Fans’ passion when not harnessed for vitriol, acts as a glue for online communities. Be it the Starwars fandom, Beehives or the Swifties, these entities create a living, breathing world around their idols. A world held together by shared values, interests and comradeship. From the Billie Eilish fashion aesthetics to the BTS army’s ever growing lexicon, they arm young people with a set of shared languages and habits to define and contextualise their own identity within the wider narrative.
We have moved away from traditional, one-sided celebrity worship. In previous generations the restricted access between fan and idol amplified the reverence that idols commanded, making their god-like image even more overwhelming. Now celebrity adoration has taken on a more reciprocal form where the relatability of idols coupled with their role as a core of communities and symbol of identity gives them a purpose that equally heroes the fan.
Featured image: Billie Eilish hugs a fan | Rick Kern / WireImage