Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 100 greatest songs of 2000, we're writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we look back at Eminem's "Stan" -- a minor chart hit that became one of the rapper's most enduring and iconic singles -- and what it tells us about the modern-day fan culture that it ultimately helped name.
One of the most important hits in Eminem’s discography, “Stan” showcased the MC’s abilities as a refined, mature storyteller outside of the Bart Simpson-esque persona he became known for in earlier hits.
Named from a portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan,” the intense, nearly seven-minute track -- which samples the 1999 single “Thank You” by Dido, who also appears in the video -- finds Eminem playing the role of his own “biggest fan,” who writes several letters over a period of six months in an effort to capture the rapper’s attention.
Throughout the song’s three verses, Stan’s admiration goes from relatively tame (“I got a room full of your posters and your pictures, man”) to obsessed and crazed (“You ruined it now, I hope you can't sleep and you dream about it…”), with his behavior ultimately resulting in the murder-suicide of himself and his pregnant girlfriend by drowning -- all of which is brought to life in the chilling visual. The track concludes with Eminem (as himself) offering a far-too-late apology letter, and suggesting that Stan seeks mental help.
The song was not a massive chart success, peaking at No. 51 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in December 2000. But in the 20 years that have followed its release, “Stan” has been listed by several outlets as one of the greatest rap songs ever recorded, and became a culturally significant term encapsulating an entire culture of online fan communities in the 21st century. In 2017, the term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary to describe “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity,” which Eminem said was “crazy.” However, does the song accurately reflect the superfan culture that it ended up naming?
Em’s lyrics certainly capture the over-the-top behavior some supporters will develop when it comes to their favorite stars, which has helped to identify the difference between the average fan and “stans” throughout time. Dr. Lynn E. McCutcheon, psychologist, author and founder of the North American Journal of Psychology, who has conducted research regarding celebrity worship, suggests there is likely an emotional component that is attributed to being a “stan.” However, it’s been difficult to pinpoint the likeliest trigger for taking fans to the point of the rapper’s titular admirer.
“We've looked at issues like loneliness, and we’ve tried to determine if lonely people are more susceptible to moving on to the higher or more obsessive levels [of fandom],” he tells Billboard of his research on the matter. In 2002, he helped to develop and propose the Celebrity Attitude Scale, which divides levels of fandom into three groups: Entertainment Social (casual fan), Borderline Pathological (learning likes, dislikes, habits and more of the celebrity), and Intense Pathological (obsessed with learning every detail of a celebrity’s life).
“We found a small correlation that was borderline statistically significant, so I think [loneliness] plays some small role in it,” he continues. “[Also], possibly the inability to relate on a personal level with real persons, as opposed to fantasy and celebrities [has contributed to “stan” behavior].”
Conversely, Gayle S. Stever, Ph.D, associate professor of developmental psychology for Empire State College, suggests that “committed fans” are completely capable of living normal, everyday lives, a conclusion made in her 2011 article titled “Celebrity Worship: Critiquing a Construct” for the Journal Of Applied Social Psychology. “I don't doubt that [obsessive fans] exist out there, but [the song] ‘Stan’ sounds more like a case of extreme celebrity worship than of fandom… and those are two distinct and completely different things,” she tells Billboard via email.
While “stanning” is not unique to the last two decades, the Internet and social media websites have opened up accessible platforms for fan groups to communicate with each other and their favorite musical artists. In her article, Dr. Stever notes that celebrities have created a more personal connection with their fans that wasn’t as possible before the advent of the Internet. “Things like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and blogs or video blogs are all being used now by celebrities to create that intimate day-to-day connection with fans,” she explains. This is a fact: Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey are two of many star artists who have taken to social media to interact, retweet and share aspects of their lives with their devoted fanbases (The Barbz and The Lambs, respectively).
“I think most of the people in these fan clubs are just normal people who admire a particular person and find [fandom] a social outlet,” Dr. McCutcheon says. “If I greatly admired [NBA star] LeBron James, and I sought out some friends who also admired him, that would give us something to talk about, and something that we can agree upon. It greases the social wheels in a way.”
While it’s not usually likely that fandoms will hurt themselves or the artists they idolize, like in “Stan,” protecting the reputations of their faves online can result in some truly harmful behavior. YouTuber and The Ellen Show star Kalen Allen tells Billboard that although fanbases thrive on the importance of unity, the above-and-beyond loyalty of their favorite artists yields territorial, aggressive, and at times, vile results. Allen, who has not been shy regarding his longtime admiration of Beyoncé, adds that the emotional connection the fan has to the artist amps up their devotion, which impacts the way they operate in real life and online.
“We live in a society that leads by influence,” he notes. “There are a lot of people who don’t think for themselves and will latch on to someone to follow… With social media, we have easier access to celebrities, but the social distance enables the cyberbullying of both the artist and those who are not fans... It becomes a mob mentality.”
There have been cases in the past showcasing just how dangerous stan culture could potentially be. From threatening the lives of others, to inflicting self-harm, to stalking, there are numerous examples of these extremes in action. And of course, there have been particularly infamous cases of fans murdering the musical artists they claim to strongly admire or strongly dislike, such as Mark David Chapman with John Lennon in 1980, Yolanda Saldivar with Selena Quintanilla in 1995, and Kevin James Loibl with Christina Grimmie in 2016.
“The bulk of our research has found that these people, perhaps not surprisingly, that move on to the problematic levels of obsession... might be tempted to do something illegal to get the person’s attention,” Dr. McCutcheon suggests. “[Celebrities] discover after that this is part of the baggage that comes with [fame] -- the obsessive fan, the one who stalks, or does things that are unwanted.”
In “Stan,” the fan’s first unanswered letter elicits a strongly worded response (“I just think it’s f--ked up you don’t answer fans”), which showcases his behavior spiking from fairly innocent to slightly more dramatic. As Allen notes, the song predicted that even fandom comes with stipulations.
“There is a false narrative that celebrities [and] artists belong to us,” Allen says. “People feel entitled to their presence… If someone we stan doesn’t smile, wave, or acknowledge us, we immediately turn against them. It’s very much a selfish ideology… There is an internal struggle within the artist because they recognize that for a lot of people they do provide a sense of hope and influence. However, the lines can become very blurred.”
What must be done in order for artists to make sure they’re having healthy relationships with their most passionate supporters? At the end of the song, Eminem essentially tells Stan that while he wants him as a fan, he doesn’t “want [him] to do some crazy s--t.” Keeping this in mind, artists could try to be more vocal about intolerable conduct, and forthright in their approaches to keeping fandom fun and low-stakes in order to prevent their followers from going over the edge.
In 2014, Lorde pointed out that she has “discouraged” her fanbase from giving themselves a name, and stated in a since-deleted tweet that she finds naming fan groups “icky.” More recently in December 2019, V of BTS fame urged members of the ARMY to “stop their scary behavior,” some of which included stalking members of the group, during a livestreamed broadcast. His bandmate Jungkook also echoed the sentiment, stating that “sasaengs” (invasive fans) obtained his phone number, and he had to block many people. However, these measures to prevent extreme fan reactions from occurring can only go so far.
“I think it is impossible to control a mass group of people,” Allen says of artists putting a full stop to over-the-top stan behavior. “However, I believe one must lead by example. How one presents themselves in the media and through their art will then set the standard of their fanbase.”
Although it’s likely that Eminem never predicted “Stan” would be taken this far, there’s a chance stan culture would have made it to this point eventually even if it was never given a name on wax. Dr. McCutcheon suggests that “all media” has contributed to the rapid rise in celebrity worship, yet thanks to social media specifically, fans are given an all-access pass to view the professional and personal lives of their favorite artists. Fan groups have unified to bolster the support, popularity and sales of these stars online -- however, the perceivably infinite access to these artists and other individuals could result in uninhibited behavior. It’s up to the fan to decide how far they’re willing to take their loyalty, and it’s up to the artist to draw the line in the sand.
“Everything in life can have good [or] bad attributes associated with it,” Allen explains. “Call yourself what you want. I think it’s more important to evaluate what it means to be a stan, and define what makes a good or bad stan.”