Brow Beat

Why We Stan a Legend Who Stans Other Legends

There’s a new mode of celebrity: the artist as fan.

Collage of photos of Harry Styles, Richard E. Grant, Lizzo, and Adele, with hearts sprinkled throughout.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Spotify, Handout/Helene Marie Pambrun via Getty Images, Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images, and Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images.

It may be the case that all artists begin as fans, but lately, many have stopped hiding it or confining it to their pre-fame past. Historically, artists have often portrayed themselves as above it all, as rock stars and divas to be cheered on and worshipped, and that has included when they meet other artists, whether on a set or while being introduced backstage at a gig. As the ascendant singer, rapper, and flautist Lizzo put it recently, “I’ve never approached an artist and been like, ‘Hi, I’m a huge fan.’ ”

But recently a new model has been emerging: the artist as stan. Take Lizzo herself. In a tribute to Missy Elliott taped for the VMAs last Monday, she appeared to some to have tears in her eyes when she talked about what the trailblazing rapper meant to her. A week earlier, she similarly seemed to get emotional as she told the Today show about living her dream of getting to know Missy: “To have a relationship like that with one of your heroes is, like, one of the greatest things. I can’t even believe I can call her a friend.

We’re not talking about a one-fandom woman. Lizzo has also dubbed her main flute Sasha Flute, after Sasha Fierce. And hey, the flute has fans too, with 243,000 accounts following @sashabefluting on Instagram. Then, when she recently picked up a new blue instrument, there was only one name Lizzo could give her in tribute. “I went to Hawaii, and she was mad,” she said, “so when it was time to go on tour, she was like, ‘You taking my cousin, Blew Ivy.’ ” That’s two flutes, one named after Beyoncé’s alter ego and one after her eldest child. As for whether they’ve ever met, Lizzo has said, “I always say ‘Nope!’ Because I’m so scared, like I’m so scared to meet her.”

The same day that the VMAs aired Lizzo’s fangirling about Missy Elliott, Rolling Stone published a new cover story about Harry Styles, and it was about as much about Harry Styles’ fanboy enthusiasm for other artists as it was about Harry Styles. In one scene, he plays Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield a little-known interview clip from David Bowie and “recites along,” knowing every word.

But it’s not Bowie whom Styles spends most of the profile fanning out over. It’s Stevie Nicks. Styles has a long history of rhapsodizing about his idol and favorite Fleetwood Mac member. Inducting her into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, he gushed, “Somewhere around 2005, 2006, this woman became God.” In preparation for meeting her for the first time, back in 2015, he brought her a carrot cake iced in tribute. “Piped her name onto it. She loved it,” he said. And even though, backstage at the Rock Hall, she might have forgotten which boy band he was in (she accidentally said he was a member of ’N Sync), it doesn’t seem to have put a damper on his fervor: The two singers are now friends. Nor does that stop him from gazing at her in adoration and constantly mentioning her when he’s not singing her songs.

Not that this is all entirely new. Lizzo isn’t even the first star to come out as a card-carrying member of the Beyhive. When Adele dedicated her Grammys acceptance speech to Beyoncé in 2017, saying, “The artist of my life is Beyoncé,” many fans—of both artists—connected, because they could see themselves in her. The British singer-songwriter has been out as a Beyoncé superfan for a long time. Her own alter ego is called Sasha Carter, after Sasha Fierce and country’s own June Carter. Like Lizzo, Adele struggled with the idea of meeting her heroine. “I was about to meet Beyoncé,” she told Rolling Stone, “and I had a full-blown anxiety attack. Then she popped in looking gorgeous, and said, ‘You’re amazing! When I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to God.’ Can you believe she said that?”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to musicians either, or to millennials. When 62-year-old actor Richard E. Grant posted a video to Twitter in which he lost it over meeting his childhood idol Barbra Streisand, it made his late return to stardom and success all the sweeter. Of his love for Babs, he said, in hushed tones, “It feels as fierce and loyal as ever it was, and it’s keeping me young.” Similarly, when Russell T. Davies revived Doctor Who, he was already a stan so hardcore he worked niche references to it into his work on other shows. Whovians loved him for it and love him still, thinking of him as one of their own.

Because women, and women of color in particular—see Rukmini Pande’s book about fandom and race, Squee From the Margins—are still routinely stigmatized and excluded from fandom spaces and face barriers to becoming artists themselves, it is especially validating and exciting for fans when creative women of all races and backgrounds support and stan for each other, without being embarrassed or worrying about appearing “professional,” letting the world know that it is both fine and good. Adele can be working-class and shout about loving Bey, and Janelle Monáe and Lizzo can be black and queer (or at least Lizzbian) and talk about being happy to breathe the same air as each other, and both Fandroids and fellow Lizzbians love to see it, just like critics and fans alike enjoyed it when Monáe got to work with Prince.

The stars might have something to gain from it too. The distance between star and fan shrinks when artists acknowledge the fandoms they themselves are part of. That relatability makes fans feel warmer and fuzzier and happier for their idols and for themselves, and that in turn can add intensity to their fandom.

Presenting oneself as cool or distant does, of course, still work for many. Mystique hasn’t lost its appeal. After all, the artist who inspired so many of the other artists mentioned in this piece and the one whose fan army is perhaps most famous for its intensity, Beyoncé, has herself retained this kind of old Hollywood glamour. While she certainly admires other artists (close observers will have noted how often her own work references, for example, Michael Jackson), she came to stardom via the old model, maintaining her status less by appearing relatable than by appearing godlike and unreachable, like she’s Madonna or Liz Taylor or Liza Minnelli or Grant’s own fave, Barbra Streisand.

And not all artists may be comfortable showing their standom in public. When New York magazine reported in April that Lil Nas X, the artist behind this year’s biggest song, once ran a stan account, he insisted on denying it, even as few seemed to believe him.

But it seems that other artists are discovering that there’s another route, one enabled and encouraged by social media, a forum they can share with their fans. For many stans, it’s one more way that stars can be “just like us.”