June 26, 2023 - 1:30pm

Internet fandoms just ate Glastonbury Festival. Rina Sawayama, a Japanese-heritage British pop singer, introduced her song “STFU” by “calling out” label-mate Matty Healy, lead singer with The 1975, for making racist jokes on a podcast.

Sawayama that she wrote the song “because I was sick and tired of microaggressions” and dedicated it to “a white man who watches [pornography series] Ghetto Gaggers and mocks Asian people on a podcast. He also owns my masters [master recordings]. I’ve had enough.”

Wait, what? None of this makes sense outside the context of fandoms — which, the internet historian Katherine Dee argues, now comprise literally everything. Name a topic, and at least someone will be sufficiently into it to seek out other topic obsessives and form online social groups ordered around (or arguing about) devotion to that topic. And just recently, hating Matty Healy has emerged as an important adjunct to one of the biggest fandoms there is: Taylor Swift’s. 

The main reason so many people have now heard of Healy is because he was briefly reported to have been dating Swift — a musician with such a colossal fan following that at one point all ten of the Top Ten chart singles were Taylor Swift songs. “Swifties”, as her obsessive followers are known, instantly went into protective-auntie mode, conducting the most rigorous imaginable background check on the new boyfriend of their parasocial object of devotion. Healy was then revealed to have made some off-colour remarks, at which point the Swifties went bananas

There is no way Sawayama was unaware of this. I haven’t taken a close interest in the music charts since 1996 yet even I was aware of the Healy/Swift internet controversy. For Sawayama, then, “calling out” Healy onstage was an intricate act of intra-fandom signalling. In effect, it piggybacked on a much larger fandom — the Swifties — and captured some of that group’s unhinged intensity for herself. And it worked, after a fashion: her set resulted in a few mentions in music magazines, but that one remark has generated a slew of coverage in the mainstream press. 

This ephemeral incident is illuminating because, as Dee points out, the same phenomena can be found across a multitude of topics — including politics. It took barely a few hours for a “Russian mutiny” fandom to emerge, as the world watched the bewildering events over the weekend. And, much as in the tangential relationship between Sawayama’s real-life Glastonbury gig and the moment that got all the press coverage, what’s really happening on the ground is of secondary importance to such fandoms, which mostly feed on — and are energised by — their interactions with one another.

The Sawayama moment also illustrates the reciprocal relationship between fans and their object of devotion: a phenomenon known as audience capture, in which the desires of fans begin to shape their object, sometimes to a grotesque degree. Did the fan response trigger Swift’s break-up with Healy? I dare say the Swifties would like to think so. (Arguably the reason J.K. Rowling is now so routinely vilified is that she makes absolutely no concession to the audience capture dynamic, robbing her most obsessive potential followers of a sense of agency.) And at Glastonbury, we saw another unrelated musician joining the same emotive shared meaning-space, for her own unrelated ends. 

While this is mere froth when it’s the music industry, we should take seriously the capacity of collective fandoms to divert and shape political currents. My recollection of the early days of Covid, for example, was of leaders’ genuine uncertainty about how to act — an uncertainty dispelled the moment online consensus settled in favour of lockdown. 

In other words: the Sawayama incident illustrates in microcosm just how much of what we call “politics” today comprises, or catalyses, the interaction of something akin to digitally-mediated swarm intelligences. It also illustrates just how far the preoccupations of those swarms have only a tangential relationship to facts on the ground — facts which continue to be real whatever the swarm thinks, or wants. Anyone who still imagines we have a rational public square, in which truth is sure to win out, really hasn’t been paying attention. 

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.