I remember the day the *NSYNC album "No Strings Attached" was released. It was 2000, I was 11-years-old, and I had begged my mom to buy it for me during her lunch break so that I could have it immediately when I got home from school. I had a poster of *NSYNC wearing sparkly silver suits (no joke) on one wall of my room, and a poster of Backstreet Boys on the other. Although the idea of "fandom" didn't exist in the same way when I was a pre-teen, I would definitely have been part of it. And that has mostly continued through my mid-twenties. Basically, I love me a good ol' fashioned boyband, OK? So, of course, I was going to pick up Zan Romanoff's YA novel Grace and the Fever eventually. But what I didn't realize was that it would have me thinking of our culture's boyband obsession in a whole new way.
Here's the plot: In middle school, everyone was a Fever Dream fan. Now, a few weeks after her high school graduation, Grace Thomas sometimes feels like the only one who never moved on. She can't imagine what she'd do without the community of online fans that share her obsession — or what her IRL friends would say if they ever found out about it. Then, one summer night, the unthinkable happens: Grace meets her idol, Jes. What starts out as an elusive glimpse of Fever Dream's world turns into an unlikely romance, and leads her to confront dark, complex truths about herself and the realities of stardom.
It's that last bit about the dark, complex truths about herself and the realities of stardom that really set Romanoff's book apart from other fandom-based YA books I've read. So many people have spoken about boyband fandom, particularly in reference to One Direction, which Fever Dream is inspired by, in ways both celebratory and sinister. People either believe that the realm of the boyband allows girls (and women) a space that is unabashedly their own, where they are free from the male gaze and can be wholly themselves or that fandom is a dangerous, unhealthy fantasy. But with Grace and the Fever, Romanoff explores what it is about fandom that attracts us in the first place. And it completely changed the way I think about my own boyband obsession.
There is a scene after Grace has already been photographed with Fever Dream member, Jes. A bunch of girls from the fandom have camped out at the coffee shop where Grace works, desperate to see Jes's "new fling" in person... and hoping Jes might stop by, too. Romanoff writes Grace's thoughts:
"Why? Grace wants to ask them, but she knows the answer. She was going to do the same thing outside of the hotel Fever Dream was staying in; she would have, if Jes hadn't shown up on her street the night before. They do it because they're bored and hungry, because they've found something that makes them feel happy and like things are possible, and they're set on chasing that high. They're tired of being told that they're silly or small or that they want things that aren't going to happen to them. They've set out to make something happen, or at least to be there to see it when it happens to someone else."
Whenever I've thought about my love of the boyband in the past, it's been about the music, about the fun of the almost all-girl shows, about the laughs over the process of very deliberately picking your favorite member. But there is a deeper element of escapism to fandom that I never fully realized until I saw it through Grace's eyes. Being a teenager, especially a teenage girl, is hard. Hell, being a woman in your twenties is hard. You spend so much of your time as a young woman being told to stop dreaming big. And although the idea that our own hopes of living a fulfilling, exciting life can be projected onto a group of teen boys maybe doesn't make sense at first glance, it's an idea that is totally revelatory.
Because that's just it: these bands are, in so many ways, projections. The world that we create around our favorite boybands is the world that they then have to live up to, not the other way around, and so they're purposefully manufactured to fit into that world. This is what Grace discovers when she is thrust into the universe of Fever Dream — the reality is never as good as the illusion fans have created for themselves. The boys are not quite the simple caricatures they've been laid out as, the rumors are always spread for a reason, there are secrets and strategies, and the fandom doesn't always come out on top. Because although casual fans are content never to peek underneath the curtain, the fandom wants all the details of what goes on beyond the velvet rope — even if it means they'll be disappointed.
But what now strikes me the most about the boyband world, and it's something Romanoff touches on here, is that even when they're messy, even when they fall apart at the seams, even when their gritty human underbelly starts to show beneath the polished veneer... we still keep coming back for more. There will always be another boyband. Not because girls need boys to obsess over, but because they will always seek out another chance to come together and say, "This is our thing, and we don't care if you like it."
"Some people will stick around longer than others. Everyone will drift off to something new eventually. If you stick around, you'll run into people year from now and recognize their username, and say, Wait a minute, didn't you write that classic Lolly fic? or whatever. And they'll be like, Oh my god, I can't believe you remember that. That's the good news: the content changes, but there's always like, fic, and vids, and wank. God, there's always wank, trust me. The community is real. The way we are together. That stuff is eternal."
Maybe, in the end, it's not about the band at all. It turns out to be true for Grace. It's not about the boys, however swoon-worthy they are, or even about the music, the tours, the interviews, or the merch... it's about the girls. It's about the choice girls make to "chase a high" — to refuse to be told that they're too silly, too young, and too insignificant for anything big ever to happen to them; that they'll never have a grand adventure, or a great love, that they'll never make anything worthwhile. And that's really the biggest gift Fever Dream could ever give Grace, and our own boybands give the rest of us: the gift of each other, and a refusal to believe our own lives could ever, will ever, be small.