WHY do teenage girls express genuine anguish – almost reminiscent of real-life heartbreak – when a boy band splits, leaving them in a state of starstruck despair?
What is it about the semi-synchronised dance moves and perfectly manicured hairstyles of boy bands like One Direction and the Beatles that spur infectious excitement among women the world over?
Perhaps it is the new spiky hairstyle of their unrequited boy band crush, or the overly trite, romanticised lyrics that give rise to a fully-fledged boy band fascination, or maybe there is more to this all-encompassing obsession – a deeper, more profoundly moving encounter – than first meets the eye.
Jessica Leski, director of I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, certainly believes that to be the case.
At 31, Leski “fell in love” with her first boy band, she said in an interview with The AJN, but the director and co-producer is also quick to admit her initial misjudgment of boy band fandom.
“I just thought the fans were there to scream and cry, and it wasn’t until I’d started interacting with them online and in person that I realised they are so much smarter and funnier [than that] and are having really significant experiences,” says the Bialik College graduate, whose documentary, The Ball, was nominated for an AACTA award in 2012.
The project has been a long time in the making, with filming having taken place over four years, and support from a group of generous donors, money raised from crowdfunding, and the team’s own funds working to make Leski’s vision a reality.
Tracing the trajectory of four boy band-obsessed women from different generations, Leski, along with her co-producer Rita Walsh, felt compelled to showcase the lighter, care-free components of boy band fandom – the easy listening, innocent lyrics, colourfully captivating videos – while conveying that the meaning ascribed to boy bands runs deeper than mere surface-level teenage fandom.
“These four characters are so fascinating because they fall in love with their boy bands in the typical way early on, but the bands and the music provide a real sense of comfort to them in challenging times,” she says.
Elif, a 16-year-old One Direction fan from Long Island, is the child of Muslim Turkish immigrants.
“She is battling with how to reconcile doing what her family wants her to do, and being a young girl in America,” explains Leski.
Nearly 10 years her senior, Backstreet Boys fan Sadia from San Francisco, and the daughter of Muslim Pakistani parents, was 25 when the film began.
“Sadia is very academic, and found ways to [bridge] her boy band fandom and her intellect,” Leski remarks. “She credits the Backstreet Boys for leading her to a career in journalism.”
With her curious, analytical mind, Sadia “questions whether boy band lyrics, which are so romantic and sentimental, have given her unrealistic ideas for what a relationship should be like”, comments Leski.
“I don’t know the answer to that. Their lyrics are soppy, but so much of pop music is misogynistic, so what is wrong with a girl aspiring to be with a man who is romantic or sentimental? I don’t know if that is such a bad thing.
“The challenge is making sure you can see that they are just playing a character. Their real-life characters are probably nothing like what they sing about, so it’s about picking the characteristics that you like, and looking for that in a real-life person, and not just dedicating your life to a particular -personality.”
These are wise words from Leski. Boy band hysteria should not come at the expense of appreciating individual quirks that characterise the focus of their fascination, which Leski herself excels at when portraying the women in her film.
Next up is 33-year-old Dana, a brand strategist and Take That fan from Sydney.
“Dana is very drawn to boy bands, and probably was when she was young too, because of the focus on styling, [such as] figuring out what colour it is that makes boy bands look coherent, and how the lighting works in concert,” says Leski.
Having become swept up in Beatlemania decades ago when a dear friend was dying, Susan, a 64-year-old TV producer from Melbourne, is proof of how head over heels fascination with boy bands has been ever-present for decades.
“You kind of forget that the film is about boy bands when you watch it,” comments Leski. “You just get to see these girls and women grow up and change over those few years.”
Leski herself goes on a journey through the years of filming; her interactions with the four women redefined her perception of boy band hysteria, and opened her to a new perspective on religious differences with a deep bond ensuing between her and the Muslim women depicted in the film.
“What was so amazing was how easy it was for us to relate to each other, how similar we actually are, and the values we hold are similar – the focus on food and family, the pressures that you feel to succeed academically, and a kind of conflict to stay within your community as well as branch out and experience the world,” she says.
“It was really special for me to see how easy it was for us to connect.”
As for her own perception of boy bands, Leski explains: “In the beginning I was confused [by the boy band phenomenon] and I wanted to try and understand it. That even meant that in the early stages of the film, I was speaking to experts, songwriters or psychologists, to try and understand what had happened to me.
“As we started to make the film I realised that I didn’t need to analyse it, I just felt really lucky that this thing that made me happy had happened to me and brought me into this really fun world … That was a really nice place to come to, to not feel as though I needed to justify it.”
REPORT: SOPHIE DEUTSCH