20 years of ‘stans’: How an Eminem song changed the way we talk about fandom

In 2020, you can stan for just about anything.

You might be a Carly Rae Jepsen stan or a Timothée Chalamet stan. Maybe you stan the cauliflower gnocchi at Trader Joe’s (you wouldn’t be alone there).

It’s possible you’ve even read news articles about stanning. In our highly politically charged year, stan communities have made headlines for their involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 presidential race.

For the uninitiated, a stan — a portmanteau of the words “stalker” and “fan” — is basically just a way to describe someone who’s very obsessed with someone or something.

The word draws its origins from the Eminem song of the same name, which, as of November 2020, is officially two decades years old. The track, as you might imagine, centers around “Stan,” an Eminem-obsessed megafan who writes the rapper a series of increasingly frightening letters.

So, how did we get from a creepy Eminem song to BTS fans raising money for Black Lives Matter?

The word’s meaning has changed a lot over the past 20 years, but one thing is undeniable: It’s become a vital part of the way we define ourselves and the things we love.

That’s why, with the intensity and focus of a super-obsessed fan, In The Know has put together a brief history of stanning — and how the concept has evolved over time.

2000-2007: ‘Dear Slim’

In 2000, it never would’ve seemed like “Stan” could become one of the most influential songs of the millennium. The track was only a minor hit at the time, peaking no higher than No. 51 on the Billboard charts.

That was enough to make an impact though. The word “stan” found its way into rap music almost immediately, including in the lyrics of Nas’ infamous 2001 diss track, “Ether.”

In the song, Nas calls his then-nemesis Jay-Z a “fake” and a “phony,” as well as, of course, a “stan.” The shot was an effective one — partially because, back then, the word had nothing but negative connotations.

This perspective (using stan as an insult) closely matches Eminem’s original intentions. His “Stan” is desperate and needy, willing to do anything that might impress his favorite artist.

“Dear Slim, I wrote you but still ain’t callin’,” the first verse in “Stan” begins. “I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom.”

2008-2012: Only true Beliebers

According to the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary (yes, they keep track of this stuff), the word “stan” wasn’t used as a verb until 2008. That moment coincided with a new era for the word, during which it seemed like everyone decided stanning wasn’t so bad after all.

Soon, musicians had their own, distinctly named fanbases. Beyoncé has her Beyhive, Rihanna has her Navy and, of course, Justin Bieber has Beliebers.

This is nothing new obviously. The Beatles and Elvis both had their own diehard fans, and you could even argue that stanning goes back to Franz Liszt, the 19th-century pianist who sparked a “Lisztomania” with his wild, exciting tours through Europe.

The 2010s took it to another level though. It seemed like every major artist had a hive of dedicated, self-identifying fans (even Imagine Dragons has its “Firebreathers“). The individuals in these groups, although diverse in their own right, were essentially stans.

2013-2017: Real recognition

Even as stanning became a totally common way to describe fandom, Eminem was still in the dark about his own song.

The rapper seemed to find out about stan culture for the very first time in 2013, during an interview with Rolling Stone. When the magazine asked him if he knew “Stan” had created its own word, Eminem replied, “Wow, that’s crazy. Oh, that’s funny.”

A few years later, the word made it to an even higher authority. In 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognized stan as both a noun and a verb, citing Eminem’s song as the word’s likely origin.

2018-2019: Bullying and toxicity

Of course, it wouldn’t be the internet if something didn’t go wrong. Stanning has only become more common over the past two decades, but that ubiquity comes with a downside.

Pop culture has had an issue with toxic, controlling super-fandom for so long that there’s a “Saturday Night Live” sketch about it. In that skit, which aired in 2014, a secretive “Beygency” literally hunts down a guy just because he slightly criticized Beyoncé.

It plays like a joke, but real life isn’t always much different. At times, stans have used their power and numbers to wreak havoc against anyone who disagrees with their obsession.

That can sometimes result in lighthearted campaigns — like when thousands of Lady Gaga fans submitted negative reviews of the movie “Venom,” which had been competing in theaters with Gaga’s “A Star Is Born” — but, other times, it can be far more dangerous.

Take Wanna Thompson for example. In 2018, the then-26-year-old wrote a single, jokingly negative tweet about Nikki Minaj. She was immediately bombarded with thousands of derogatory comments, hateful tweets and violent messages. According to the New York Times, Nikki stans even told Thompson to kill herself.

While they’re not always this dire, these kinds of attacks do occur on a regular basis in certain fan communities. As the NME pointed out in 2019, stan culture started to drift closer to resembling its inspiration, the defensive, problematic character Eminem describes in his song.

2020: K-pop and activism

In 2020, stanning has looked a lot less toxic. It’s true that the negativity surrounding stan culture hasn’t disappeared, but the last year has brought plenty of reasons to celebrate the power of organized mega-fans.

K-pop has had a lot to do with this. Fans of groups like BTS and Blackpink are some of the most dedicated in the world. These stan groups are massive; they’re also global, coordinated and extremely active online.

That’s why, even if you know nothing about K-pop, you’ve probably still heard of its stans. They’ve been popping up in national news headlines throughout 2020 — whether it’s raising money for Black Lives Matter, spamming hateful hashtags off Twitter or combatting conspiracy rhetoric.

In many ways, this is the true power of stanning. Obsessing over BTS gives young people around the world a way to organize, and, as a result, a community strong enough to enact true political change. That’s a pretty powerful thing, and it’s a lot more meaningful than just being a “stalker fan.”

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s profile on America’s biggest K-pop fans.

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