Who do you stan for? Daniel Day-Lewis? Taylor Swift? Arcade Fire? The Red Sox?
And how enthusiastically do you stan? Not long ago, BuzzFeed published a listicle bearing the headline “16 People Who Stan Harder Than You.”
To stan is to be an obsessive fan of someone. The term, derived from the 2000 Eminem song “Stan,” illustrates how an aging pop-culture reference can take on new life. It also offers some insight into what fandom does and doesn’t mean in the 21st century.
The song itself is about an unhinged, stalker-ish fan who ends up driving himself and his pregnant girlfriend off a bridge. In a lengthy message to Stan, Eminem makes the understatement of the year: “You got some issues, Stan, I think you need some counselin’.” “Stan” was then used as shorthand for an unstable fan in Nas’ 2001 song “Ether” before morphing into a lower-case verb, turning up in social media since at least 2008.
Over time, the term evolved from a pejorative to a badge of honor. As Ann-Derrick Gaillot wrote for The Outline, “Stans all over the world label themselves as such to express just how dedicated they are to a particular artist and their fandom.”
Today, stanning declarations are routine on Twitter. As user @HeiryzMylisza puts it: “I just want to say, that I may regret a lot of things I have done in life, but stanning [the boy band] EXO will never be one of them.” As a tweet by @korndiddy shows, you can love an album, but stanning is for artists: “I would like to go on record saying I stan Lorde, I love [her album] Melodrama, and I wish her all the happiness in the world.” From social media, the term is spreading to popular online publications such as BuzzFeed and the AV Club.
Taken literally, the term “stan” reinforces the idea that fans are strange rangers who unquestionably and uncomfortably love the object of their fandom. Not so, argues Jonathan Gray, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and editor of the collection “Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World.”
“People often assume that a fan is someone who unquestioningly loves their object,” he said in a phone interview. But in fact, “there’s a big corrective impulse.” We see this when Trekkies blast subpar Star Trek or when Batman fans lament the casting of Ben Affleck (or, in the past, Michael Keaton). Gray said, “Fans are attracted by what they think their fan object represents at its best,” and their vast knowledge makes them “critically astute.” A great example of this is “The Phantom Edit,” a fan attempt to fix “The Phantom Menace,” the oft-maligned “Star Wars” prequel. You can stan Darth Vader without losing your critical distance.
In the never-entirely-serious world of Internet parlance, the very absurdity of a term like “stan” buys the speaker points for edginess and self-deprecation. Even as stans proclaim their boundless devotion, they’re obviously joking at the same time.
For people whose fandom defines their identity, who you stan for is also what you stand for. To participate in fandom at that level once took a certain amount of effort. In the pre-Internet age, fan subcultures were defined by once-a-year conferences and zines sent by snail mail. But when you can just declare yourself a fan over social media, people who really, really mean it will gravitate toward more extreme terminology.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.