“You are a simple people,” The 1975′s Matty Healy declared from the stage at 3Arena in Dublin last January. Delivered in the singer’s deadpan leer, the observation was in response to an impromptu chorus of “Olé, Olé, Olé” emanating from the sell-out audience.
He wasn’t the first visiting pop star puzzled by Ireland’s love for “Olé, Olé, Olé”. “Are you still singing that?” Noel Gallagher sighed at the Olympia in 2011. Hilariously, Beyoncé misheard another singalong at Croke Park in 2016 and joined in on a reprise of “Okay, okay, okay…oooookay.”
Healy wasn’t okay with “Olé, Olé, Olé”. Nor was he relaxed about a headline about to run in a British tabloid accusing him (incorrectly) of giving a right-wing salute. “The Sun are going to run a story about me being a Nazi tomorrow,” he gasped to 3Arena. But five months later, as the band returned to Dublin on Wednesday night for a show at St Anne’s Park, both controversies have been overshadowed by an even thornier question: is this man a suitable boyfriend for Taylor Swift?
Swift was still believed to be dating actor Joe Alwyn – the most boring thing in the BBC’s very boring adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends – when Healy and his bandmates rolled into Ireland in January. However, a few nights before the 3Arena gig, Swift had put in a cameo halfway through The 1975′s concert in London, where she sang her hit Anti-Hero.
“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem,” she crooned on the chorus. But Swift’s fans feel that the real problem is Healy, with whom Swift has been publicly linked since shortly after her break-up with Alywn in April – and from whom she has now apparently split, according to a report in TMZ.
Being into Tay Tay or Queen Bey isn’t simply about enjoying their music. You are buying into the values you believe they represent
As Swift will know only too well, hard-core pop fans are the most terrifying force ever unleashed upon the internet. Whether it’s members of the Beyoncé “Bey-hive” or Justin Bieber’s “Beliebers”, hard-core “stans” go beyond mere fandom and incorporate their love for an artist into their identity. Being into Tay Tay or Queen Bey isn’t simply about enjoying their music. You are buying into the values you believe they represent: they’re not merely a singer on a stage but an entire belief system.
“Stan culture”, as this extreme fandom is called, was until recently a good deal for both artist and fan. The musician can count on positive media from journalists reluctant to write negative reviews for fear of bringing down the wrath of the fan base. Hence the toothlessness of music journalism in Ireland and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, for fans prowling Twitter sniffing out slights against their idols, there is a welcome sense of community. To be a “Swiftie” is to belong to a multitude. How comforting that must be when the internet makes us feel so alone.
But Taylor Swift has now discovered the dark side of fandom. While she never went public about a relationship with Healy, they were widely understood to be a couple (until the latest break-up bombshell). She quickly discovered her fans were less than delighted with their American Sweetheart stepping out with an artist who, were this a game of Dungeons and Dragons, would have scribbled “Bad Boy” down on his character sheet.
Healy is the anti-Joe Alwyn – he smokes on stage, is a former heroin user and has spent much of his recent tour enthusiastically snogging audience members (and, at a recent show in Denmark, a security guard).
However, when some Swift fans investigated more deeply, they found that Healy’s smarminess was one of his least objectionable qualities. That Nazi salute controversy resurfaced. As did a podcast in which he laughed as two annoying hosts mocked Brooklyn rapper Ice Spice, who is of African-American and Puerto Rican heritage (ever the diplomat, Swift later invited Ice Spice to rap on a new version of her song Karma).
Fans urged Swift to ‘reflect on the impact of your own and your associates’ behaviour’
It wasn’t merely that Healy seemed unpleasant; the fear among Swifties was that his toxicity was tainting Taylor’s brand. Some stans – the word comes from Enimem’s Stan, a song about obsession fandom – went as far as to write an open letter to Swift, distributed online with the hashtag SpeakUpNow. They urged Swift to “reflect on the impact of your own and your associates’ behaviour” and “actively engage in this process of personal and social transformation”.
Swift has neither confirmed nor denied a relationship with Healy, so the letter writers could not demand she end things with him. But they clearly felt entitled to weigh in on the company she keeps. In their zeal, Taylor Swift fans have turned their guns on Taylor Swift.
As she continues her sell-out stadium tour of North America, the singer may feel she has better things to do than get drawn into a row with her audience. She will also want to refrain from lending legitimacy to their demands by engaging with them.
But she may reflect on the monster that stan culture has become. Just how uncontrollable that beast can be was vividly illustrated in 2020 when Lankum, an experimental folk band from Dublin – imagine The Chieftains crossed with Radiohead – weighed in on a joke about Swift copying the look of her Folklore LP from their Beneath the Earth and Sky album and that she should “get some fresh ideas hun”.
This was a jest – although a rather smug one which seemed to suggest pop was less authentic than folk music performed by artists steeped in traditional musicianship. But whatever the gag’s merits, the hate unleashed via Twitter was astonishing. You could almost hear the web groan in agony as all that vitriol coursed through its veins, headed straight for Lankum.
They sensibly decoupled from the internet and let the storm play out, which it did in a few days. Having seemingly ended things with Healy, Swift may hope that SpeakUpNow will flame out just as quickly.
Nobody would deny Healy is very good at being annoying (though when I interviewed him several years ago, I found him to be thoughtful and polite). But the fact Taylor Swift may have dated an irritating bad boy does not give her fan base a veto on her romantic doings. Everyone is entitled to a personal life – even a star as ubiquitous as Taylor Swift.