When Eminem first coined the term “stan” with his 1998 song of that title, there was no way he could have seen it evolving as it has. What began as the name of his imaginary, psychological thriller-esque, celebrity-obsessed protagonist has become a widely used term that is effectively a synonym for bully, with fierce artist loyalty remaining the major through line.
“Stan” was the third single from Eminem’s third album, The Marshall Mathers LP, considered by many to be a classic of the form to this day. The track, shot through with grotesque, pitch-black humor, relates the story of an overly obsessed fan from the first-person perspective of a series of letters written to Eminem by his fictitious admirer.
Over a haunting sample of “Thank You” by English singer Dido, Stan details the depths of his obsession with Eminem, becoming more and more unhinged as the song progresses. He goes from expressing his admiration to accusing Em of ignoring his letters to recording a suicide note as he drives his car over a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend trapped in the trunk.
In the song’s final verse, the grim irony of Stan’s permanent solution to his temporary problems becomes clear. Eminem, once again in his own voice, explains his reasons for not responding, expresses concern and dismay at Stan’s admission of self-harm, and comes to the realization that the tragic news story he heard in passing was that of Stan’s self-inflicted demise.
The intent of the song, according to Eminem, was to address fans’ and critics’ reception of the cartoonishly violent content of his previous album, The Slim Shady LP. The tone of “Stan” is admonitory rather than hilarious, as some of his previous, darker-tinged content had been. He seemed to be telling his fans to chill out, as obsessive behavior of that sort is clearly unhealthy.
It wasn’t long, however, until “stan” had entered common parlance as a term for an overly invested fanatic of a public figure, becoming so ubiquitous that it was entered into the Oxford Dictionary as an informal noun in 2015, meaning “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity.” It was added to Merriam-Webster this past April.
In 2019, “stan culture” permeates the sphere of social media, as celebrities encourage their fan groups, bestowing them with clever titles like Arianators, Barbz, the Beyhive, Little Monsters, and referring to them as the “Army” or “Navy” (no Marines, yet, thankfully). Stans often take it upon themselves to promote and support their chosen celebrity’s endeavors, helping hashtags go viral, going on all-day streaming binges to overtake the charts, and defend their faves from criticism.
It’s in that last function that modern stans have begun to transform the term from its original incarnation as an overzealous fan to outright bullying. Fanbases like the Barbz have become notorious for their harassment campaigns against anyone who dare impugn or demean the work of their patrons. In one example, fans threatened and harassed a journalist, Wanna Thompson, who requested Nicki Minaj switch up her music on her next release.
There was the assault on the comments of a Tracy Chapman fan page on Instagram when it was revealed that Nicki had pushed back her album Queen due to an uncleared Chapman sample. The war of words — and flying footwear — between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B was exacerbated by fans who doxxed Cardi’s sister and took every opportunity to troll one or the other on behalf of their declared champion.
Twenty years after its inception, “Stan” is rapidly turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who identify as stans online have used the anonymity of the internet to fulfill violent power fantasies in much the same way the original song’s fictional protagonist does in the song’s violent conclusion. While the bullying and threatening have thankfully remained online only, for the time being, there are hints that it could start to spill out in the real world at any time.
Last year, after Drake and Pusha T exchanged battle raps, rambunctious concertgoers at Pusha’s show in Drake’s hometown, Toronto, rushed the stage, slinging liquid at Pusha and getting the concert shut down with their violent outburst. While it was never confirmed that the perpetrators felt they were acting on behalf of Drake, speculation online reached a fever pitch; it seemed that there was at least some truth behind Drake’s assertion that he never retaliated to Pusha’s “Story Of Adidon” because he didn’t want the hostilities to engulf uninvolved parties.
In the above-mentioned situation involving the journalist who was perceived to have insulted Nicki Minaj, the writer was let go from her PR job in the wake of the campaign against her — if not as a direct result. While social media protests have been an effective tool against injustice, in this case, the only offense was that someone shared a trivial opinion about music.
Some stars, like emerging Texas talent Megan Thee Stallion, do work to reign in their fans when they turn negative, but in many cases, there are just too many and stars don’t always have the resources to reach them all. Some appear to goad their followers, using them as a de facto attack dog to shut down any and all criticism.
Ironically, Eminem himself seems to be one of those who is only too happy to weaponize his fanbase — or at least, he seems content to leave them be as they obsessively search his name on Twitter and Reddit, insulting, spamming, and threatening critical voices who dare to demand new creative direction. His lashing out at critics on albums like Kamikaze only seems to incite them further.
Stan culture is a monster Eminem saw coming in 1998. While he’s not directly responsible for it, he did predict its rise and give it a name. Unfortunately, it seems the lesson he tried to impart with his cautionary, macabre tale was lost. Stan culture, it appears, is here to stay — the difference is, the reality is even stranger than the fiction.