To wave a flag: Identification, #BlackLivesMatter, and populism in Harry Styles fandom

Allyson Gross

Goldsmiths, University of London, London, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—Scholarship on the influence of celebrity politics often highlights the role of identification in the process of fans' own politicization and centers how a star's politics shift those of their fans. In a series of interviews with fans of musician Harry Styles, this research explores how identification with the singer instead served as the basis for fans' own attempts at shifting Styles's political expression to represent their own values. Drawing on the populist theory of Ernesto Laclau, I argue that Harry Styles fans relate to him as a populist unifier and collective representative of the fandom's values, and mobilize his image for their own political purpose. Rather than passively consuming his music and image, fans rhetorically construct Styles as a collective, popular object through identification with his star image, and they project their own values into the void of his signification. Through an exploration of fans' perception of his values, vague rhetoric, and engagement with #BlackLivesMatter, Harry Styles fans provide a useful new framework through which to explore the populist potential of fandom.

[0.2] Keywords—Celebrity activism; Ernesto Laclau; Identity; One Direction; Pop music

Gross, Allyson. 2020. "To Wave a Flag: Identification, #BlackLivesMatter, and Populism in Harry Styles Fandom." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] When Yann Barthès, host of the French talk show Quotidien, asked pop star Harry Styles about Brexit in April 2017, the singer demurred, replying, "I don't really comment on politics. To me, anything that brings people together is better than things that pull people apart." Barthès continued, citing Styles's repeated and public support of the LGBTQ+ community. As a member of the British-Irish boy band One Direction, Styles had made a habit of waving LGBTQ+ pride flags at concerts (Mattia 2018); fans and media alike had popularly deemed him a "queer icon" (Rubin 2018). On Quotidien, however, Styles eschewed any political implications: "That doesn't feel like politics to me. I think stuff like equality feels much more fundamental." Styles repeated this sentiment in Rolling Stone magazine when he defined equal rights "for everyone, all races, sexes, everything" as "fundamentals" (Crowe 2017). While he eventually admitted to the Sunday Times that he was "probably going to vote for whoever is against Brexit," his rationale—that "the world should be more about being together and being better together and joining together" retained the ambiguity of his party line (Murison 2017).

[1.2] Rhetorically, these statements are Politics Lite. "Togetherness" and "equality" are edgeless, uncontroversial signifiers of a liberal-leaning position, which evoke the same kind of polite sentiment as Styles's slogan, "Treat People With Kindness." But although Styles is reticent to associate his public ethos with "politics," his fans have repeatedly made his shows political spaces (Garland 2017; Gross 2017; Leszkiewicz 2017). Around the world on tour throughout 2017 and 2018, fans brought LGBTQ+ pride flags and #BlackLivesMatter signs with the intent to not only affirm their own identities within the "safe space" of his concerts (Khan 2017), but also to receive recognition and support from Styles himself.

[1.3] This analysis explores how fans relate to Harry Styles as a populist representative of the fandom, and mobilize his image for their own political purpose. Utilizing fourteen interviews conducted throughout Styles's 2018 world tour, I argue that fans' relationship to Styles is similar to that of Ernesto Laclau's "the people" and the populist leader, who unites the differences among them through an equivalential chain of signification (Laclau 2002). Through an analysis of Laclau's work, I apply populist theory to fans' differential understandings of the singer and to the rhetorical "emptiness" of his signifier to position Styles as a populist unifier. Then I explore how fans relate to, identify with, and interpret his public performance. Finally, I explore politics and representation within the fandom to analyze how fans relate to Styles as a value-based representative of the collective. The resulting collective construction of Styles ultimately positions him as more than just a consumed fan object. As fans relate to and attempt to shift the pop star's own performed politics, Harry Styles also becomes a representative embodiment of his own fandom's values through the mobilization of his image toward support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

2. Methodology

[2.1] This case study relies on interview data pulled from research for my master's dissertation in the department of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, between April and July of 2018. In this time, I interviewed fourteen fans on the European and North American legs of Styles's world tour. The interviews were semistructured and were framed to the participants as guided conversations focused on the ways fans related to and thought about their relationship with Styles, how they understood his personality, and how they perceived his politics. Each interview took place before one of Styles's concerts, and each lasted between forty minutes and one hour. The participants ranged from eighteen to forty years old and were from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and the Philippines. Thirteen participants identified as female; one identified as genderqueer/gender fluid. The participants were chosen after responding to an online call for participants on Twitter and Tumblr in March of 2018.

[2.2] The following analysis applies scholarship in fan studies, celebrity studies, and populist theory to my original research within the Harry Styles fandom. This work contributes to this body of scholarship by providing a case study for fan identification and interpretation, and provides a unique, populist lens through which to view fan political engagement, which culminates in an analysis of fans' engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Through this case, my study interrogates the limits of the previously mentioned scholarship as well as attempts to expand its bounds.

3. Filling the void: On rhetorical emptiness and kindness

[3.1] In a review of Styles's October 2017 show in London, Emma Garland wrote for the UK music website Noisey, "Harry Styles is a faithful disciple of silence" (Garland 2017). The following spring, Styles fan Erinn, age 37, echoed this statement when she called him "an evasive bugger when it comes to answering questions." This silence and evasion is often literal. Fans met Styles's initial response to #BlackLivesMatter signs at concerts—after posting photos of the signs on Instagram—with frustration at his lack of verbal affirmation of the movement. This indirectness, combined with what Arianna, age 30, called Styles's "controlled" presence on social media, has bred a public reputation for mystery that verges on blankness. Rare access to Styles online and off necessitates, as a result, a variety of interpretive strategies for piecing together who he is, and with what pieces of him fans identify. Although Styles told Rolling Stone that he's "not…trying to be this mysterious character," his aversion to social media and the relative dearth of in-depth interviews have contributed to fans' engagement with him as an empty signifier (Crowe 2017). Fans construct Styles as a Laclauian popular object by filling in the gaps of his rhetorical emptiness and uniting around their different interpretations of his signification.

[3.2] Ernesto Laclau's On Populist Reason (2002) is first and foremost a work of political theory, intended for application to popular movements and identities. In his work, Laclau makes the case for an understanding of populism as an ideologically untethered, rhetorically constructed unification of a collective through identification with an empty signifier. This means that populism is not inherently right-wing or left, but rather is a form in which the identity of a public—a "people"—emerges and becomes unified among its difference through a leader.

[3.3] Laclau defines an "empty signifier" as "a place, within the system of signification, which is constitutively irrepresentable; in that sense it remains empty, but this is an emptiness which I can signify, because we are dealing with a void within signification" (2002, 105). To the extent that we might understand Styles as this empty signifier, it's in how he signifies himself while simultaneously constructing a void into which fans might project. This is not to say that Styles himself is empty, but rather that he signifies emptily. One example of this empty signification in action is Styles's slogan-turned-charity initiative, Treat People With Kindness (TPWK).

[3.4] TPWK first became associated with Styles in April of 2017, when he appeared on the television show Saturday Night Live with a small button featuring the phrase pinned to his guitar strap. When Styles hit the road five months later, a wide variety of TPWK merchandise—T-shirts, tote bags, journals, and pins—was made available for purchase on tour and online. In 2018, Styles expanded TPWK into a charity initiative, through which he donated profits from sales of TPWK-branded hair ties and a portion of ticket sales to local organizations in each city the tour visited. The funds raised totaled more than $1.2 million and benefited a range of recipients, from centers for treatment of childhood cancer, to the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund against sexual assault in the workplace. According to Styles's management, the organizations benefiting from TPWK were directly chosen by Harry himself.

[3.5] Throughout this research, fans articulated that TPWK aligned with their understanding of Styles, or what Cornel Sandvoss has called the "textual boundaries" of their fandom (2005, 131). Treating people with kindness, as Melodi, 18, said, "is something he would do." But although fans repeatedly noted throughout my research that TPWK was a positive sentiment, as Bruna, 21, further remarked, "it's broad. You can put anything in that category." TPWK, in this sense, can mean anything to anyone, and it is further reflective of the "vagueness" and "imprecision" central to the empty signifier (Laclau 2002, 99). That which Styles communicates—kindness, niceness—is ultimately devoid enough of hard content as to be multi-interpretable. According to Hannah, 32,

[3.6] Everything he puts out there is quite bland. You can kind of put a lot of your personality on to how you feel he would be. In my head, he could come round to my house. I could make him tea, it would be nice, we could be friends together. And I feel like that because there's a lot that I don't know about him, really, so he could be any sort of person. He gives off a general feeling of being kind, interested in things, but you don't really know.

[3.7] That Styles "could be any sort of person" while simultaneously remaining a figure of identification—a "known" fan object—reflects Sandvoss's conceptualization of "fandom as a mirror" through which an infinitely interpretable text "allows for so many different readings that…it does not have any meanings at all" (2005, 126). Sandvoss's mirror-like fan text further mimics Laclau's empty signifier, the void of which fans fill with their own projected understandings. How fans view "Harry Styles" as an idea, as a fan object, depends upon the content with which they fill his "textual blanks" (Sandvoss 2005, 142).

[3.8] Insomuch as fan identity is "social (that is, discursive)," Laclau's analysis further applies to the rhetorical organization of fandom (2002, 80). As this work explores how fans relate to Harry Styles through discursive processes of interpretation and identification, I argue that they mimic "the people," and Harry Styles is the popular representative upon which they project their demands. According to Laclau, popular identity is constituted at "the meeting point of difference and equivalence" (2002, 80) and "needs to be condensed around some signifiers (words, images) which refer to the equivalential chain as a totality" (2002, 96). Such an "equivalential chain," for Laclau, refers to when heterogeneous elements come to be seen as similar enough to form a cohesive whole—a collective people, or for our purposes, a united fandom. This equivalence of the people through projection and identification is "precisely what subverts difference" and unites the collective (Laclau 2002, 70).

[3.9] The publicly consumed image of Harry Styles, made up of various interpretations and assumptions about his personality, is defined by difference. Fans "all love Harry," but Sophia, 22, notes, "we all love different versions of him." This is central to Laclau's understanding of populism, through which difference among the people is subverted through the equivalence of the popular object. The popular identity of fans, as in Laclau's people, is "condensed around" Styles's empty signifier, "which refer[s] to the equivalential chain" of every version of him (Laclau 2002, 96). That is to say that the collective idea of "Harry" embodies every different interpretation of Styles's star image. Sanj, 22, said this difference defines fans' relationships to each other: "It just goes to show that you can be so different, but [Harry] is such a special connection that still brings you together. If not for Harry, you probably wouldn't speak to that person twice because there'd be nothing more." While fans may interpret or identify with him differently, his singularity subsumes their difference through an "equivalential chain" of signifiers (Laclau 2002, 96). That is to say, for example, all the fans' different interpretations of "Harry"—the "narcissist," the "mystery," the "sensitive dork"—collapse into the singular person of Harry Styles; his fandom is a collection of individual fans of "Harry," through which "equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader" (Laclau 2002, 100).

[3.10] Populism, Laclau writes, is the "terrain of primary undecidability between the hegemonic function of the empty signifier and the equivalence of particularistic demands. There is a tension between the two, but this tension is none other than the space of constitution of a 'people'" (2002, 163). To the extent that fandom might be understood as either an ideologically influenced consumptive strategy through which people construct their identities, or as a resistant process of challenging and reworking mediated forms of hegemonic culture, I posit that it is not totally unlike this definition of populism, or at the very least a close-enough comparison to warrant investigation. And if, as Laclau writes, the "symbolic unification of the group around an individuality" is central to the formation of the collective (2002, 100), then Styles plays this role; his ability to do so, according to Aman, 22, "makes him more than just a person. He's like a symbol." But insomuch as the construction of Styles as a popular object of fandom requires an understanding of and relation to his signification, fans further engage in processes of interpretation (Dyer 1986; Sandvoss 2005) and identification (Cavicchi 1998; Fraser and Brown 2002; Sandvoss 2005) with Styles's public performance and star image (Dyer 1998).

4. Our stars, ourselves: On Harry Styles and identification

[4.1] For the uninitiated, Styles, 26, is a singer-songwriter, actor, and member of the massively popular, "on hiatus" British-Irish boy band, One Direction. Alongside fellow members Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik (until the latter's abrupt departure in 2015), Styles released five One Direction albums. In 2017, Styles released his first solo album, the self-titled Harry Styles, and he made his acting debut in Christopher Nolan's World War II drama Dunkirk. From September of 2017 to July of 2018, he performed eighty-nine shows on a two-part international theater and arena tour, selling nearly one million tickets around the globe (Aswad 2018).

[4.2] This is a Wikipedia-like summary of Styles's work, a basic scan of his public life viewed through facts and figures. But who Harry Styles is to fans goes far beyond these, for like most megastars, he is famous not only for his artistic production but also for being himself. In the tabloids, his love life and sexuality are fodder for the masses; he is alternately called a womanizer, a teen heartthrob, and the second coming of David Bowie. While fans throughout this research echoed Hannah's sentiment that he "could be any sort of person," they simultaneously identified with Styles's ethos and public performance of self. By piecing together his personality through his star image, the fans relate to, identify with, and derive support from their interpretation of Styles and his beliefs; through this, fans find escape, confidence, comfort, and community. Beyond merely internalizing Styles's qualities into their own lives, the fans' identification with Styles further reflects Sandvoss's construction of fandom as a mirror, in which "the object of fandom…is intrinsically interwoven with our sense of self" (2005, 97).

[4.3] To the extent that relating to or even caring about celebrities necessitates a particular kind of understanding of them—at base, a certain level of knowing who or what they are like—the content from which we derive this understanding, simply put, does matter. Richard Dyer's work, and in particular his scholarship on celebrities as interpretable, "constructed personages in media texts" (1998, 97), can frame broader analyses across fan and celebrity studies on fan/star identification through an interrogation of the mediated sources of these relationships. When we talk about stars, Dyer posits that we primarily reference their "star image": the composite of their promotion, publicity, films (or other artistic works), criticism, and commentary (1998, 60). From profiles in Another Man and Rolling Stone to press junkets for Dunkirk, from the lyrics to his music to his onstage banter, the fans come to know and relate to Harry Styles through his public performance.

[4.4] Although Dyer's analysis focuses primarily on film stars, the framework is useful for understanding the varied media texts that factor into the construction of the idea of a celebrity as an object of interpretation, rather than an individual, original person. We relate to stars more as "thoughts, concepts, or mental impressions of those people" than we do as their unmediated, "real" selves (Cashmore 2014, 18). The star image, then, not only defines the myriad sources of a celebrity's examinable text but also specifically generates investment "according to how much it speaks to us in terms we can understand about things that are important to us" (Dyer 1986, 14). In other words, how we relate to and interpret stars reflects not only their significance in society but also what matters most to us and how we see ourselves.

[4.5] On this subject, a wide variety of scholarship has been dedicated to the ways fans relate to stars as reflective or identificatory objects. Stars' particularly visible performances of individual identity provide potentially persuasive, alternative modes of being for fan emulation and identification (Caughey 1984). Fan studies scholarship on identification with stars is wide-ranging, from embodying a star's aesthetic (Stacey 1994; Fiske 1986), to taking on or performing their politics and values (Click, Lee, and Holladay 2017; Fraser and Brown 2002). In their analysis of Elvis Presley fans, Benson Fraser and William Brown defined identification as when people "reconstruct their own attitudes, values, or behaviors in response to the images of people they admire, real and imagined, both through personal and mediated relationships" (2002, 187). As fans "selectively integrate" celebrity values into their lives, Fraser and Brown's findings that "the image of the celebrity can be more tightly held and more powerful than the real person upon which it is based" further highlight the role of interpretation of the star image in fan/celebrity identification (2002, 202). Throughout this analysis, this understanding of identification grounds how fans interact with the idea of Harry Styles as a mediated text and identificatory object, and lays the foundation for engagement with his politics.

[4.6] Within analyses of intimacy and identification, several scholars have centered fans' personal role in the interpretation of stars' personalities and values (Dyer 1998; Klein [1946] 1996; Rodman 1996; Sandvoss 2005; Tudor 1974). Beyond the ideological contexts within which stars signify (Dyer 1998), fans' own personal characteristics and traits further contribute to our readings of celebrities. In research on female cinemagoers of the 1940s, Jackie Stacey (1994) explored fan projection onto movie stars, which created an "emotional bond between fan and star" (Sandvoss 2005, 80). This projection is the externalization of one's own values onto the star, which reinforces the fan/object connection and ties one's sense of self to their image. Caughey's (1984) description of identification as one in which fans "temporarily abandon their own identities and social roles and, by imaginatively projecting their consciousness onto the media image, take on alternate personal and social identities" (38) further highlights the role of projection in the process of identification. Fans alternately see parts of themselves in stars, and take on those most desired pieces that they do not have but wish to embody.

[4.7] Bridging both Dyer's interpretive, semiotic approaches to celebrity and the work on identification is Cornel Sandvoss's notable conceptualization of fandom as a space of self-reflection in which "the object of fandom…is not so much a textual possession; nor does it only define the self…[but] is part of the fan's (sense of) self" (2005, 101). This sense of fandom as a "mirror" highlights the role of the fan in "reading" and understanding stars; the object of our fandom "is intrinsically interwoven with our sense of self, with who we are, would like to be, and think we are" (Sandvoss 2005, 96). Sandvoss positions identificatory fan/star relationships not only as a way of reading oneself through stars, but also as a productive mode of internalizing their best or most desired qualities (Cavicchi 1998; Fraser and Brown 2002).

[4.8] In this sense, loving Harry Styles is not only a matter of knowing him but also of seeing oneself within him. As fans come to know Styles on tour, online, and in his music, the depth of their understanding encourages identification with his most desirable or relatable qualities. Whether offhandedly remarking that he reminds them of their friends, or detailing how he has helped them through challenging times, fans repeatedly reify Styles—or the idea of him—as an identificatory figure in their real lives. As a result, some fans express a desire to take on Styles's values and adopt his positive traits.

[4.9] Although "it sounds cheesy," Sophia noted that "treat people with kindness" has personally become "a sort of mantra…a kind of 'what would Harry do in this situation?' thing." Wearing TPWK merchandise similarly serves as a check on Melodi's engagement with others: "Like when I'm wearing the shirt, I'm not gonna go out and be mean to someone because I'm literally wearing something that says 'Treat People With Kindness.'" These statements support Melissa Click, Hyunji Lee, and Holly Wilson Holladay's (2017) study of Lady Gaga fandom, in which the authors found that celebrity political activism influences the political engagement of the fans. Beyond merely admiring the charity initiative or purchasing merchandise with the phrase, fans saw TPWK as a quasi call to action. Both within the fandom and outside it, Erinn noted that TPWK was "what the world needs more of," particularly with regard to the current political climate. "[Kindness] is important to spread around, especially right now," said Bruna, 21, "and he's one of the best people to do it."

[4.10] Beyond TPWK, identification with Styles manifests in a variety of ways. If, as Dyer notes, "we love [stars] because they represent how we think that experience is or how it would be lovely to feel that it is," then identification with Styles in part functions as a means of relating to what it might be like to be him (1986, 15). For Debbie, 25, identification with Styles provided one such means of navigating her own experience at university. Realizing she was "roughly the same age" as Styles when she first found One Direction in 2013 "really helped [her] becoming a fan." While Debbie studied, seeing Styles "living this crazy life and handling it very well…[was] just really cool." At its most basic level, this kind of identification with the fan object can become a simple matter of putting oneself in their shoes.

[4.11] For others, identification with Styles primarily manifested as an altered sort of presumed intimacy. While Styles's general absence from social media negates any direct parallel to work like Alice Marwick and danah boyd's (2011) study on celebrity and parasocial online relationships, several fans noted believing that they could be friends with him, or that they identified certain qualities of his in the friends they do have. When asked why Styles was her favorite member of One Direction, Bruna, 21, responded, "he was always the one I was most drawn to, because a lot of people I get along with have [his] persona." Aman, 22, similarly noted that she looked up to Harry, "not in a 'king of my world,' kind of way," but because he "seems like one of [her] friends." Fans seeing traits of Styles within those they are closest to reifies the idea of him and grounds their identification in reality: their versions of Harry may be nothing more than "mental impressions" (Cashmore 2014, 18), but their friends are real people they know and understand. That Styles might share traits with these friends further grounds the idea of him in something (or someone) tangible.

[4.12] Just as Fraser and Brown found that subjects "tried to adopt the positive attributes of Elvis…and apply them to their own lives" (2002, 200), Styles fans repeatedly noted a desire to take on his most admirable qualities. Like Elvis fans wishing to reflect "his love and respect for his parents, his politeness, [and] his generosity," Styles's fans articulate a desire to embody certain of his traits and values, from confidence to self-love and kindness (Fraser and Brown 2002, 200). Sanj, 22, Sophia, 21, Bruna, 21, and Laura, 22, all noted that Styles's stylistic evolution has given them confidence to branch out of their comfort zones and has served as inspiration for their own fashion choices. This process of adopting Styles's attributes ultimately stems from a deep identification with his person. As Bruna explained, "seeing him being comfortable with certain things, you're kind of like, if he can do it, I can do it as well. It's not like we're that much different…There's nothing that can stop me." In the same way that Fraser and Brown believed identification with Elvis among his impersonators was "a means to an end, and not an end in itself," fans' identification with and internalization of Styles's admired qualities similarly functions as a source of personal support (2002, 197).

[4.13] On stage in San Jose, California, in the summer of 2018, Styles read aloud a sign made by a fan named Grace which read, "I'm gonna come out to my parents because of you!" Similar interactions occurred throughout the tour across the United States as LGBTQ+ fans repeatedly credited Styles with a role in their coming out. This sentiment was echoed by several queer participants in interviews, who alternately attributed some part of their own self-realization to Styles or to the community oriented around him. Debbie "figure[d] out [she] was bisexual by being in the fandom," while Laura "realized [she] didn't need a label" for her sexuality when Styles told The Sun that he "never felt the need" to apply one to himself (Wootton 2017). While Styles makes his concerts LGBTQ+ safe spaces by waving pride flags and encouraging all present to "be whoever you want to be in this room" (Khan 2017), queer fans further noted feeling personally supported by him as a result of their own identification. For Destiny, 18, Styles's comment about not needing a label was "the biggest thing ever."

[4.14] When he said that, I was like, that's me. I felt that. And the fact that he actually said it was huge, because he doesn't say anything. They were like, are you straight? And he was like, I've never felt the need to put a label on it. I was like, that's amazing. I had never heard someone say that before…I've never related to something so much. I was like, wow, that's awesome. That's my baby.

[4.15] This is not fan/celebrity identification in the sense that Fraser and Brown outlined in their study of Elvis fans because sexuality isn't an attribute one can adopt from another person like "respect" or "generosity" (2002, 200). Nor is it aspirational identification in the way that Daniel Cavicchi writes of Bruce Springsteen fans "holding 'ideal' or 'potential' selves in their minds as a way to guide their actions" (1998, 140). Rather, Destiny's identification with Styles strengthens empathetic ties to him based on qualities of her own. This reflects Sandvoss's understanding of fandom as an identificatory form of self-reflection wherein "the object of fandom…is not so much a textual possession; nor does it only define the self. It is part of the fan's (sense of) self" (2005, 101). Beyond merely interpreting Styles as a "constructed personage" (Dyer 1998, 97) or redefining the self based on adopted characteristics (Fraser and Brown 2002), fans locate traits of theirs within Styles himself. This centering of fans' selves in identification with Styles sets the stage for his populist representation, through which fans navigate both their own interpretations of Styles as well as their own political desires through his public performance.

5. On politics and representation

[5.1] Before the first of two London dates on Styles's fall tour in October 2017, a Black fan named Yasmin passed out nearly 400 #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) signs to the queueing crowd with the intent to gain Styles's attention during the show. After the evening passed without recognition from Styles, fans interviewed by the New Statesman's Anna Leszkiewicz (2017) expressed disappointment and explained their desire for acknowledgment. For Melodi, bringing BLM signs to Styles's gig was a matter of "want[ing] him to recognize us and our struggle" by "actually say[ing] he supports the Black Lives Matter movement" (Leszkiewicz 2017).

[5.2] These London shows kicked off a tour-long journey for Black fans and allies, who continued their efforts to receive Styles's recognition in cities around the globe. Like activists "bird-dogging" a politician through repeated intervention at public events, fans held up BLM signs and flags throughout shows on tour to attract Styles's attention. Just as the popular representative "has to show that it is compatible with the interests of the people" (Laclau 2002, 158), these efforts to get Styles to reflect fans' support of BLM most clearly exemplify the application of Laclau's populism to fandom. Fans construct Styles as a collective, popular object by utilizing their pieced-together understanding of his star image to further position him as a representative of the fandom, seeking explicit representation of their own political will, and mobilizing his image for their own political use. While fans identify with Styles's values and support the ethos with which he approaches sociopolitical causes like March for Our Lives and his charity initiative Treat People With Kindness, they want him—simply put—to do more. Beyond Click, Lee, and Holladay's (2017) findings that fans are influenced by the politics of fan objects with whom they identify, Styles fans routinely work to shift his own political expressions to more clearly represent their own values.

[5.3] My focus on political engagement in the Harry Styles fandom builds on existing scholarship on fan/star identification (Cavicchi 1998; Fraser and Brown 2002; Sandvoss 2005) and the influence of celebrity political work on fandom (Click, Lee, and Holladay 2017; Hunting and Hinck 2017). Although Couldry and Markham's (2007) findings determined an inverse relationship between subjects' interest in celebrity culture and their political engagement, more recent scholarship has found that strong identificatory bonds between fans and their fan objects provide inroads to political interest or participation. Kyra Hunting and Ashley Hinck's (2017) research explores this influence through fan feelings of intimacy, tracing the rhetorical means by which actor Ian Somerhalder of The Vampire Diaries (CW, 2009–2017) utilized fan connection with his character to influence support for an environmental activist campaign. Similar work by Click, Lee, and Holladay (2017) in their study of Lady Gaga's Little Monster fan community further suggested that online engagement with an a deep connection to the fan object inspired Lady Gaga fans to become more politically active. Their findings suggested that Lady Gaga's own activist work influenced her fans to "develop their own political positions by embracing and adopting these fundamental aspects of her identity" (2017, 614), and Click, Lee, and Holladay further called for scholarship exploring the role of identification into studies of political celebrity. In this vein, my analysis builds from an understanding of identification with Harry Styles to explore his fans' engagement with politics.

[5.4] Many fans interviewed cited Styles's previous behavior on tour—and, in particular, his habit of waving LGBTQ+ pride flags thrown from the crowd onto stage—as the logical basis for believing he might acknowledge BLM. Waving pride flags, Bruna noted, is "his way of communicating and supporting [the LGBTQ+] side of fandom." That he might then support BLM in a similar manner fell squarely within the "textual boundaries" of their interpretation of Styles (Sandvoss 2005). In Melodi's view, Styles's flag waving is "a way to see that the person you look up to…cares about you, and cares about problems you're going through." By waving flags fans give to him, Styles becomes the vessel through which certain elements of fan identity are uplifted and supported at his concerts. This is another means by which Styles embodies the role of Laclau's representative, the function of whom "is not simply to transmit the will of those he represents, but to give credibility to that will in a milieu different from the one in which it was originally constituted" (2002, 158). Styles's support of marginalized fan identities ultimately affirms their presence within the alternately constituted public of his concerts. As Kula, 19, noted in an interview with the New Statesman, while Black fans "[don't] need his validation, because Black lives will always matter…[acknowledging BLM] is about making Black fans feel safe and loved in that room" (Leszkiewicz 2017).

[5.5] Eight months after Yasmin first passed out signs in London, Styles finally waved a BLM flag and said "thank you for your Black Lives Matter signs" on the second night of two shows in New York City. Though Styles had previously paid tribute to BLM by posting photos of fans' signs on Instagram and through other nonverbal forms like pointing to or waving at signs in the crowd, fans counted this as the most explicit acknowledgment to date. After the New York dates, two BLM stickers soon appeared next to a call to "end gun violence" and a small pride flag on one of his electric guitars. According to Melodi, Styles's statement "was a great moment" because, for the first time, "he said the words [Black lives matter]." But while many fans were glad that Styles recognized the movement, they also articulated a desire for further engagement and advocacy. For Elham, 21, this means that Styles should "educate himself…so [he] can relay that back to [his] fans so that they have an opportunity to open up their eyes or their mind to something that they probably never would have before." In this way, speaking up about BLM becomes not only a matter of acknowledging the movement but also about actively working to influence the positions of those among his fans who might disagree.

[5.6] These desires echo the findings of previous scholars (Click, Lee, and Holladay, 2017; Hunting and Hinck, 2017) on the role and influence of an identificatory fan object's political activism on fans. But rather than exclusively positioning the celebrity or fan object as a source of political education or activist inspiration, the actions of Styles fans invert the direction of influence. Not only do fans attempt to get Styles to make certain political statements, but they also actively work to promote and express a desire for a sincere shift of his values and political beliefs toward their own. To this end, both the Black and non-Black fans I interviewed repeatedly described wanting Styles to actively engage with the causes they support beyond waving a flag or holding a sign, which Destiny likened to "the bare minimum" of advocacy; just posting a photo on Instagram, Sanj said, "doesn't mean anything."

[5.7] The fan response to Styles's lack of engagement with BLM further reflects concerns addressed around TPWK. According to Laclau, "the popular symbol or identity, being a surface of inscription, does not passively express what is inscribed in it, but actually constitutes what it expresses through the very process of its expression (2002, 99). If Styles is this symbol, a blank surface upon which we inscribe our interpretations, he passively expresses kindness by having TPWK as his slogan but also "actually constitutes" it "through the very process" of "promoting kindness in the charity initiative." Through TPWK, Styles functions as a Laclauian representative by both embodying and promoting the value-instruction of its slogan to the fandom. But throughout the course of my research, several fans interviewed framed their desire for more explicit political action by Styles through the language of TPWK: "Being kind is important," Debbie said, "but it's not going to solve anything. You have to get more political if you want to solve things." Although Styles frames TPWK as an initiative driven by the rhetorically apolitical, good intention of "kindness," the significance (and indeed, anomaly) of a pop star with a value-instructive slogan in 2018 is a point of interrogation for many fans. As Johanna, 21, noted, "it's not gonna spawn some kindness revolution necessarily. I like it, but it's just kind of another campaign phrase almost."

[5.8] As such, appeals for a more political engagement by Styles challenges the conclusions of Click, Lee, and Holladay, who found that Lady Gaga's "political outspokenness and activist work inspired [fans] to develop an awareness of and think more deeply about certain issues" (2017, 614). Though TPWK does to some extent encourage this ethos within the fandom, fans' engagement with Styles's politics is comparably more challenging than it is passively approving. Instead of being exposed to politics via Styles's own views, most fans interviewed articulated a desire for Styles to reflect and represent their own political views beyond advocating the vague impunity of his slogan's "kindness." By bringing BLM signs and flags to concerts, fans not only are attempting to mobilize—reshape, adapt, use—Harry Styles's image for their own representation but are playing a direct role in developing his political meaning. Though this goes beyond merely representing a particular will, the desire for real engagement further reflects Laclau's understanding that "the representative is not merely a passive agent, but has to add something to the interest he represents" (2002, 158). "Representation," in this sense, becomes less a direct reflection of fans' selves and more a constitutive advocacy of them in the public sphere.

[5.9] This addition that Laclau speaks of—fans' desire for the active inclusion of something to their representation—most explicitly pushes the relationship between fans and Styles past Sandvoss's fandom "as a mirror" (2005, 126) and into the realm of populism. While fans' identification with and interpretation of Styles's (empty) signification requires "self-reflective" readings, his true representative power lies in the ability to embody their desires and do more with them through the elevation inherent to his celebrity. This is what fans mean when they speak of Styles using his "platform," what Sanj refers to as the "responsibility" that comes with it. If, as Dyer has written, "stars are also embodiments of the social categories into which people are placed and…make sense of our lives—categories of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on" (1986, 16), then fans' desire for Styles to represent these politics also stems from the privileges afforded not only by his fame, but also by his own social categories. As Elham notes, Styles is "a privileged white man, who has money, who has been given this platform of millions of followers." Beyond the "vagueness" and "imprecision" of language that characterizes Styles's "empty signifier" (Laclau 2002, 99), fans root their positioning of Styles as a popular representative of the fandom in a more active, explicit engagement with politics and the platform provided by his celebrity. More so than just providing a platform for their values, identification with Styles as a representative relies on a value added to the vessel, a sincerity beyond doing so merely because fans want him to. Styles embracing fans' flags, according to Elham, sometimes feels "like he's doing a job…he's doing what people want him to do, and not doing it because he wants to do it." While fans want him to do more, they also want Styles to really mean it.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] The identification and interpretation intrinsic to Harry Styles fans' understanding of the star and his politics provides for his construction as a collective, popular object. Through embodying the varied, multi-interpretable versions of himself through an equivalential chain of signification, Styles becomes the unifier of fan identity à la Laclau's "symbolic unification of the group around an individuality" (2002, 100). His comparable silence online and the vagueness of his signification otherwise allow for both an identification with his values and a functional engagement with his politics toward representation of fans. Identification becomes not only a matter of fans taking on Styles's interpreted traits, but also one of looking at him and seeing their own values reflected back, whether in a flag waving on a stage or a political sentiment explicitly named. If how we relate to stars reflects both their significance in society and what matters to us and how we see ourselves (Dyer 1986), then fans' engagement with Styles highlights what can occur when fans mobilize the fan object's star image toward their own personal, political ends. To this end, fans relate to Styles as a popular representative of their values, both through identification with what he promotes and by calling on him to make his politics more explicit. Beyond becoming politicized through the fan object's politics (Click, Lee, Holladay 2017), Styles fans attempt to politicize him from the base point of their identification, and to mobilize his image for their own political endeavors.

[6.2] My study of Harry Styles fans is a contribution to celebrity and fan studies scholarship on fan/object identification and explores new terrain through a populist analysis of fandom. On the subject of identification, this work corroborates the findings of established work in the field, in particular Fraser and Brown's (2002) work on fan/star identification. On Styles's fans' political engagement, however, my work provides a new way of looking at certain findings regarding the political influence of celebrities (Click, Lee, and Holladay 2017; Hunting and Hinck 2017). Most scholarship on fan/object identification perceives the relationship as unidirectional from star to fan and explores celebrity politics as an expression of influence upon fans; however, my study illustrates an inverse direction in fan engagement with celebrity politics, as Harry Styles's fans attempt to actively influence his politics into aligning with their own interpretation of them.

[6.3] This analysis is merely one case study of how fans construct and relate to fan objects, and as such it only scratches the surface of potential areas of exploration across the subject. In particular, future research might explore the extent to which fans' politics shape the political expression of their fan object, or the effectiveness of similar attempts by fans to affect celebrity political activism. As the application of populist theory to fan studies opens new lines of inquiry within the former, future research might further examine additional cases of fan construction through this lens and explore whether this analysis might prove insightful toward understanding populist dynamics of the political sphere. Whether focused on the rhetorical or the externally oriented, explicitly political relations of fandom, populist theory may prove to be a useful framework through which to examine certain fan practices in future research.

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