Donald Kravitz/Getty Images; Lester Cohen/Getty Images; Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Nolan Feeney
November 01, 2017 AT 10:00 AM EDT

Michael Eisele knew exactly what he was going to do on the day Kesha’s new album came out. He knew the first people he was going to text with his reaction after he listened to it for the first time. He knew he was going to stream the record on loop for hours on end, both for his own enjoyment and to boost her sales figures. He knew he’d encourage other fans to do the same: Weeks before the album’s release, he created a Spotify playlist called “Kesha streaming party” and shared it with a few dozen other fans so they would be able to listen to the album together, even if they were apart. Eisele, 20, had a lot of time to think about how he would spend that day. Rainbow, out now, is Kesha’s first album in five years, and her first since she accused producer Dr. Luke of sexual assault and abuse, among other allegations, in a 2014 lawsuit that sent shockwaves through the music industry. (Dr. Luke — real name: Lukasz Gottwald — has repeatedly denied all of her allegations and filed breach-of-contract and defamation countersuits. Most of Kesha’s claims were thrown out by a judge in April of 2016, though one contract-related claim survives in court; she’s appealing the decision.)

Eisele’s commitment to Kesha goes beyond that of most fans. He’s what you would call a stan — the hardcore superfans who collectively give themselves nicknames like Kesha’s Animals or Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters — and he has devoted much of his free time during the last few years to Kesha’s cause. As the human behind the @KeshaTODAY Twitter account, which has 17,000 followers, he has helped popularize the #FreeKesha hashtag that’s been used by celebrities such as Demi Lovato and Lady Gaga. He has taken part in petitions calling for Kesha’s creative freedom and organized numerous protests on her behalf, including one at the headquarters of her record label, where he projected messages such as “Sony Protect Your Artists” on the building’s exterior. Though he’s known and been in touch with Kesha as a fan since before her lawsuit, their relationship has recently attracted scrutiny: In March of this year, Dr. Luke’s lawyers asked a judge to subpoena Eisele, alleging in court documents that he and Kesha were “closely coordinating” to spread “defamatory statements and tarnish” the producer’s reputation, and the judge granted the request; Eisele is expected to go to court later this year.

“I have nothing to hide,” Eisele says. “I always knew the truth behind what I was doing, which was just supporting someone I’ve loved for so long, someone who’s changed my life tremendously.”

Eisele and his fellow fans’ success in shaping the conversation around a major pop star like Kesha — at the risk of getting summoned to court, no less — is emblematic of how stan culture has moved beyond just support from the sidelines of the Internet. Wrapping your identity up in your favorite artists, of course, is nothing new: Record-label executives will tell you that the screams and shouts of Beliebers and Katycats are the same ones that soundtracked Beatlemania decades ago. But the Internet has allowed fans to organize and act together, and in doing so, wrestle some power from the usual gatekeepers — label employees, publicists, managers. Stans aren’t just cheerleaders. At times, they resemble public-relations experts, media organizations, consultants, and activists. And there are a lot of them.

“This isn’t a small core of rabid fans, this is a large core of rabid fans, and it’s super impressive, their excitement, their dedication and loyalty and hunger,” Tom Corson, the outgoing president and COO of RCA Records, said of stans in an EW interview before the release of Britney Spears’ Glory album last year. But sometimes that loyalty can be inconvenient when stans, say, start petitions demanding better album covers and calling for the release of scrapped music videos they say are better than the official ones. (As Spears’ stans did.) “The rumor mill, the leaks are just at a high level with her fans,” Corson said. “You have to be really on point with your game.”

* * *

For all its associations with pop music, “stan” actually has its roots in rap. In the year 2000, Eminem released a song about a fictional obsessed fan who sent him increasingly disturbing letters before committing a brutal murder-suicide. The song was called “Stan,” and in the ensuing years, the word — which can be used as both a noun and a verb, as a badge of pride (“I stan for Kelly Clarkson”) and a term of dismissal (“You’re just a biased stan”) — took on a life of its own in online pop circles to describe the ultra-devoted.

Thanks in part to the association with Eminem’s troubled character, stans have a reputation for sometimes acting unhinged. And there are headlines that feed this perception: In 2012, a teenage Jessie J fan reportedly broke her leg to mimic the pop star’s own leg injury. In 2013, an army of One Direction fans spread a rumor that 42 “Directioners” had killed themselves in response to an unflattering television documentary about their fandom. One of the most notorious examples occurred in August of 2016, when Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei took a hiatus from Twitter after she became the subject of a racist harassment campaign. But the abuse wasn’t coming from Fifth Harmony haters — it appeared to come from a segment of ”Harmonizers” who felt that Kordei had dissed their favorite member, Camila Cabello, during an interview in which Kordei called Cabello “very quirky” and seemed apathetic toward her bandmate. (Cabello has since left the group to pursue a solo career.)

“[Stans] will eat their own,” says Jordan Miller, who runs BreatheHeavy.com, a pop music website that for many years was the premier Britney Spears fansite. “You have your favorite, and you want them to be the biggest. There’s something really beautiful about that, and there’s something a little bit crazy.”

While the advent of social media allowed artists to connect directly with their fans, it also brought out a more competitive side of online fandom. “[Social media] was the big switch,” says Kevin Grandison, a longtime member and administrator of the pop-music forum ATRL. “You would see something in the past and feel like, ‘Okay, my artist is never going to see this [negative post or comment].’ Now they can see it, and it can have an impact on them, so it really legitimizes this very aggressive style of communicating.”

When you talk to stans one-on-one, though, they come across as, well, even-keeled and normal. I first got to know Josh-Ryan Min Lee, a 21-year-old law student and Lady Gaga stan in Port of Spain, Trinidad, when he called me a “disgusting dipsh—” who needed to “get a grip” after I once referred to Gaga’s ARTPOP rollout as a “hot mess” in a 2014 article. But when we spoke on the phone a few years later, he was friendly, apologetic even. He says his vitriol stemmed from concern that the article would negatively shape the narrative around Gaga’s career — and maybe harm her emotional well-being. When Gaga released her single “Do What U Want” in 2013, Min Lee recalls, “she went on this whole Twitter tirade about what the media was saying about her: that she was fat, that she was not famous anymore, that she was falling off the charts. It seemed to really affect her.” Every fan group has members who are willing to get ad hominem, he explains: “It’s almost like people who are religious. They’re very invested in their religion, and they will defend it.”

Stans will go to great coordinated lengths to protect and support their favorite star. In September of 2016, a group of Lady Gaga stans, worried that radio programmers wouldn’t take their requests seriously, posed as soccer moms on Twitter and asked stations to play her single “Perfect Illusion.” In May of that year, an Ariana Grande stan launched a petition demanding that Metacritic, the online review aggregator, expunge a three-star Rolling Stone review of her Dangerous Woman album that he felt was “extremely unprofessional” and unfairly brought her overall score down. Almost 3,000 people signed it.

Stans will even go offline if they have to, as Eisele’s case illustrates. In the wake of Kesha’s lawsuit against Dr. Luke, Eisele felt like he owed it to her to do more than just tweet. When he was in middle school, Kesha’s lyrics about celebrating who you are helped him with self-esteem issues and encouraged him to come out. (Kesha has also inadvertently helped him discover his career path: Eisele has enjoyed the work of raising awareness about Kesha’s situation so much that he’s now pursuing a career in music publicity.) Kesha and her fans had always been there for him — he even took one as his prom date in high school — so he wanted to be there for Kesha too.

Kesha is still not “free” in the way many supporters of the #FreeKesha movement would like her to be. Although she did not work directly with Dr. Luke on new music, Rainbow — which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in August — was still released via Kemosabe Records, which he founded but no longer heads, and he stands to benefit from her success. (A rep for Dr. Luke said in a July statement that Kesha has “was always free” to make music: “There was no change in Kesha’s contractual recording obligations … as legally required all along, the album was released with Dr. Luke’s approval by Kemosabe.”) Still, Eisele is confident his work has made a difference.

“It gave her strength throughout the four years to really get into the studio every day,” he says. “In the beginning of the ‘Praying’ video, she [says she] felt like everyone had abandoned her. She felt alone. Without the protests, who knows where she would be. Though it didn’t have an impact on the case itself, we were able to provide such strong emotional support for her. We were able to show her that we all care for her, and we’re never going to leave her side.”

* * *

Before social media changed the way music fans consume information, artists adhered to a traditional cycle of promoting their projects — and had greater control over the flow of that information. Press releases would announce new projects; as release dates neared, artists would hit the TV talk-show circuit, perform on shows like Saturday Night Live, and grant interviews with various magazines and newspapers. While much of that promotional structure is still in place, platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have irrevocably altered how information about these artists is disseminated. And in many instances, that information comes from the cunning detective work of the stans.

On the night Beyoncé premiered Lemonade, Cody Love was at friend’s viewing party in Chicago in a mood to rejoice and mourn. They had prepared lemonade-themed party favors in honor of Beyoncé and purple cocktails in honor of Prince, who had died two days before. Meanwhile, in London, his friend Jess Kemper was hunched over a computer in the wee hours of the morning, hunting for bootleg streams so he could watch too. Unlike the surprise release of her self-titled album in 2013, Beyoncé gave a fans a week’s heads-up about Lemonade, instructing them to tune in to HBO on April 23. But even if she hadn’t, Love and Kemper — who have been friends since meeting on a Beyoncé message a decade ago, though they’ve yet to hang out in person — would have been ready. As two of the co-administrators of @TheBeyHiveTeam Twitter account, they had long been in the business of Beyoncé’s secrets. They tweeted about where she was shooting videos, and who was in them. They tweeted about when the project was coming. They even tweeted about the title Lemonade months before she announced it herself.

“You are a Beyoncé stan when you know without a doubt that none of these bitches have anything on Beyoncé,” Love, 31, says. “That is the facts. That is the bible. Beyoncé is the best. When you understand that, you are a Beyoncé stan.”

In the months leading up to Lemonade, Love and other fans were compiling clues about what Beyoncé was up to on the now-defunct TheBeyHive.com message board. One of the first tip-offs was her hair. “She [generally] keeps it a dirty-blonde darker color, but when it goes to hyper-blonde, she’s working,” Love explains. And then there were the less discreet members of her team. “Stans know everyone who is staffed, from the makeup artist to the assistant to the second assistant makeup artist,” he adds. So in 2015, when Love saw that designer Bea Åkerlund, the wife of director and Beyoncé collaborator Jonas Åkerlund, had shared a picture of a costume with a caption that referred to a “secret project,” he says it “tingled our Spidey senses.” When Love saw another post that referenced a “#secretproject” and featured a makeup artist who had previously worked with Beyoncé, he took it as a sign that she was up to something.

Fans started checking out and tweeting about suspected video shoots and noticed the name of a production company, Strong Films, at a New Orleans location. When they looked at the company’s website, they noticed a listing for a project called Lemonade that included the (misspelled) name of director Kahlil Joseph. From there, it wasn’t hard for the BeyHive to connect the dots: Joseph had worked on Beyoncé’s 2013 HBO documentary, Life is But a Dream, and Solange and Blue Ivy Carter had visited one of his art installations at a museum in 2015. Further research into Lemonade, Strong Films, and Beyoncé also turned up resume information for Tory Ducote, a set dresser and costumer, which plainly linked the project to Beyoncé. (Resumes are a frequent source of stan scoops: Kelly Clarkson fans learned the name of her new single “Love So Soft” before it was announced after a dancer from the video included it on a casting website.) @TheBeyHiveTeam was one of the first accounts to tweet about “Project Lemonade,” almost two months before Beyoncé announced it herself.

About 70 percent of @TheBeyHiveTeam’s scoops come from this kind of social-media sleuthing, or as Love puts it, “being nosy as hell.” The other 30 percent come from insider tips and sources they’ve cultivated over the years. “It could be someone that actually works at the record label, it could be someone on the creative team, it could be someone who is carrying the bags,” Kemper says. As @TheBeyHiveTeam become the authoritative source for Beyoncé news online, more tips came in. “When you start breaking tea, people who have the tea come to you with more tea,” Love says.

In the run-up to Lemonade, @TheBeyHiveTeam’s tweets became fodder for articles from outlets such as CNN and ABC. It’s common for stans to do the legwork for more established media organizations — stans are the ones screenshotting tweets, archiving Snapchat videos for easy viewing, and wading through Instagram comments to see which stars are talking to (or shading) each other.

It’s also common for artists to get news of their own careers from stan accounts. Pop star Bebe Rexha says it happens all the time on Twitter. “They’re like, ‘Bebe Rexha is performing in Bulgaria on this date,’ and I’m like, “I am? I have no idea!” she told EW earlier this year. Recently, a fan showed up to a restaurant she had checked in at on social media and told Rexha that he was there because he couldn’t attend an event she was doing later that week. Rexha didn’t know what he was talking about, so she asked her manager, who was equally flummoxed. “We just literally approved that two hours ago,” Rexha’s manager told her. “How did he know?’”

What Beyoncé thought of @TheBeyHiveTeam, Love and Kemper aren’t sure. Back in September of 2015, she posted a series of lemon-themed Instagrams that suggests she may enjoy leaving breadcrumbs for fans to figure out. But Love worries about crossing the line between building up excitement and spoiling everything: “That’s the struggle as a fan,” Love says. “You don’t want to disrespect the artist you’re doing this for, or you’ll never be embraced.”

***

Being embraced by an artist is the ultimate stan dream, and several superfans have leveraged their devotion and online presence into a spot in or around a star’s inner circles. Just ask Marc Jordan Cohen — better known as @MarcMonster online — who’s been on a texting basis with Lady Gaga for almost four years now. After catching her 2009 MTV Video Music Awards performance when he was in high school, Cohen felt a particular connection to Gaga the more he read about her: She attended NYU, which was his dream school as an aspiring actor; she also spoke of her late aunt Joanne as a guardian angel-like figure, which is similar to how he feels about his own late maternal grandmother. Family legend has it that as a toddler, he couldn’t say the word “grandma,” so he called her “gaga” instead. That seemed like more than just a coincidence to Cohen.

The Newport Beach native started attending every show in Southern California that he could, going to so many concerts and meet-and-greets that Gaga started to recognize him and keep in touch with him on Twitter. He wasn’t like those other people who just wanted a selfie and barely spoke a word. “I actually cared about how she was doing as a human,” says Cohen, now 23. He was around so often that he become close with members of her team, such as her hair stylist. Then, in 2013, he was looped in on a group text with Gaga after she told a mutual contact — Cohen can’t remember who — that she wanted feedback from Cohen about how her ARTPOP era was going. He was freaking out on the inside, but he describes his early texts with her as “nonchalant” about having a direct line to one of music’s biggest stars.

These days, when Gaga is in New York City, where Cohen now lives, she sometimes invites him to hang out at events she’s attending or after shows. Cohen says Gaga’s asked for feedback on everything from what to wear—that brown wig she wore on Ellen while promoting ARTPOP? His idea!—to new music and demos. Last fall, she tasked him with organizing the guest-list for a fans-only listening session for her most recent album, Joanne.

Cohen is the first to admit that their friendship does not resemble the friendships he has with non-famous people. It can sometimes feel one-sided: “There were times when we would talk every day for a week, and then I wouldn’t hear from her for a month,” he says. “It’s more on her terms. She’s such a busy person.” It’s also led to online harassment and abuse from other jealous fans. But like real friends, their conversations go beyond just their shared interests. After last year’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Cohen says he messaged Gaga telling her to delete a tweet about gun control that included a pro-Hillary Clinton hashtag, advising her not to politicize the tragedy. (She did delete the tweet, though he’s not sure if he was the catalyst for its removal.) “I’ve always seen her like a normal human being,” he says. “I’ve definitely called her out on a few things, and we’ve had a few tiffs [where] she’s been upset with me.”

Insider relationships like the one Cohen has with Gaga have sometimes become professional. Other stans and former stans have parlayed similar bonds into positions or paying jobs that give them access to and, in some cases, influence over their favorite stars. (Cohen says he and Gaga once briefly talked about whether he’d want to join her operation in a some capacity, but an offer or opportunity never materialized.) Iggy Azalea offered Brad Prescott, whom she had met when he was an extra in one of her videos, a job after he tweeted about the dirty looks coworkers gave him when he played her music at his retail job. Jackie Augustus was running a Justin Bieber fan account when she got to know Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, who would send her exclusives and event invites and, later, hired her at his company, SB Projects; she’s now the head of digital marketing.

“These people know the artist better than anyone else,” says New Torch Entertainment cofounder Ethan Schiff, who manages pop artists such as Betty Who and VÉRITÉ. Of hiring a stan, he says, “it absolutely could happen, especially in something related to social media or anything online. It’s so critical that people working with the artist understand their voice and interests inside and out.”

But once a stan enters a star’s orbit, the stan life can start to feel incompatible with that proximity. As Cohen got to know Gaga better, he continued to get invites from other Little Monsters who were planning to show up at events as usual, but he started declining them. “I’d be like, ‘I texted her two hours ago, I can’t be outside that venue, that’s weird,’“ he says. “I was like, ‘It’s time to step back.’”

His decision to dial it down has to do with more than just not wanting to look like a stalker or appear unprofessional, however. When Cohen first started texting with Gaga, he showered her with compliments until he realized that kind of relationship was unfulfilling. “I didn’t want to be praising her because she has a million other people that do that,” he says. As a teenager, he didn’t mind feeling consumed Gagamania. But now that he’s in his twenties, he’s realized that it can be hard to find yourself when your identity is so defined by another person’s. “I feel like I’m growing up,” he says. “I need to focus more on me and what I’m doing. I’ve definitely felt that more recently. In the past [I’ve thought], how many more shows can I go to? What states can I go to? Whose house can I stay at in Philly? Now I’m like, do I have to go to the second New York show?” He’ll always be a fan, he says, and he still tweets about her often. But when it comes to (literally) going the extra mile? “It just feels like I don’t have that necessity anymore.”

* * *

Most of the stans and former stans I spoke to have a story like Cohen’s — a moment when they realized they might not be a stan forever. Sometime they age out of the superfan life: All that free time and energy you devoted to your favorite artist as a teen gets eaten up by real-world responsibilities. Sometimes their favorite artist becomes something they don’t recognize: A few Britney stans I spoke to recalled feeling their passion cool after seeing Spears on one of her later tours and noticing that she looked bored, if not unhappy to be there. The cattiness and competitiveness of the stan world can also become downright exhausting. Eisele says that’s the reason he now maintains a separate personal Twitter account from his Kesha-focused account. “People would get mean,” he says. “They forget there are real people behind it.”

And sometimes it’s a lack of recognition, even if few stans want to admit this. “Who wouldn’t want to have your favorite artist follow you on Twitter?” Love says. The stan life can be a thankless grind, one that requires both a lot of time — Love estimates he spent at least three to four hours a day keeping up with the BeyHive around the time of Lemonade — and money, to cover expenses like server costs. Once, Love was in a meeting at work, pretending to take notes, when in fact he was racing to tweet a scoop. He was so busy trying to keep up with the conversation around Lemonade that, apart from the initial viewing party, he didn’t even listen to the album for the first few days after its release. “You don’t really appreciate the music when you’re in a position like mine,” Love says. “What I’m realizing is, right now in my life, I just want to be a fan.”

Indeed, since we were first in touch last year, Love and the other BeyHive.com administrators closed the forum for similar reasons. Their Twitter account is still active, though Love and others are less concerned with scoops now that Beyoncé has more or less concluded the Lemonade era and is focusing on her recently expanded family, which Love is less interested in reporting on. “We’ve been doing this since our early- and mid-twenties,” he says. “We’re older, we have better jobs, we’re focused on our careers, we have different goals. Some of us have started families. We just want to enjoy the music now.”

But maybe it was never entirely about the music. Even as these superfans discussed toning down some of their stan habits, they said the friendships and connections they’ve made through their favorite artists are as strong as ever. Eisele may have had to put up some boundaries between the non-Kesha and Kesha parts of his digital life, but he says he feels like he “grew up with” the handful of fans he stays in touch with regularly. Cohen may be focused on having a regular relationship with Gaga, but half a dozen of his closest friends are people he first met through the Gaga fandom — last year, a few of them even flew to New York to surprise him for his NYU graduation. “We relate on a level some people wouldn’t understand,” Cohen says.

And even if Love one day decides to give up Twitter and the stan life completely, he’s still got people like Kemper, who’s ready to geek out with him about whatever Beyoncé does next, even if they’re halfway around the world from each other. They still talk almost every day. “Those are the things that Beyoncé does for me beyond the music,” Love says. Addressing her, he continues: “You put someone in my life who I feel is like a brother to me. I’ve known him for 10 years, and I’ll probably know him for another 10. That’s really all I need. I don’t need a shoutout. I don’t need to work for you. I appreciate everything you’ve already done for me as a fan.” Maybe he was leaving something out when he defined a Beyoncé stan as someone who believes that nobody has anything on Beyoncé: The only thing stans might love more than their favorite star is each other.

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