Lock up your daughters
A condensed history of pop stars who made teen girls go ka-razy
The question grows more pressing with every news story: how could a guy who's so cute cause so much chaos? Earlier this week came reports of the disturbances inspired by a live appearance by Justin Bieber in Sydney, Australia. Since the 16-year-old singer from Stratford, Ont., began topping pop charts last summer, the world has seen the rapid spread of a condition now known as "Bieber Fever."
The Sydney incident was one of the most dramatic examples, involving 5,000 fans who surged through a barricade in anticipation of a live performance. At least 10 girls fainted in the melee, and many were taken to hospital for injuries (including one broken knee). Bieber later performed on a morning TV show.
The incident followed a similar one in Long Island, N.Y., last November, where 3,000 fans overwhelmed security at a scheduled Bieber mall appearance. Authorities later charged Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, on counts of second-degree reckless endangerment and second-degree criminal nuisance. (He pleaded not guilty and was released.)
With Bieber Fever becoming a global epidemic, many more outbreaks are inevitable, but Justin Bieber is hardly the first to elicit this kind of frenzy — it's been happening since that mythical night when followers of Dionysus responded to Orpheus's hot lute solos by tearing him to pieces. Music history is full of such proto-Biebers. While their effect on crowds may scare the daylights out of upstanding citizens, these artists flaunt a certain something that, to quote Howlin' Wolf in his rendition of Willie Dixon's Back Door Man, "little girls understand."
When not establishing fundamental principles of violin technique, this 19th-century Italian musician and composer drove listeners absolutely wild with his performances. Such was this virtuoso's charisma, some believed him to be the son of the devil. Others claimed that the strings of his violin were made from the intestines of lovers he'd murdered. Whatever the case, Paganini knew he had something special going on. "I am not handsome," he famously claimed, "but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet."
The notion that teenagers could comprise a distinct and possibly dangerous social group may not have arrived until the 1950s, but they made their presence felt long before then. In October 1944, "bobbysoxer" fans of Frank Sinatra brought New York to a standstill when tens of thousands flocked to a series of concerts at the Paramount Theatre, a venue with a capacity of only 3,500.
Most of those lucky enough to get inside stayed there, spending as much as eight hours in their seats without food or water. The press dubbed it the "Columbus Day Riot." Said a Time reporter who'd witnessed a Sinatra performance at the Paramount the year before: "Not since the days of Rudolph Valentino has American womanhood made such unabashed public love to an entertainer."
Elvis Presley and Little Richard
The postwar baby boom created a perfect storm of raging hormones by the time Middle America was walloped by a new sound called rock 'n' roll. The year 1956 was particularly tumultuous. A reporter from the Daily Mirror on tour with Elvis reported police officers rescuing him from a mob in Florida and fans in Texas breaking every window in the singer's car. Riot conditions became typical at concerts, which made it all the more urgent for authorities to hustle Presley into the army.
But a show by Little Richard in Baltimore may have been the year's most notorious gig. Newspaper reports claimed fans had to be restrained from jumping off the balcony. Girls were apparently more successful when it came to tearing off some of the singer's clothes and then showering Little Richard and his band with their own flying undergarments.
Any manifestation of fan hysteria inevitably draws comparison with the insanity that accompanied the Fab Four's arrival on the world stage. Beatlemania swept the U.K. and Europe as early as 1962, with America and Canada coming under the band's sway in February 1964, the month that the Beatles arrived at JFK airport ahead of a series of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. When the band filmed the concert segments for A Hard Day's Night back in London in March of that year, members of the film crew reported having dental damage — proximity to so much screaming had badly rattled their teeth.
The reception for Justin Bieber last weekend should not surprise anyone who recalls the Beatles' first and only tour of Australia in June of 1964. Though bad weather in Sydney kept numbers down, an estimated 350,000 fans lined the route between Adelaide's airport and the city. At the show that night, a reporter for the Adelaide News described the sight of "girls who had demurely taken their seats at the opening as though attending a school concert writhing on the floor, crying, clenching their fists and … mentally in a faraway world of their own creation."
In Melbourne, a mob of 20,000 massed outside the hotel where the Beatles were staying. Mounted police officers forced their horses through the crowd in an effort to reach those who had collapsed. Said one TV reporter, "If your child is out there, you should be ashamed. The stupidity of letting your children come to something like this must be hitting home."
The Bay City Rollers
Though much disparaged by critics, the Scottish popsters commanded a fiercely loyal following in the '70s. In 1975, four members of the "Tartan Army" were taken to hospital and 35 other fans treated on site when they tried to swim across a lake to reach the band when they appeared at a BBC Radio "fun day."
In the 1984 book Signed, Sealed and Delivered: True Life Stories of Women in Pop, British writer Sheryl Garratt described her experiences as a teenage Rollers fan, explaining that a "desire for comradeship" might be the most important component of the complex dynamic between pop artists and their most ardent admirers.
"Looking back now," she writes, "I hardly remember the gigs themselves, the songs, or even what the Rollers looked like. What I do remember are the bus rides, running home from school together to get to someone's house in time to watch Shang-A-Lang on TV, dancing in lines at the school disco and sitting in each others' bedrooms discussing our fantasies and compiling our scrapbooks. Our real obsession was with ourselves: in the end, the actual men behind the posters had very little to do with it at all."
'N Sync and the Jonas Brothers
Like their boy-band brethren New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys, Justin Timberlake's well-coiffed quartet was the subject of great adulation and the cause of the occasional ruckus — like when an appearance on MTV's New York studio in 2000 prompted officials to shut down Times Square.
Justin Bieber has done much to steal their thunder in the last 12 months, but the Jonas Brothers proved they can still work their mojo after police in Lima, Peru, were forced to close off roads near their hotel during the first stop in their world tour last May.
Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto.