Chloe Coldwell proposes that the role of groupie, entwined with drugs, an uneven power dynamic and often under-age fans, is perhaps more complex, sexist, and questionable than music critics let on.
With “sex, drugs and rock and roll” being the defining, unholy trinity of the 1970s rock music scene, the role of the groupie was an important part of the rock star way of life. Groupies have featured prominently in pop culture ever since – from the romanticised, self-proclaimed “band-aid” Penny Lane in Almost Famous to School of Rock, in which Jack Black’s, thirty-something character, in one retrospectively questionable scene, assigned the vital role to three schoolgirls. Groupies are often depicted as young women or teenagers who pursue male artists in bands for sex, but this may not be as one-sided, nor as consensual, as it seems, with many groupies being underage or under the influence. Uneven power dynamics between the fan and the artist also cast a more sinister light on these encounters and beg the question – what place does a groupie have in modern day society?
Any mention of a groupie almost always refers to the relationship between a young female fan and an older, male star, whether they’re a musician, sportsman or even an astronaut. It is a phenomenon stemming from the 60s and 70s and, as depicted in Dorfman’s Groupies (1970) documentary, usually involved women going to concerts in the hope of meeting, taking drugs and sleeping with members of rock bands. The influence of this phenomenon has carried on with rock band The Cribs recently speaking out against its appearance in the UK indie music scene in the noughties. However, with the heightened attention on women’s rights within the music industry and the highlighting of issues of sexism, in recent years the idea of the groupie has become less glamorous, as it has raised concerns over the treatment of female fans and blurred lines of consent.
The problematic groupie role may reflect the wider issues of sexism in the music industry, as it sustains the idea of musicians being male and fans being female, as well as showing women and girls to be fans of the people rather than the music. It is also an extension of the frustrating male gatekeeping of music endured by female fans and creates harmful female stereotypes. The most sinister dangers of the groupie idea came to the surface in the fallout of the #MeToo movement, with 2017 bringing about many allegations on social media of sexual misconduct from male musicians, particularly among men in the rock and indie scene in the UK and America. Allegations featured past encounters with young female fans, such as Jesse Lacey of Brand New, who, throughout his career, used his power as an idolised musician to manipulate young fans; and members of Nothing But Thieves who strongly deny accusations of sexual assault but admitted that, “a misuse of the imbalance of power may have occurred”.
With the role of the groupie tinged with the objectification of women and the manipulation of young fans, it seems impossible that it could continue to exist in the modern-day music scene. However, in the age of female sexual liberation, perhaps we would be too quick to judge groupies as sexual objects existing solely for the pleasure of male musicians. In general, it is the harmful stereotypes and the abuse of power in the groupie culture, rather than the existence of the groupie herself that causes the issues. Perhaps then, they can continue to exist, so long as the encounters are between consenting adults. This however raises further questions over the deep-rooted sexism problem of the entertainment industry as a whole and the differences in attitudes towards male and female stars. After all, why are there no male groupies?
We might consider the “stan” to be the modern groupie, as many social media fandoms obsess over band members and artists in similar ways. Nowadays though, female musicians are idolised to the same extent and, for the most part, this is increasingly less sexual. Stans do still fantasise about meeting their idols but are much less vocal about actually wanting to have sexual encounters with them. While the power may still lie with the musicians, social media allows for celebrities to remain accountable and the rise of cancel culture, despite all the negativity it may bring, might be enough of a threat to stop bands from exploiting fans, even if it was acceptable in the seventies.
The reality is that with social media and increasing awareness of misogyny and exploitation, the modern groupie seems like an outdated stereotype, no longer a key part of live gigs. Terms such as “fangirl” do still exist as a means to gatekeep music and demean female music fans, but with the push for more gender equality among the music industry, we can remain hopeful that this will change.