I’m wondering to myself, like so much that’s happened over the past year, whether this is normal now. There are about 60 of us on the Zoom call, all heads and shoulders in our stacked translucent bricks, Covid’s online equivalent of the barrier, watching Bella Latham, AKA Baby Queen, AKA the Future of Pop, perform two acoustic tracks for us. Some fans have dressed up for probably the greatest social occasion in their diaries this month; others are lying, casually dressed, on their bed. One teenage boy is eating McDonalds very close up, which is disconcerting and frankly seems a bit disrespectful to Baby Queen in my opinion but then, maybe this is a generation gap thing. She’s not on a stage (in fact, she’s literally sitting on the floor right up next to the camera) and there is the illusion of no hierarchy here. We’re all muted at the start, then about 20 mins into the call, once Latham has performed and spoken to us a bit, we are unmuted and it all goes a bit mad. Very respectfully mad (everyone adores Bella, as they call her, here) but mad all the same. One fan keeps playing her songs on his guitar. Someone else asks what medication Latham is on. A third holds up her gecko, who apparently adores Baby Queen, for Latham to coo over. A number of the fans here are clearly regular attenders of these fan Zoom parties and are recognised by her: she calls them the Baby Kingdom. She hosts these parties occasionally, which you request an invite to via social media and are emailed a code for. The fans know each other too through previous gatherings and a Whatsapp group chat instigated by Latham that she pops into from time to time when, one fan tells us, it all goes “a bit wild”. Several of the most vocal fans, all teenagers, treat Latham like one of their closest friends. Others, including me, stay completely silent, happy to let others take the lead but share in the collective experience.
It’s hard to imagine a more difficult time to launch a pop career than this, when no musician has been able to perform live since March last year and there is no clear light on the horizon either regarding when gigs might be able to restart, despite Boris Johnston’s reassurances that all restrictions in the UK will come to an end by June 21st. In normal times, 23 year old Bella Latham, who moved to London from South Africa in search of pop stardom, would be honing her craft and connecting with her audience in small venues, supporting bigger artists, doing in-store signings and TV performances. For burgeoning pop stars just now, like most of us, working life has moved entirely online. This has taken a variety of creative forms in the music industry, from whole livestreamed gigs to shorter Instagram live performances and video messages. A lot of this in my experience can be dispiriting, serving only to emphasise the fact that live music is a shared experience that needs and facilitates human connection. If I can’t shout and sing and cheer and bump up against strangers in the crowd and leave smelling of random people’s sweat, wearing merchandise I’ve paid far too much for, I don’t want to be part of it, I’ll be honest. Typing clapping emojis or song lyrics in a chat function just isn’t the same. Bella Lathum is offering a different type of experience for fans though, a real time interaction with their idol and one that isn’t an exclusive competition tightly controlled by management. Her manager is obviously hovering nearby but the whole experience has the feel of a slightly out of control Zoom party with too many attendees, where the loudest voices dominate.
I think one reason for my silence is because of my age. I had expected to be the oldest Baby Queen fan on the call at 41, but somehow when I see all the other fans “in person”, the generation gap seems even wider. This isn’t my space. With a lot of the artists I listen to, because I love to find new music and new artists are usually young people, I have to accept I’m not their target audience. I realise this acutely every so often, like tonight, or when I see Declan McKenna in an Instagram post building Lego on an Ikea car mat that my son owns, or Beabadoobee posting memes that I barely understand. I feel warm affection for them: kids today…. so I feel, on the Zoom, a bit like a parent – I shouldn’t take the airspace away from the kids because they really need this, maybe especially now when they can’t go out and connect in person with their real friends, or go to school, or get mental health support from an actual human in the same room. They pour out their feelings to Baby Queen and it feels a bit like a therapy session for everyone. It’s connection in disconnected times. Most people have their cameras on as well which shows how comfortable they feel with Latham and each other. I hadn’t really thought deeply about what a Baby Queen fan would look like – I just knew that I really loved her catchy, confessional, intelligent pop which is part The 1975, part Lorde, part Lily Allen in its gut-wrenching honesty, humour and social commentary. It’s not hard to see why Baby Queen would find an adoring teenage audience. One fan who is trans asks her on the call how she manages to be so frank and bare her soul without fear of judgement and she answers at length. I watch the fan’s face light up – they’ll remember this moment for a long time to come. Another, a boy, tells her he thought he was the only one who felt weird and miserable until he listened to her music.
I think of the artists that I adored and who brought me a lot of comfort when I was a teenager – Tori Amos, Shirley Manson, Prince. I grew up in the 90s when if you wanted to prove your fandom you sent a stamped, addressed envelope to a physical address, joined a fan mailing list and received perhaps a signed photo or a magazine back, or you bought Smash Hits, cut out the posters and plastered them to your ceiling and your mum shouted at you. Or your friend Simone passed you a folded note in your History class about how much she fancied Tony from East 17. Or you taped the top 40 off Radio 1 on a Sunday afternoon and tried to cut out the DJ speaking, then played a song over and over obsessively. Pop stars then occupied a completely different world from us in our provincial towns and there was no social media to know what they were eating or wearing or thinking from one day to the next. We never dreamed of actually having access to the actual star themselves, unless we were lucky enough to get to a show and queued up outside the venue for hours afterwards, as I did outside what was then The Apollo in Manchester waiting for Shirley Manson from Garbage to touch my hand and sign my paper ticket. It was seconds worth of interaction but it meant the world at the time, just as this experience will to the Baby Kingdom tonight. If it had been possible, would I really have wanted as a teenager to be on a Zoom with Shirley Manson or, perhaps least imaginable, Prince? I’m not sure I could have coped with that but more to the point, I’m not sure it would have been good for them.
Bella Latham is open about being very influenced by The 1975, and this also seems to extend to how she’s negotiating social media as a musician. They are the quintessential example of how a millennial band can harness social media in the service of self-promotion, using their Twitter and Instagram profiles in the second half of the last decade to build a whole world that fans could invest in, and did on a massive scale. In many ways, Latham is the female Matty Healy for her generation, covering the same ground of mental health struggles, drug addiction and social anxiety, all compounded by the pervasiveness of the internet. At the same time she is her own person, a fantastic songwriter and performer and she deserves all of the accolades being thrown her way. It’s great to see a young woman getting that recognition, especially now, and her voice is particularly pertinent in a global pandemic that has taken away so much from young people in particular. For me, this has been a bit of a crap year that I’ll move on from. For a young person who’s lost their final year at school, their first year at university, their chances of forming a romantic relationship, the opportunity to have sex for the first time, their school prom, it’s much more than that. There’s a permanent loss there that can never be compensated for.
So Baby Queen is providing a much needed space, distraction and listening ear for all of these lost young people and she seems to find that energising. I find myself worrying about her though. It’s a strange mix of admiration of her considerable talents and desire to mother her. She tells us on the call that she feels being honest is really important if you’re going to connect with others, going on to relate her struggles with depression and her twice weekly visits to a therapist. She’s in control throughout – there’s no breaking down in tears and she seems genuinely really happy to be sharing this experience with us all – but (in the style of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City”) later that night I get to thinking: is this level of interaction really good for anyone here? What happens to the fans who believe that Latham is their personal friend, when she has a million Spotify listeners and more? When she can’t host these small Zooms any more and the original members of the Baby Kingdom think she’s abandoned them? After all, as they say, if you get in on the ground floor of an act on the rise, you have to be prepared to let them go and accept that they are no longer “yours” as their fame grows. The Baby Kingdom will have each other, I suppose, when they lose the woman they feel is their friend: that’s the real transformative power of fandom. It’s like a family. They’ll likely move on to the next idol who will become the repository of all of their love. Where will Bella Latham be left though? What happens when carrying the metaphorical weight of all her fans’ angst becomes too heavy? This reminds me again of Matty Healy: He cut down his social media presence, stopped standing on the street smoking bongs with fans or inviting them up on stage, even kissing them. The way he interacts with fans today feels healthier: a smiling selfie on the street, Instagram posts of the books he’s reading or links to political campaigns that he’s supporting. Because at the end of the day, he’s not our friend or our therapist. He’s a performer and like any job, there needs to be time off, personal space away from the stage.
Baby Queen invites us, at the end of the Zoom, to DM her our phone numbers if we want to be added to the group chat on Whatsapp. Obviously I’m not going to be part of that – I rarely admit this in any life situation but in this instance I definitely am too old. I do DM her though. I thank her for her time and for what she’s doing to help young women especially feel less alone at the moment. I end my message by telling Latham to please look after herself, to not allow herself to be consumed by the burden of fans’ emotional baggage. I have no idea whether she will ever read what I’ve written but I’m glad I sent it. I expect that kind of one-sided fan relationship – it’s what I’ve grown up on. What Latham is fostering in her younger fans is something far more transactional and ultimately unsustainable, when the famous half of the relationship can’t or doesn’t want to continue to give so much. That’s what concerns me and makes me hope that “when all of this is over”, Zoom fan parties, like every other Zoom social occasion, die a death as well. Let’s get back to standing squashed up at the barrier, screaming up at our idols and worshipping them from afar the way it should be.
Photo © David J East