‘Groupie’ is a phrase thrown around in the Western music scene with the trivial mockery of that which we don’t understand, or have a limited perception of. We tease young women for their enthusiasm, but what does the word really mean? As a self-described groupie, this is how I experience the culture—and why it brings me pleasure and empowerment, rather than the shame so frequently attached to it.
I would love to live in a world where the word ‘groupie’ can be used to describe passionate fans of music without the sexual implications, but history has embedded certain connotations into our vocabulary. The phrase originated in 1965, attributed to Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, to describe female fans who would often follow their favourite bands around on tour, ‘especially in the hope of having sexual relations with them’ (according to the Oxford definition). The word is also defined as ‘an enthusiastic or uncritical follower’ with ‘often derogatory’ included in bold. To understand why the term’s become something prevalently used in a belittling manner, we need only look to the systemic sexism so deeply, and often subconsciously, ingrained in both the historical and modern music scenes.
The ‘big bands’ of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (the OG groupie era) were predominantly . . . men. Men, playing music with other men, drinking with men, goofing around with men. A huge percentage of their fans, however, were women. Women who bought their albums, came to their shows, sent them soaring up the charts. But these same bands created masculine-dominated music cultures that’ve seeped through to the 2020s, lad clubs that celebrated fellow men but dismissed and diminished the roles of women. In music history, a woman was one of two things: a lover and/or muse, or irrelevant. And it’s these same bands that our men look up to today. Take The Beatles: Yoko Ono still vilified while John Lennon is celebrated, those memorable images of screaming women draping themselves over Paul McCartney as he tries to play the piano, but no mention of how The Beatles wouldn’t be The Beatles if those women hadn’t turned up in their masses to their shows in the early ’60s. The passion of groupies sells tickets and supports artists, but as another alternative Wellington boy in Docs and flared pants affectionately brushes a speck of dust from his revered White Album vinyl, we women are left to wonder: where is our space in this scene? And what does being a fan, or, if we’re particularly vocal in our affections, a groupie, mean for us socially?
For decades, men have nurtured exclusivity in the music scene, and cliques are closely guarded. The fans and non-musicians are left to wonder—what do we do once the show’s over and we’re not in the front row anymore? What do we say once we’ve complimented their set and they say ‘thanks’ over their pilsner before returning to their conversation with bandmates and fellow men? Why does something that’s meant to bring people together feel so inaccessible, especially as a woman? Could it have anything to do with the inherent sexualisation and dismissal of women stemming from the inception of groupie culture? Could it be that feminine enthusiasm just doesn’t mesh with the ’60s-rockstar-inspired nonchalance embraced by these boys today?
My understanding, my perception from inside the local alternative scene, is that these men want to be cool. Cool like McCartney. Cool like Bowie. Cool like Morrison. And having an admirer, having some girl look up at you with adoration from beside the stage right speaker, having someone’s passion single you out from your dudebros, isn’t cool.
Groupie culture has been inherently sexualised for so long that there’s an assumption nowadays that ‘over-enthusiastic’ female fans must want to fuck a member of the band. This simply isn’t true—maybe they just like the music? Why are male fans never put into this box? Why is female taste dismissed and simplified to something merely aesthetic, as if they don’t know good music when they hear it? And maybe they do admire the band from an aesthetic perspective—they are on a stage, after all—but this isn’t the be-all and end-all of feminine interest.
Or maybe they do want to fuck a member of the band. Maybe there are some women who just can’t overcome their indie-pop longing, their sweater-vest obsession. Maybe that’s all part of it. And maybe these men don’t know how to be adored, or maybe they just don’t know how to talk to women because they stick themselves in masc-only echo chambers. But at the end of the day, there’s one universal truth: there would be no success, no fulfilment for a performer, without an audience. And groupies are the most committed, the most invested members of that audience. They’re the ones who’ll come to ‘all of your shows, scream the words that you wrote’ (to quote the local alt-pop queens Sure Boy). They’re the ones who’ll be with you till the end, uplifting your career all the way.
To have an emotional investment in any form of art, in this case live music, only fosters long-term support for an artist, and a purity of enjoyment and involvement as an audience member. To have a sexual or sensual element to that investment is something that’s been occurring within the scene for decades, and has helped catapult many men to stardom: thus is groupie culture not fuel for the pursuit of a performer’s dreams? Are groupies not providing an elevating platform with their voice?
I feel that sexualisation is inevitable within the music scene, a natural outcome of men putting themselves on stages and so often exuding such charisma, talent and charm—especially when this is paired with the conventionally attractive qualities celebrated by white patriarchy and idolism. But women shouldn’t be vilified for it, when the reverse is also entrenched in the culture. Men will often demonise women for being ‘too enthusiastic’ (a direct quote addressed to me by a member of my ex-favourite band), but I also frequently perceive these men making assumptions about the nature of a woman’s passion while simultaneously chasing a ‘rockstar aesthetic’ by pursuing these female fans in a way I have often felt to be shallow and disrespectful. Thus we can see that sexuality is, in fact, a fundamental part of both human nature and the artistic experience—we can only encourage mutual respect within the communication of these attractions so it can be a positive and fulfilling facet of the culture, rather than tainted by modern misogyny and an absence of emotional nuance.
One of my favourite portrayals of groupie culture in media is the 2000 banger Almost Famous, from which I quote: “they don’t even know what it is to be a fan . . . to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts”. As a groupie, this quote deeply resonates with my personal experience of being passionate to the point of being dismissed and misunderstood. But the thing is: it doesn’t have to hurt. To give love, to support, to dance, to sing, to adore . . . it shouldn’t hurt. This is why we need to create space in our scene for fans and vocal, shameless enthusiasm. This is why we need to stop the masc-centric gate-keeping of an industry that is upheld by those fans, and instead appreciate all the different roles there are to be filled in such a vibrant scene.
Appreciating music has been a cornerstone of humanity for thousands of years, and we shouldn’t allow that instinctive passion to be appropriated by subconscious misogyny, to separate us, to put us into boxes. Instead, we should realise that it’s music that brings us together, that enables us to share an expression of our soul whether we’re on the stage or off it. Groupies are not a niche to be mocked, or a cultural subtype to be invalidated. They are an embodiment of love, and encouragement, and support, and if that relationship’s respected, the mutual benefit will contribute to a community built on inclusivity rather than exclusivity—where everyone can be empowered, and proud of their involvement, and feel like they belong.