Intentionally Hyperfocused: On Amazon Prime’s “Swarm”
By Brienne AdamsJune 9, 2023
Nabers and Glover turn fandom into a verb by changing the name of the group from the BeyHive, represented by the bee emoji, to the Swarm. The typography for the title credits mimics that of the 1978 horror film The Swarm, where African killer bees are out to kill people while scientists attempt to subdue them and save the townsfolk from their fate. Dre is that killer bee, spurred on to kill those who disparage and fail to obsessively worship Ni’Jah (the stand-in for Beyoncé, played by Nirine S. Brown) and her Jay-Z–like rapper husband Caché (Stephen Glover). See, they even switched Bey’s French accent aigu to her fictional husband’s name! Check and double check. To really drive the point home, each episode (except for one) comes with the same warning: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” Got it. Totally made-up.
So, it was with great seriousness and greater intentionality that I sat down to engage Swarm.
When teaching students in my popular culture courses, most recently a class on Black fandoms, I always ask students why they are fans and, then, how they are fans. The responses are delightful: they often remind me that it is not enough to think about popular culture in the vortex of its own creative choices or capitalism and branding, but that we must also think about the resonance, relevancy, and significance these cultural objects have in our lives. How the digital shapes our identity screams through our fandoms, and to learn more, we must brave the loudest corners of the internet, which, let’s face it, can be downright sinister.
With the increasing popular interest in fandom, together with the popularity of true crime and depictions of US serial killers, the debut of a fictionalized series based on its more sensitive and obsessive subcategory, “stans,” is not surprising. Stans are not necessarily new, even outside of the 2000 Eminem song about an abusive boyfriend and dangerous superfan (named Stan). But fans and stans have always been a feature of our celebrity-obsessed culture, American celebrities being the closest domestic equivalent to royalty. Their glitz, glamor, and untouchable nature shroud celebrities in layers of secrecy. Fans believe that they know celebrities through their art and may form parasocial relationships with these artists to various degrees, believing (or, at least, feeling) that they know them. They don’t know their phone numbers, but they know their souls, and musicians are especially susceptible to this, as we listen to relate—even sing along—to an artist’s joy, pain, and struggle.
What separates yesterday’s fan snail-mail and our knowledge of fan cultures today is fandoms’ increased digital presence through social media, through real-time engagement. Fan cultures have gone from visible to hypervisible, and the distance between fans and their objects of fandom is rapidly eroding. And yet, what is the difference between a regular fan and a stan? Is it depth of knowledge, degree of passion, or something else?
While stans represent one extreme and sometimes deleterious faction of fan culture, to fan out is to fall in love. What happens when we expand our idea of love beyond the romantic or familiar and apply it to other relationships, even the parasocial ones? Since her passing, there has been a resurgence in public engagement with Black feminist scholar and cultural critic bell hooks, with special attention directed toward her books on love. In the first chapter of All About Love: New Visions (1999), hooks theorizes that love in popular culture is taken seriously only by male writers. She writes that, in all literature and media, “love is always the stuff of fantasy”; however, “[m]ale fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape. Hence, the romance novel remains the only domain in which women speak of love with any degree of authority.” But while hooks herself expressed strong concerns about Beyoncé and her audience, her notes on love, together with a retrospective look at the impact Beyoncé has had on her fans, offers a needed rebuke to a show like Swarm.
Indeed, hooks’s point about female fantasy is only compounded by Blackness and queerness, with few examples of a Black woman being entitled to, never mind respected for, the people and things she loves. I came to the show with high hopes: Dre, an antihero in the way television so often demands, is still representing a Black woman’s love of a Black woman’s art, even defending it! Yes! As I watched, I waited for several intentional moments in Swarm where we see the love and, dare I say, the “Crazy in Love” fans (sorry, it was right there). Unfortunately, that moment never really surfaces. The series instead proves hooks’s point that outside of the love-story genre, women’s desires and fantasies are not taken seriously. And Swarm is certainly not a romance, not even a bad one.
The premise of Swarm had promise. It could have expanded and married the idea of love to fandom, but it falls prey to continued bias towards Black queer and Black female desires. By heavily satirizing fan cultures, Swarm diminishes the communities it professes to make visible, namely those of BeyHive folklore. To wit: Beyoncé has specifically created art that is arguably for Black women (Lemonade, 2016) and Black queer people (Renaissance, 2022), and her fan communities have responded in kind. Their love letters to her art arrive in the form of their art, from syllabi to fan-made videos. They are indeed creating the realities they wish to see through the love they have for their fan object. They are discovering deeper parts of themselves and healing through their fandom.
It is easy to characterize fan cultures as delusional and violent: it is what captures our imagination in a media cycle focused on the salacious and deviant. In the series, the relationship between the Swarm and Ni’Jah, and specifically Dre and Ni’Jah, is lost, as their fandom makes them vulnerable to mockery, with Dre’s fandom purported to be the catalyst for her violent turn.
Even Stan, in Eminem’s song, begins as a fan expressing his admiration and hoping to hear back from him. His fandom devolves into obsession and domestic abuse after Eminem doesn’t answer his letter. The rejection from his love object is the catalyst of latent behaviors that Stan may have already possessed the capacity to enact. In Swarm, however, Dre’s background is intentionally missing, while the show digs deep into the workings of the BeyHive—I mean the Swarm. Dre’s personal backstory remains largely unknown until the series’ close, as we are left to understand Dre’s killing spree as being driven by a mixture of grief and abandonment, grossly displaced onto Ni’Jah. (And trust me, I did a lot of connecting-the-dots plot-wise to get to that conclusion.)
There is nothing that explores how Ni’Jah’s artistry has impacted her; there is no backstory for her fandom. As a fan and scholar, I was extremely surprised by this choice, as I was ready to lose myself in the world-building. I wanted to connect to Ni’Jah too! I was ready to fan out for this fictional artist. I was ready to fall in love. Especially since the source material for Ni’Jah was so intensely intentional. There was no room for imagination.
By shying away from the more positive aspects that Black women and queer audiences have shared around Beyoncé’s visual output and music, the show rehashes a series of much-parodied incidents documented by the real-life BeyHive on talk shows and news outlets. These include “the elevator incident,” which involved her sister Solange and husband Jay-Z after the 2014 Met Gala; a rumor that a successful actress bit Beyoncé on the face; and the death threats to an NBA owner’s wife, Nicole Curran, after Beyoncé, seated between the two courtside, was observed seemingly tuning out while Curran talked across her to Jay-Z. Dre even wears a clothing line called “Honey,” an ode to Beyoncé’s deal with Adidas to produce the clothing line Ivy Park. (An actual or similar piece for the line is featured specifically in the episode-six mockumentary “Fallin’ Through the Cracks.”)
The show’s clumsy way of rendering Dre’s connection to the Swarm is shown as threatening, all of her character traits and traumas secondary to her homicidal tendencies. At the same time, the series seems knowingly to indict the audience for searching for her backstory. As a character familiar with Dre tells a producer behind the camera: “You need there to be a reason she was so messed-up, so you don’t have to sweep your own front door and realize that you are just as flawed.”
Exactly. We are all flawed, and to make Dre a fully actualized character, I needed a little more, not to let myself off the hook but to become more invested myself. As hooks reminds us: “It is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives.” By mocking fans and stans, we ignore our own capacity for immense love and connection to worlds outside of ourselves that help us make meaning in this life.
We can misplace our flaws and act as if our inner stan doesn’t exist. We can insist: I am not like “them!” Glover directed Fishback not to find humanity in her portrayal of Dre, claiming that it was the audience’s job to find it instead. But the call is coming from inside the building, so why deny us the opportunity to connect to Ni’Jah and Dre’s story?
Are we all too invested as fans? Or is it, as hooks suggests, that the realm of love in our culture is not taken seriously, even scorned? Swarm takes a Black woman’s love for her fandom object and, with surreal and comical violence, pathologizes her feelings. The series may believe it is implicating stans, but really, it is revealing a lack of imagination, a dearth of heart.
Stans have the capacity to dox and harass innocent people online, as the series shows, but the swarm metaphor is muddled, with Ni’Jah proving even more shallow and two-dimensional than Dre. Stans and fans of Beyoncé have connected to her music on a personal level, as she sings about the societal issues that complicate Black people’s lives. Ni’Jah is no Beyoncé, and it’s not clear that the writers of the show are fans of either. Beyoncé’s artistry is so much more than vapid pop songs with no internal inspiration. With such intentional representation of the BeyHive, there was potential to really grasp fan cultures and dig deep into how the psyche of love could turn into obsession and potential violence.
Black people in digital fandoms come together to express their joy, see each other’s life experiences, and process aspects of their lives in their fandom communities. If we recenter love in the discourse on fandom and go beyond fantasy as the love objects of women, we can learn a lot more about our society. As ever, hooks provides the way: “But, like many women and men, I want to know about the meaning of love beyond the realm of fantasy—beyond what we imagine can happen. I want to know love’s truths as we live them.”
Fandom and stan cultures are love’s truths, as we live them. People live, eat, sleep, and breathe their relationship to each other in fan communities and to their fan objects. We hold on to our fandom objects to help us imagine what can happen in our own lives, and with a discography such as Beyoncé’s, one that provides the soundtrack to so many of our lives, we are left with another way that her artistry has been undervalued. Like her fandom, she is hypervisible at the Grammys but never appropriately rewarded because she caters to the desires of Black female and Black queer audiences.
We need to take the fandom and love shared between creator and fan, especially with themes pertinent to Black women, seriously. By expanding our definitions of love and relating it to fan cultures, we might even understand the reasons why fans so fiercely defend their fandoms, sometimes to the point of acting out. Swarm lacks the connection and relationship that fans have with their cultural object or their artistry. All it offers is a snarky parody, lacking the punchiness and capitalist critique that the most loving, charismatic satires need.
Brienne Adams is an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Georgetown University.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Aaron Bady reviews Scott Z. Burns’s new climate change series “Extrapolations” (Apple TV+)....
Philippa Snow reviews And Just Like that..., HBO Max's sexless, zombified, tragicomic return to Sex and the City ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.