Kevin Abstract and #THE1999: A Change in Audience

Figure 1. Screenshot from #THE1999.
(9 hours 55 minutes) [Accessed 27 April 2019]

In this essay I would like to look at fandom and active/diffuse audiences through the eyes of hip-hop artist Kevin Abstract, real name Ian Simpson, and his 10-hour movie, “#THE1999”. In which he walked on a treadmill for 10 hours outside his childhood home in Corpus Christi, Texas on April 26th, 2019. The whole event was livestreamed on the official Brockhampton YouTube channel. About an hour into the livestream, he is surrounded by young teenage fans asking for pictures and autographs. Simpson tries his very best to sign and pose for pictures with everyone, however, this film is in hindsight believed to be a social commentary on fame. What makes fans actively want to show up to grab pictures with a sweaty man?

Kevin Abstract’s first album came out in 2014, however he got a lot of attention through his second album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (2016), where he openly talks about many of the issues of growing up, being homosexual and life in general. After this album things took a turn with his career with new music for Brockhampton. A music and art collective Simpson founded in 2015 with friends and strangers from a Kanye West forum. Throughout 2017 the collective released the “Saturation” trilogy, three studio albums in the span of around 6 months. Critics ate it up, praising the group for their innovating sound and lyrics, singing and rapping about abuse, insecurities and sexuality. The group blew up and went on to accumulate a big fan base and in 2018 reportingly signing a 15-million-dollar deal with RCA records (Knopper, 2018). This is all important information when we dive deeper into the reasoning for Simpson’s fandom being somewhat unemphatic throughout the livestream.

On March 29th Kevin Abstract posted a video on his social media accounts, where a bunch of clips intercut with small messages, one of them being “Teach me Empathy”. On April 4th the second teaser followed with the same message. He followed up by releasing his third studio album, ARIZONA baby in three parts over three weeks. The release of this album had a few music videos attached with it. One being for the song Baby Boy, where he dedicates a whole minute before the song to a conversation between two people, where one of them compliments the other, which in a literal sense is about just what was teased, empathy. Why is it that the message of this project is about empathy, but supposed fans is not showing much of it throughout the livestream? Are they really fans or have the term fan changed?

#THE1999 film was announced via Instagram and Twitter on April 26th and the livestream started right after. In a now deleted tweet made by Ian Simpson, he brings up the fact that many fans speculated Shia LaBeouf was a huge inspiration for the project. Simpson says he met the actor, who then gave him the idea for the project. LaBeouf also did a similar project back in 2014, where he put a paper bag over his head with text reading “I am not famous anymore” over the front. A more focused commentary on fame, where he himself was the main character. LaBeouf, who is originally an actor, did another, more well-known social experiment back in 2016 called “He Will Not Divide Us”. A 24-hour, 7 days a week livestream outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York where people could come to protest the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. This project went through many “phases” and has since been replaced with a simple flag being livestreamed 24-hours a day. Simpson’s livestream has similarities, however uses multiple cameras throughout the 10 hours of filming. The main one being static centred right on Simpson. The biggest difference between the two projects are clear. Shia LaBeouf wasn’t a big part of his anti-Trump project, he wasn’t the main character, Simpson’s project is directly revolved around him and his fandom. Let’s get more into specifics, what really defines a fan and a fandom?

Figure 2. Deleted tweet from Kevin Abstract’s twitter [Accessed 6 May 2019]

The word fan means “a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular person or thing” (Oxford Dictionary). Fandom is described as “The state or condition of being a fan of someone or something” (Oxford Dictionary). In the case of Kevin Abstract are people who have a strong interest in his music and other creative endeavours. Fandom’s nowadays operate on different social medias and forums, like Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit and Twitter. Simpson’s fandom consists of mainly teenagers who directly relate to his struggles, one of these being an openly homosexual man, who has struggled in life and is still trying to find his footing. You can see examples of this in the embedded #THE1999 livestream.

Henry Jenkins (1992) writes about how fans pay close attention to whatever they are fans of and involves learning how the community likes to read those “texts”. In this instance the word text means messages and song lyrics throughout Simpson’s album and Instagram account, but in other instances it could literally mean text, like for example in Harry Potter. In the instance of Kevin Abstract’s project, why are the fans just mindlessly following a trend of getting pictures and autographs? I would argue fans have changed from engaging as much with the artist to now getting pictures and autographs as bragging rights to friends. This goes over to the second concept about different audiences.

The active/diffuse audience are according to Nick Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst (1998) split up into three different audiences. Simple, mass and diffuse. The simple audience is defined as someone who listens and has a deep connection to the artist, an active listener. An example of this would be someone who follows the artist outside of just listening to their music. The mass audience is more of a casual listener who doesn’t involve themselves too much with the artist, a passive listener. An example for this is simple an artist you listen to sometimes or often, but don’t follow outside of their music. Finally, the diffuse audience is the idea that everyone is the audience, even if you are not an active or passive listener, you are still apart of the audience.

While it makes sense to refer to mass audiences as low attention by comparison with simple audiences, it also over-simplifies. It would be more accurate to say that mass audience move in and out of attention. For example, many households will have the television set on for most of the evening but pay particular attention to favourite programmes, soap opera for example.” (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998, p. 68)

The internet has made it a lot more accessible to find out about artists and others. Through apps like Instagram, Twitter and even YouTube, fans are engaging a lot more with their favourite creators than ever before (Elena-Iulia, 2018). An active audience are clearly still what Abercrombie and Longhurst once talking about over 20 years ago but have evolved. Kevin Abstract has 432 thousand followers on Twitter and 555 thousand followers on Instagram. I would argue that being a person of interest or celebrity in the modern day is a lot more about audience engagement than it is anything else. Furthermore, social media plays a big part in everyday life, people spend hours on for example Twitter looking through tweets from their favourite artists or celebrities. The term “Twitter stan”, who is someone following an artist religiously on Twitter (Oxford Dictionary), has become their own terms just from the enormous fan interaction on Twitter. These fans will get into any fight with someone else over anything and always keep their favourite(s) above others. Social media and the internet have made it a lot easier to become an active audience.

I had a look on the Brockhampton subreddit, r/Brockhampton, where discussions about Kevin Abstract and his boyband happen daily. Reddit is a forum website where users can comment, upvote and downvote content. Inside of Reddit exists subreddits, which are smaller communities where users can join, chat, discuss and posts memes about a specific topic (Hoan Le and Mao, 2018). Particularly, the “GAME THREAD: #THE1999 LIVE STREAM”, which had discussions ranged from what the livestream could mean to people’s reactions to what fans said and did and what Simpson said throughout the 10 hours. Here are two examples of user’s comments in that thread.

“Everyone keeps saying that Kevin looks uncomfortable but I think that’s the point of all this, he’s mentioned in the past shit abt his anxiety with people & fans, not to mention he’s also wearing a hoodie in 80 degree weather which is uncomfortable as hell. The point IS to be uncomfortable and this is like his way of processing that feeling and turning it into his own piece of art.“ (Shige_)

“I know most kids there are probably like 15-18 years old and their judgement probably isn’t that great, but man like Kevin is still just a 22 year old kid that probably has a ton of interesting things to say about life and they’re just harassing him with autographs and shit. This is such a perfect opportunity to just talk to someone and learn about them and maybe even make a friend.” (hk0202)

The one thing I want to make sure is considered when looking at well thought out answers like this is that these are from the majorly active followers, browsing for Brockhampton and Kevin Abstract exclusive content on the r/Brockhampton reddit page is I would argue is a sort of connection between the artist and fan. Which brings this back to Abercrombie and Longhurst’s argument that an active fan has a connection and is involved more so than other people with the artist’s art. What could also be considered is the fact that the livestream was announced through social media and livestreamed on YouTube. Wouldn’t that mean that only active followers would know about the event in the first place?

The argument of what an active fan is, is a difficult topic. Jenkins argues that fans pay close attention to the shows they watch, the music they listen to and the media they engage with. I would argue differently. New technologies bring new ways to connect and easier ways to gain popularity and fame. Instagram have made it so much easier to become famous and the youth recognize it. YouTube has made it easier to watch music videos than it was when the only way was on MTV. The current state of wanting attention online and becoming somewhat relevant in the eyes of the public has become an obsession for youth around the world. One example of that is when you look at Instagram and the hashtag (#) THE1999, multiple photos from the event taken by fans who met with Simpson on the scene. Fanart and discussion are also a part of this engagement.

The three different statues of fans I would argue aren’t all that correct. The case study of #THE1999 and Kevin Abstract is an example of why. There are two different outlooks in this scenario, either the term of active audience has changed, or there is now a fourth “active mass audience” which is a fuse of the two. The audience who does actively involve themselves with the artist and material they produce but lack the understanding or are just there because it is an event. Like for example, Coachella. Every year you can find pictures of people’s outfits from Coachella, and even though it is mainly a music festival, the fashion and social media aspect of the event have become a big part of it all (Cormany, 2015). This statement might lack actual factual evidence, but Coachella could be said to have evolved into something more than just a music festival.

The other outlook is I would argue is that time has changed the way we interact. Social media has made it easier to follow and get notifications on your phone when someone tweets. This gives them a closer relationship to the person of interest while not really at all. The argument that social media has influenced our social skills in a good or bad way is arguments for another essay. Some fans use this new wave of social media to try and promote themselves as well.

The term “clout chasers” is also thrown around and could relate when talking about this possible fourth audience. The word clout can be translated to influence or power, so a direct translation of a clout chaser would be an influence chaser. Someone trying to gain influence, often in the modern day by backpacking off other’s successes (Oxford Dictionary). This type of person was somewhat prevalent in the livestream, as throughout the 10 hours, multiple people shouted out their Instagram and twitter handles (@). I would argue that clout chasers have very little empathy for someone who has worked hard for where they are currently standing. They might not have malicious reasoning for doing what they’re doing, however they miss the message of Simpson’s album and his film. The new audience are hungry for fame themselves, however this does not mean everyone who came for signatures and pictures were there to promote themselves, empathic or not this is an important factor to keep in mind.

What does empathy really mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it means, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Ian Simpson uses this emotional album and movie to show us what it really means. There are two different parts to this, one of them being that viewers felt bad for Simpson in the situation, as seen in Reddit comments. Towards the end of the 10 hours, he seemed tired and there were still a flock of people around him. Secondly, there are also the fans who showed up to the location, by ultimately making an example out of them by using their actions to convey a broader message.

“This is genuinely pissing me off. His fans used to be way more down to earth. When he did a meet up after his Seattle show in 2016 everyone seemed to actually care about Kevin and expressed genuine things with him. This is now just a cringey clout fest. He’s straight up being used as an object.” (Joerauby)

Already touched on earlier in the paper about how internet culture has shifted, this comment from the Reddit thread speaks for itself. This user feels as if fans are not connecting with artists like they used to, conflicting with what Jenkins once wrote about back in 1992. This might not mean all the active audience. The reddit community seem to all get what was going on, however most of them are also in the active audience who engages with the artist more often than others. Actively looking at the comments on the #1999 discussion post on r/Brockhampton shows discussions of fans talking down on the ones showing up just to shout out their Instagram, the clout chasers, who also got the most hate throughout the discussion, like seem in the comment above.

I have actively been following Kevin Abstract since the end of 2017 after Brockhampton put out their third studio album and have always found his lyrics to be very fresh and exciting. Which means this case study was interesting for me to analyse. I started writing this essay on the day the #THE1999 was livestreamed because I found it so interesting that so many fans showed up to take pictures and get signatures. I felt uncomfortable watching it, it felt very real and I felt a lot of empathy for Simpson for putting himself through what he did. I think the project will not get the recognition it deserves but is an important piece of evidence to look at when it comes to changes to audience’s behaviour.

While writing this essay I have learnt a bunch about fandom, audience and participatory culture. I did not know anything about the difference in audience. Even though I am arguing that they are changing, I still see a lot of active, mass and diffuse audience characteristics in modern day media. I especially think diffuse media is interesting as I have never actively thought of everyone as an audience. I have always thought of active and mass audiences as “the audience”. I now see that diffuse, active and mass audiences all have important roles in the modern media, and I have a better understanding of what kind of effect this has on us.

After writing about audience and their consumption of media, I feel like I will be more aware of my own consumption. I can now think about which artists I actively follow, and which where am I just apart of the mass audience. I personally know I actively follow Kevin Abstract’s work by reading his tweets, listening to his music and being involved in his fandom. I am also a mass audience to a lot of other music, that I casually listen to but don’t engage further with and I am also a diffuse audience to everything happening around me.

The topic of audience and modern fandom needs a lot more researching and this essay has been a small dive into the topics at hand. In conclusion, I would argue Kevin Abstract and #THE1999 is a clear example of a change in how audiences behave and goes against the three Abercrombie and Longhurst once said they were. If there is a fourth group of fans or if the terms have changed over time, is unclear and more research is needed to be sure of it, however, the arguments discussed in this essay is a step in this direction.

The fans approaching Simpson in his 10-hour run weren’t all rude and unemphatic, I would argue there was a clear split between those who were and weren’t. Looking back at the livestream, it clearly shows a message. Active, involved fans who care about him as an artist got this message. The fans who didn’t might have seen it in retrospect and learned from the experience. The use of empathy and fan engagement I would argue was a social commentary on fame. Simpson was inspired by Shia LaBeouf, who has previously also done a social commentary on fame by wearing a paper bag over his head with the words “I am not famous anymore” written across it. Simpson claims in a deleted tweet he talked personally to the actor, who gave him the idea for the #THE1999, and possibly its deeper meaning. As of 2019, Ian Simpson has not confirmed any theorises about the project, but according to my own research on the Brockhampton subreddit, it does seem like the active fans knows what he means by it.

Finally touching on the argument of why fans would do this, I argue that audience and their ways of doing things are changing. The internet, social media and the easier way to communicate and engage with their favourite artists have breached the gap between audience type. Active, mass and diffuse audience are still relevant terms, however there are more to them then there was 20 years ago, and they are probably going to change even more over the coming years.


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