Leave Summer Walker Alone! Practicing Empathetic Fandom in the Social Media Age

R&B singer Summer Walker has shortened her First and Last Tour due to social anxiety.
Photo courtesy of LVRN Records.
R&B singer Summer Walker has shortened her First and Last Tour due to social anxiety.
When it comes to conversations surrounding mental health, American society has made some visible improvements. People seem to be more sensitive to the struggles of others, and therapy has slowly become destigmatized and more accessible with the popularity of websites like Talkspace. These strides toward improving mental health are welcome, but why does it feel as though the same considerate attitude hasn't been extended towards celebrities? As R&B singer Summer Walker’s canceled December 16 tour date at Revolution Live comes and passes us by, now's as good a time as any to reflect on why she dropped out in the first place.

Walker was scheduled to perform at the Fort Lauderdale venue as well as in 20 other cities around North America for her First and Last Tour. She decided to cut down the majority of her tour dates, and only wound up performing nine of her advertised 29 shows. The tour came hot on the heels of her successful debut album, Over It, which was released on October 4 and entered the Billboard 200 at #2.

Her first concert in support of the record was on October 26 at the Mala Luna Music Festival in San Antonio, Texas. Less than a month later, she took to Instagram to announce the tour was being shortened: “Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to finish this tour because it doesn’t really coexist with my social anxiety and my introverted personality.”
The revocation didn’t sit well with some of Walker’s fans, who were already upset at how the singer handles her meet-and-greet experiences. One disappointed fan’s account of her interaction with Walker went viral after she claimed the singer refused to hug or even touch fans backstage.

Walker promptly responded, explaining that she’s an empath, a person who can feel what others are going through emotionally.

“The transference of energy from that many people each day would literally KILL me,” Walker said in the post. There have been other stars that have taken this distant approach during meet-and-greets in the past. Avril Lavigne was famously among them (hence the awkward fan pictures that still haunt the internet), and after several years of taking part in the practice, Justin Bieber announced in 2016 that he would no longer offer meet-and-greet opportunities at his concerts.

Even with Walker’s candid openness, many fans remained unmoved. On social media, some branded her as just “being shy,” while others angrily accused her of “faking” it. The mockery got even worse when Walker was presented with the “Best New Artist” award at the 2019 Soul Train Awards on November 17. It was a monumental honor for the R&B songstress, but her social anxiety made it difficult for her to deliver a long speech onstage. The result was a hurried but sincere acceptance speech. Of course, memes ensued, and while most were all in good fun, there were also those that refused to believe that she truly struggles with social anxiety.
Walker is very aware of the narrative surrounding her, so much so that she won’t turn down the opportunity to clear the air over and over again. She directly responded to the criticism in an Instagram Live.

“I’m being bullied, okay?," Walker said. "I can not even accept an award in peace. You see me get my award and you see how I spoke on the stage. I was scared! Everybody else gave a long ass speech—I didn’t because I have social anxiety. Then everybody decided to say it was an act. I just want to let y’all know, this is how people commit suicide."

This isn’t the first time the online horde have persistently bullied a celebrity with a mental health issue. Look no further than Demi Lovato: The singer has been honest when discussing her battle with an eating disorder, but that doesn’t stop trolls from fat-shaming her. And after Lovato relapsed following six years of sobriety, leading to an overdosed and subsequent rehab stint last year, people decided to make memes about her drug use.

In light of the very tangible effects these sorts of remarks have on people's lives, maybe there are some things that aren’t meant to be joked about.

Nevertheless, not all Summer Walker fans are upset, and many came to the singer’s defense after the initial backlash. Marsha Phelima, a 22-year-old from Tallahassee, has been a fan of Walker for a year and had made plans to travel and attend the singer's Fort Lauderdale show. When Walker announced her tour had been condensed, she wasn’t angry as others.

“I was sad but understanding, because the concerts were taking a toll on her and she was receiving a lot of backlash,” Phelima says. She is especially sympathetic due to her own experiences with anxiety—her sister often has panic attacks.

“Noticing [my sister] hyperventilating out of nowhere and not knowing the cause of it is scary and heartbreaking,” she says. “[Social anxiety] is something [Walker] has no control over, so there’s no reason to judge her.”

As Walker herself said in her aforementioned post: “At the end of the day, I’m a person. I have feelings, I get tired, and I get sad.”

Karla Irizarry, a 20-year-old from Miami, had intended on catching Walker at Revolution Live and was looking forward to hearing “Playing Games” live. Although she was sad when she discovered the show was canceled, she still empathizes with Walker.

“She has every right to feel like her social anxiety takes over her ability to perform… Celebrities are humans too, we can’t expect them to be perfect,” Irizarry says.

Fans often forget that their favorite artists are people too, and deal with personal issues, traumas, stress, and complications in life just like the rest of us. It’s easy for a fan to place the subject of their admiration on a pedestal and view a celebrity as an unattainable idol—someone who may not even seem real. This dehumanization causes many to feel entitled to the celebrities they adore, especially after experiencing what they deem a personal connection with an artist through their work.

Once you've reached that point, it’s hard not to want to ask performers for a picture or reach for their hand while sitting front row at their concert. But it’s important to remind ourselves that no one is actually entitled to physical intimacy, even if you've paid for a concert ticket or a meet-and-greet package. More often than not, these artists weren’t born into the spotlight: Fame is something that they have had to speedily adapt to, and it’s tougher for some than others.

Keeping that in mind, save yourself and the rest of the world some time: Quit cyberbullying, respect the boundaries of strangers you happen to admire, practice a little empathy, and enjoy what artists do best: creating works that move us.