Music criticism in the time of stans and haters

Last November, Taylor Swift posted a call for help on her Tumblr page. “Don’t know what else to do,” she wrote, then detailed a dispute between her and two men: Scott Borchetta, the founder of Big Machine Label Group, and Scooter Braun, a talent manager. Borchetta and Braun, Swift said, controlled her master recordings, and they were preventing her from performing back-catalogue hits at the American Music Awards. Near the end of her note, Swift appealed to her fans: “This is where I’m asking for your help. Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this.” 

The language of Swift’s message was benign; still, it unleashed the feverish collective will of her millions of followers and fans, who flooded social-media accounts belonging to Borchetta and Braun. The episode made clear that Swift, like many popular artists, holds a powerful trump card: a massive, loyal social-media following that will advocate on her behalf. 

ICYMI: Can music journalism transcend its access problem?

Last year, several music journalists found themselves facing off with similarly devout and massive social-media followings, after an artist responded publicly to a published story or album review. Some fans inundated inboxes and social-media profiles with spam and abusive messages. Others went over the journalists to their editors and pleaded that they be fired.

In April, Rawiya Kameir reviewed Lizzo’s Grammy-nominated album Cuz I Love You for Pitchfork. In the review, which gave the album a numerical rating of 6.5 out of 10 points, Kameir offered praise and criticism in turn. In response, Lizzo tweeted, “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” (The tweet was later deleted.) In a Reddit thread committed to discussing the review, one Lizzo stan wrote: “To everybody agreeing with/defending this review: you’re first on the list when it comes time for the guillotine.” Others chimed in with similar allusions to violence. 

In September, when Ann Powers, a music critic for NPR, tweeted a link to a lengthy critical essay she had written about Lana Del Rey’s latest album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey replied, “I don’t even related to one observation you made about the music.” She added: “So don’t call yourself a fan like you did in the article.” Stans joined the thread, copying Powers on tweets that called critics “professional assholes” and, in one case, simply said, “End her.” In an essay for Slate, Powers said she was OK through the ordeal, but shared a slew of other instances of targeted abuse following publication of her work.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In November, Amanda Palmer, a solo artist and former Dresden Dolls vocalist, accused Laura Snapes, the Guardian’s deputy music editor, of blacklisting her from the publication. Snapes responded by detailing what she termed a “bizarre campaign” of “unsettling” behavior, which included a request for comment from a journalist who Palmer had hired, and who asked Snapes to respond to Palmer’s characterization of her as “most definitely not a fan.” 

 

THE RELATIONSHIP between musicians and the culture critics who write about them has long been coolly resentful, if not openly adversarial. 

But the relationship has fundamentally changed in the age of social media. Previously, such dust-ups weren’t as visible; now, they play out in an arena whose artist-loyal audiences can reach into the millions, and, as Snapes says, may confront a writer who lacks the manpower to respond. “No music critic has got 100,000 followers,” Snapes says.

The cultural currency and power of music criticism and journalism have been reduced, too. Unlike the era in which Christgau penned a literal Consumer Guide, fans no longer rely on critics’ recommendations for what albums to buy; streaming services make nearly everything available for a monthly fee. Flanked by fans who don’t rely on the music press to access or learn about their icons, famous artists can hold their relationships with financially-challenged music publications hostage on condition of favorable coverage—coverage that most publications in an click-driven economy can’t afford to pass up.

In real terms, these dynamics punish dialogue, nuance, and even careful dissent, inching us towards a hegemonic monoculture and away from a rich, plural understanding of artists and the writers who engage with their work. Discussions of artistic merit are pushed toward a binary choice: love it or hate it.

“Either you’re a stan or you’re a hater,” says Lindsay Zoladz, a music critic. In reality, “most of our responses to music fall in some grey area in between.” In 2012, Zoladz reviewed Lana Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die, for Pitchfork, which assigned the record a rating of 5.5 out of 10. Though she then wrote favorably about Norman Fucking Rockwell! for The Ringer, she still receives emails from Del Rey fans who take issue with her previous review. 

Music writers, says Kameir, are considered by the public to be an extension of an artist’s publicity machine. “There’s a fundamental problem with toxic positivity, wherein anything that isn’t hyperbolical praise is considered malicious or hateful,” she says. Fans, Snapes notes, “are happy if they agree with us, but if they don’t, they’re the first people to be like, ‘Music criticism? What? This is a job?’”

That sentiment can be weaponized by the music industry. “These multinational corporations have basically convinced fans that they’re fighting for the little guy,” says Snapes, “when actually they’re just defending the ultimate corporate interests.” In a December essay for Medium, writer Alex Pappademas interpreted the 2010s as a decade during which our culture industries encouraged and capitalized on fans as “a volunteer army of PR freelancers for the biggest media companies in the world.” 

“[F]unctionally it’s a mass movement rising up to defend a Goliath against the impertinence of a David,” Pappademas wrote.

The impact of a fan backlash depends in part on job security and institutional support, Snapes says. “If anything got really hairy online, I can get [The Guardian’s team] to help me,” she says. “I’ve definitely heard some freelance writers, and especially women who do not want to deal with a heightened level of irritation online, saying that they will not write such visible negative reviews because it’s not worth the trouble that comes with it.” 

A number of freelance writers contacted for this story said that they worry over whether sharing their honest assessments is worth the potential social-media backlash. “I’d listen to mediocre work and wonder, ‘Is [reviewing it] worth drummer of said band finding an old photo of me with a swoopy haircut from 2009 to put me on blast?’” Connor Atkinson, a freelance writer and copy editor with the Toronto Star, says. Jack Hamilton, a freelance writer and an assistant professor of American Studies and Media Studies at the University of Virginia, says he just deletes abusive emails; still, he adds, “It’s not like it completely rolls off you.”

Every writer interviewed for this story agreed on the validity and importance of dialogue between artists and music critics. Kameir cites the friendship that developed between Jay-Z and writer/director dream hampton after the rapper called hampton about a negative review she wrote. The two agreed to disagree, and eventually became collaborators. “Maybe that’s a best case scenario: conversation,” says Kameir.

PREVIOUSLY: As classical music faces a changing world, so do its critics

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. His work has been published by The Guardian, Globe and Mail, Pitchfork, and CBC.