how stan culture has changed the critics' role
Lizzo's recent clap back at a Pitchfork journalist highlights the impact of social media and superfans on the way we judge music.
Lizzo Cuz I love You
Last week flagged up a peculiar development in pop culture; criticism of critics for being critical. After Pitchfork writer Rawiya Kameir gave her new album Cuz I Love You a 6.5 out of 10, R&B singer Lizzo took to Twitter to voice her frustration, arguing reviewers who don’t make music themselves should be “unemployed”. A day later, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber chastised “blog” writer Morgan Stewart for mocking their joint performance at this year’s Coachella.
Both these incidents follow Nicki Minaj setting her stans loose on writer Wanna Thompson last summer, after she tweeted wondering whether the rapper could record “mature” music and “no silly” songs. She hadn’t @’ed Minaj directly, but her legions of fans naturally brought the tweet to her attention. In all three cases the artists’ fanbases set upon the people and publications who dared to comment without reverence; Minaj’s stans proving particularly vitriolic, posting pictures of Thompson’s four-year-old daughter and making death threats.
Hardly a year passes without some debate raging over the purpose of criticism, but this new strain of critic-criticising is very different from the usual self-indulgent guff about its moral function. The new problem is with its integrity. Individual writers are being vilified by artists, and their fanbases, for not paying absolute obeisance to the artist. Submit to their ineffable greatness or you’re a talentless hack.
The role of culture journalists hasn’t changed, but expectations of them have, and this has been partly fuelled by the impact of stan culture. There have of course always been superfans, but social media’s prominence in the celebrity press cycle has, inescapably, empowered these groups. On the one hand this is positive; fans have a more intimate, direct relationship with their hero, and can communicate and bond with other superfans.
But there is, as New York Times’ writer Joe Coscarelli wrote in the wake of the Nicki Minaj controversy, also a downside: “While mutual praise can cause both sides to feel warm and tingly, more charged interactions can leave those who have earned a star’s ire, like Ms. Thompson, reeling as eager followers take up the celebrity’s cause.” Stan culture can be a self-fulfilling cycle, a bubble of constant affirmation over an artist’s infallible greatness, so when that bubble is threatened to burst it galvanises a sometimes toxic response. There’s no space for criticism, whether it’s a flippant remark or valid address of something problematic.
Especially troubling is knowing artists are fully aware of the implications of their clap backs on journalists; they might feign ignorance or appear contrite after the fact, but they’re conscious of what their millions of devoted followers are capable of, and should be held to greater account for catalysing hateful pile-ons. The artist can also trust that, regardless of their misdemeanours or even crimes, their online fanbase will remain devoutly loyal, with Chris Brown as a depressing example. Just this week Chvrches singer Lauren Mayberry suffered numerous sexual assault and death threats from Chris Brown fans after alluding to the rapper’s history of domestic abuse in a public statement.
Artists now hold the power in the artist/critic relationship, not just in publicity terms, but economically. Given the precarious existence for most media, the risk of fan backlash or boycotting is significant, and it means that publications are forced to carefully consider what they write and publish. Lizzo’s off-hand comment about music journalists’ employment stability hits quite close to home in this current media climate.
Another key development in the changing nature of criticism is that there is arguably now greater pressure to focus on the narrative behind the artist, rather than critiquing the art itself. With the growing frequency of releases across the majority of artistic mediums, each album, film, book or exhibition needs a compelling, distinguishing hook to grab the attention of the press or casual fan, which will be sculpted by the PR, agent and management into a coherent narrative behind something’s release. This is then reflected by a fanbase naturally happy to buy into the heartwarming arc, but historically it’s been the journalist’s responsibility to see past the narrative and interrogate the art as art.
Pitchfork’s review of Lizzo’s album was explicitly sensitive to the narrative of body positivity and mental health recovery which surrounded the record. They not only acknowledged it, they – rightly – championed it; but they were also critical of the songs for being slightly homogenous, that the basslines, beats and harmonies weren’t as triumphant and joyous as her real-life victories.
Yet the review was seen by Lizzo’s fanbase as an attack on Lizzo’s story, projecting a bitter intent to tear Lizzo down on the part of the writer that simply isn’t there. As signalled by the criticism levelled at Pitchfork that they simply didn’t “get” the album, there is a growing struggle to divorce actual quality from the story and personality around the art. Any and all criticism is considered a personal hit job.
A similar risk to this is the neglecting of something’s artistic merit; by focussing on the uplifting backstory we sideline the gorgeous melody of the songs, the artfulness of the cinematography, the elegance of the brushwork.
Lastly, as discussed on the New York Times music podcast ‘Popcast’ last autumn, celebrities are exerting greater authority over the profiles they participate in, increasingly asking for interview questions in advance and final copy approval before publication, or only agreeing to the profile after demanding specific circumstances.
This power negotiation existed even before social media, to an extent, but the emergence of social media and stan culture has strengthened the artist’s hand; not only through the threat of boycotting if the artist is unhappy with the final copy or photos used, but because the artist can use social media to bypass the traditional magazine, tweeting their messages to fans directly or exhibiting photoshoots on Instagram instead.
The big achievement is no longer making the cover of a magazine; but a magazine getting their cover star. The power dynamic has inverted.
The swollen significance of artist narrative and stan culture suggests that the only way a culture journalist can avoid obsolescence, or Lizzo’s recommendation of unemployment, is through buying into the shrieking love-in, to effectively participate as a stan, an obliging cog in the PR machine. Bite the bullet and toe the line or we won’t speak to you and our fans won’t engage with you, so you’ll lose readers, you’ll lose ad and subscription revenue, and your organisation flirts ever closer with layoffs or closure.