The Past and Future of Music Journalism

Image Source: Anthony Fantano for The New York Times

For centuries, music criticism had been a strictly patrician occupation. Scholarly music discussion was reserved for the highest sects of European society, and even as classical performances became a consumer affair, those with enough money to attend would be limited in how they could voice their opinions. But the 1950s flipped music criticism on its head, marking the beginning of “the democratization of music criticism.” With the development of the LP, rock music became a new commercial force to be reckoned with, and in the 1960s, with albums like Blonde on Blonde and Astral Weeks, rock music was solidified as an art form, becoming the de facto successor to classical music (possibly because in its postmodern iteration, classical music had no room to evolve), and rock criticism succeeded classical criticism.

But from the 1950s to the 1990s, reaching a wide, interested audience would still require a spot with a publication and a stable financial status in order to afford the hundreds of records required to compile a sufficient knowledge of music history and tradition. That was, until, music criticism was flipped on its head once again in the 2000s with the development of the internet. MP3 sharing and YouTube allowed anybody to listen to nearly any piece of music ever released for free, and the creation of internet music forums available to everyone completed this “democratization of music criticism.” 

Perhaps no person represents the completion of this process as well as Anthony Fantano. From scrolling on 4chan to being called “the only music critic who matters (if you’re under 25)” by the New York Times, Anthony Fantano has become the defining image of the modern critic: internet bloggers sharing the music that sounds good to them. Fantano undoubtedly has his nuggets of great criticism, and the Times makes the justifiable claim that he is “bringing an old art to a new medium” and “ensuring its future,” but his reviewing style, focused on over-dissection of which elements of individual songs he enjoys, has been functionally watering down the craft to make it palatable for the audience created by music criticism’s democratization. The issue with Fantano is that he is just one of millions of internet music fans that happened to become an influencer, and I believe he’s establishing a bad precedent for the future of music journalism, centered around “long-winded” “articulate-rant(‘s)” which make the reviews feel more like the grading of a school project rather the examination of a work of art.

Gone are music criticism’s aristocratic days, which has brought an extremely rewarding occupation to a massive audience, without the boundaries of money or status. But I fear those limitations are not being removed but replaced, as budding critics are being conditioned to pump out palatable, stretched-out content in order to appeal to social media algorithms. Even as Fantano brings the “album review” into the 2020s, modern music criticism’s integrity may be lost in a wave of non-criteria, neo-commercialization, and rejection of standards brought on by the democratization of music criticism.