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The Record Review Logs On: YouTubers as Music Critics

The Record Review Logs On: YouTubers as Music Critics
The Record Review Logs On: YouTubers as Music Critics By Angel Zhang
By Andrew K. Choe, Crimson Staff Writer

When you think of the most important players in the music industry, pop stars, managers in suits, and record labels might come to mind. Yet today, one of the most powerful figures in music may well be a bespectacled man ranting into a microphone about albums from the comfort of his bedroom studio. With over 2.83 million subscribers, Anthony Fantono’s YouTube channel The Needle Drop has brought the record review to the main stage of social media and popular culture. Fantano’s success has pioneered a growing genre of content creators on video sharing and streaming services who seek to transpose music journalism to new media platforms and wider audiences. These video reviews share their print predecessors’ earnest zeal for sharing music, but they more fully embrace the subjectivity and the personal quirks that shape our music-listening experiences.

Structurally, video platform album reviews follow the traditional format for music criticism. Like Pitchfork’s much-scrutinized articles, content creators provide context about the artist, highlight key examples that shape the reviewer’s take on the record, and conclude with a reflection on the work’s impact for both the artist’s career and popular culture. The sweet spot for YouTube reviews seems to hover around 10 to 30 minutes, but especially meaningful or provocative works may evoke reactions over an hour in length. While the word and space limits of print journalism force writers to spare words, the freedom of self-produced content allows critics to gush, rant, and wax philosophical opinions to their heart’s content.

Indeed, an overwhelming passion for music once again seems to be what sustains and provides the appeal for this format of record review. Fantano begins videos by announcing himself as “the internet’s busiest music nerd,” a title he defends by posting near-daily videos in addition to holding livestreams on Twitch. It’s almost endearing to imagine him listening to all the latest releases and poring over liner notes to find trivia tidbits for viewers. Furthermore, seeing and hearing someone speak communicates emotion and tone better than the written word, and YouTube’s music creators use this aspect to the fullest extent.

The Needle Drop features its host gesticulating, thoughtfully scratching his mustache, and honing his sing-songy yet comforting made-for-radio voice. In his critical assessment of rapper Lil Pump’s 2023 album “Lil Pump 2,” Fantano begins by scoffing at the record’s mere existence before sarcastically mocking, “I can’t believe this new mixtape of material from Sir Pumperton, the Littlest Pumpernickel, is not good.” Try putting that in print.

And though he seems perpetually miffed at the state of music today, Fantano can also be vulnerable and honest about songs that are meaningful to him. In a review of The Beatles’ recently released single “Now and Then,” he recognizes the song’s history and cultural impact while still remaining objective and criticizing some of the musical elements of the track itself.

AjayII, a YouTube creator with 1 million subscribers, contrasts with The Needle Drop’s stuffy monologue format by including soundbites from the songs she talks about and interspersing her musical commentary with reactions, from screaming with joy to hosting spontaneous dance sessions, while breaking down a record.

Even Todd in the Shadows, a content creator who obscures their identity by showing only a shadowy silhouette seated at a piano in their videos, uses anonymity as a personal brand to stand out in the ever-growing field of YouTube music journalists.

The video form allows music critics to fully express their love for music, a contagious passion that can infect viewers better than any Pitchfork article. Still, it’s interesting to note how the format shifts some of the focus from the work being reviewed to the reviewer. The comments section on AjayII’s review of “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” from Taylor Swift features just as much appreciation for her refreshing review style as the record itself. One of the most-liked comments by user @bryleuu7918 sums it up: “girl you are unpredictable and i am here for it.”

Some music fans may prefer the more detached, impartial style of the written record review, and there’s undoubtedly merit in providing as objective an assessment of music as possible when presenting it to others. However, as we saw with Pitchfork’s reviews, there’s no real impartiality in music criticism. This new generation of self-made content creators thus begs the natural question: Why pretend there is impartiality, then? Content creators embrace the subjectivity of the genre by sharing the stage equally with the music and putting their passion and appreciation on full display.

—Staff writer Andrew K. Choe can be reached at andrew.choe@thecrimson.com.

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