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Virtually Famous: Music Journalism in A Social Media World

Music Journalism in A Social Media World
Music Journalism in A Social Media World By Angel Zhang
By Andrew K. Choe, Crimson Staff Writer

Bob Dylan, one of the greatest American songwriters, built his career and public persona around mystery. Despite recording dozens of iconic songs, redefining rock music, and winning the Nobel Prize in literature, the music icon largely avoids the spotlight, rarely giving interviews and offering obscure answers when he does. Scholars and fans alike have speculated for decades that the folk singer’s reticence is a carefully calculated strategy that has transformed Dylan into a larger-than-life figure in American culture.

Whether this appraisal of Dylan is accurate, his approach to media and the spotlight is markedly different from how musicians today engage with audiences. With social media playing a larger role in determining the music we listen to — and music streaming platforms increasingly resembling social media with features such as followers and likes — artists have claimed greater control over how their music and narratives are communicated to the public, shifting some of the responsibility away from traditional music journalism outlets.

In the leadup to his 2023 album “Subtract,” pop star Ed Sheeran posted a weekly series of videos on his Instagram page called “Subtract Sundays,” in which he gave previews of songs on the upcoming album and described the personal experiences behind each track. While much of the music journalism world labels Sheeran as a purveyor of commercialized pop tunes, these videos expressed to his 47.6 million followers that there is genuine emotional backing behind his music.

As this column has sought to capture, the world of music journalism runs on passion. Though earnest love for music fosters appreciation in others, this zeal can also manifest as gatekeeping musical taste and imposing journalists’ narratives onto artists.

In addition to legendary solo careers, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris banded together in 1987 to record “Trio,” a beautiful, 11-track album that features stellar vocal arrangements and moving melodies. While the harmonies on the record suggest unbeatable chemistry, the supergroup’s members have recalled how members of the music scene initially viewed the three singers as competitors for the same country-rock niche at the beginning of their careers. In the years since its release, “Trio” has been interpreted as an affirmation of the group’s support for each other in a rock music scene dominated by men.

Last year, the indie-rock super trio boygenius, consisting of Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker, drew comparisons to “Trio” in light of the release of their debut album “the record.” The group took an active approach to communicating that the underlying dynamic of their relationship was not competition or commercial interests, but love. Instagram posts feature behind-the-scenes footage of the group relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. Their most-viewed music video for the song “Not Strong Enough” is simply a montage of tour footage showing these titans of indie music genuinely having the time of their lives together.

This narrative has not only shown fans that real relationships are the foundation of the band, but has also shaped how people listen to the group’s music. As the Pitchfork review of “the record” affirms, “It’s not just that their commitment to making music together pushes against the competitive forces of patriarchy … It is that the three women seem to actually love each other.”

It’s no longer just a record review or an impassioned Anthony Fantano rant that informs fans whether or how to listen to music. Artists themselves use social media and publicity to communicate that directly to audiences, instead of relying on the media or speculation. This shift reduces traditional journalism’s place in the music industry today. Indeed, the magic of Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous” — perhaps the greatest love letter to music journalism in the golden era of rock and roll — can be captured in a single Instagram post featuring tour footage from your favorite band. As seen with boygenius, shaping one’s own artistic narrative can be powerful. Even for Ed Sheeran, social media has allowed him to combat the hypercritical eye with which journalists view his music.

Where, then, does this leave traditional music journalism outlets? Although a social media post may hold more weight over some listeners’ music choices than a Pitchfork review, the community and passion that these journalistic spaces cultivate are invaluable. They’re especially important for artists who don’t have millions of followers on social media and aren’t selling out arenas on tour. Music journalists who remain committed to listening to any and all kinds of music affirm that there’s beauty and value in all kinds of music. As with many things, I think Sufjan Stevens described it perfectly in his song “Eugene”: “What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?”

—Staff writer Andrew K. Choe can be reached at

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