Every month or so, the internet latches onto a new buzzword: gaslighting, toxic, normalize—I could go on. These past few months, another word has emerged, sparking much controversy in the world of music: gatekeeping. What is it? What does it mean? And what does it have to do with some of your favorite underground artists who are suddenly not so underground?
Urban Dictionary (everyone’s favorite scholarly source) defines gatekeeping as “a word used to describe when someone sets a standard/limit on what someone must do to call themselves a 'true fan' of something/someone.” To me, the term sparks images of two guys standing outside of a party, quizzing potential party goers about their knowledge of the host and attendees with the inquisitive: “Who do you know here?” Fans of an artist become defensive and unwilling to share their music taste with newer fans, often deeming them as “fake fans.”
When I first heard about gatekeeping, I was immediately on the defense. Why would I want to share my music taste with people who won’t appreciate it the way I do? I have a lengthy and convoluted relationship with music. Sixth grade was the conception of my music obsession. I have moved through phases of pop-punk (Pierce the Veil and Sleeping with Sirens) to indie pop/rock (The 1975, Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend) to 90s shoegaze & modern dream pop (Cocteau Twins, DIIV, My Bloody Valentine). Throughout each phase, I have always had an underlying feeling of superiority to my friends who shamelessly listen to top 40 hits. In high school, I prided myself on “discovering” artists like Mac Demarco and Wallows years before my peers. Although I’ve outgrown my introductory indie phase, I still exhibit a residual superiority complex.
My first tangible experience with gatekeeping occurred with the now popular experimental hyperpop group, 100 gecs. In November of 2019, I purchased tickets to see BROCKHAMPTON at a venue in Dallas. 100 gecs was one of the openers for the rap group’s Heaven Belongs to You tour. I was familiar with their sophomore album, 1000 gecs, and was excited to see them perform live. Although BROCKHAMPTON fans pride themselves on their experimental and “unique” taste, about 85% of the crowd turned their noses up at Laura Les’s and Dylan Brady’s eccentric moves and robotic sounds. Fast forward to March of 2020 when 100 gecs’ “money machine” blew up on TikTok. Suddenly, BROCKHAMPTON fans were “loving” 100 gecs, gravitating toward their abstract electronic sound. However, 100 gecs fans recalled the negative response that the band had received just months prior. This sparked online discourse about the validity of 100 gecs’ new fans and whether or not they could call themselves fans. Gatekeepers of the duo felt the need to quiz new fans on their knowledge of 100 gecs discography beyond the popular tracks from 1000 gecs.
The gatekeeping conversation has been prevalent for as long as music has existed. But it has made its name in a big way on TikTok. TikTok has made a lasting impact on how we discover music. Just glancing at the Billboard Hot 100 feels like scrolling through my For You Page. Numerous artists have risen to fame exclusively through TikTok: Flo Mili, Saweetie, and ROLE MODEL. What sets TikTok music discovery apart from conventional forms of music discovery is the accessibility and speed with which TikTok songs become popular. TikTok audios go from a few hundred videos to hundreds of thousands videos within a matter of days. Those who pride themselves on being on “alt TikTok” had the pleasure of hearing artists such as Tame Impala, Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers long before they garnered any attention on the internet. Long time fans feel frustrated when “fake fans” come across an artist’s most popular song through a highly saturated video of a gaggle of New York teenagers frolicking through a skate park, looking fresh out of an Urban Outfitters catalog. These old fans also feel threatened knowing that the sanctity and anonymity of their favorite artist will soon be done away with. Do gatekeepers have a right to be frustrated? Or is this an overreaction?
I am in two minds when it comes to gatekeeping. Just because someone is a new fan of an artist, that does not necessarily make them a fake fan. If I had been met with the same animosity that adamant gatekeepers have, I would have missed out on a plethora of artists that are fundamental to my current music taste. Sometimes you love an artist so much that you want to tell everyone about their music. One could even argue that the latent function of music is the sense of community that it brings. Despite some predominantly white and male genres of music—punk, rock, and EDM—still enforcing strict guidelines on who can and cannot enjoy their music, music is often characterized by its ability to unify listeners.
Conversely, people who claim to be fans of something they have a surface level interest in are objectively the worst. Music is a personal experience that was created to make each listener feel special. Perhaps gatekeepers are only trying to preserve these feelings of individuality when proudly proclaiming that their favorite artist only has 93,000 Spotify monthly listeners. What radicalized my gatekeeping tendency was the sudden popularization of salvia palth’s dreamy tune “i was all over her.” In the midst of my high school sophomore year depression, salvia palth’s melanchole was the soundtrack to my life. It feels odd to see 15 year olds now making memes and videos to a song that holds such an important place in my heart. But everyone must start somewhere on their discovery of music. The beautiful thing about music is its innate subjectivity. The same song that invokes feelings of sadness and nostalgia in me could invoke joy in you.
As I have grown older, my gatekeeping habits have lessened but not fully disappeared. I have realized that music is meant to be shared and appreciated with the masses. A song’s popularity does not detract from its quality or poignance. Next time you want to condemn a new fan for their shallow knowledge of an artist’s music, try to empathize and recall your first encounter with that band. Or continue to condemn them. I can’t blame you either way.
Nandi Dube is a freshman in the College studying Sociology.