Anthony Fantano Is the Music Critic Who Matters (if You’re Under 25)

A few years ago, the Rhode Island noise rock band Daughters had an unlikely breakthrough, thanks in no small part to a goofy, baldheaded online enthusiast.

The group had just released its first new album in eight years, and although the music’s punishing heaviness wasn’t exactly welcoming to a wide audience, Daughters’ tour had sold out and its label noticed a sudden spike in sales and streams, the drummer Jon Syverson recalled.

Syverson, who was approaching 40, even heard from a cousin half his age, who’d excitedly tried to explain the uptick in attention. “Oh my God,” the teenager told him, “The Melon reviewed your album, he wore the yellow flannel and gave it a 10 out of 10!”

Syverson had no idea what his cousin was talking about. But to a certain subset of young music fans, Daughters might as well have hit the Powerball jackpot.

The influential evangelist in question is the YouTuber named Anthony Fantano, 34, who has been speaking album and song reviews directly into a camera for more than a decade on The Needle Drop, his channel with 2.26 million subscribers, making him probably the most popular music critic left standing.

Across thousands of videos on multiple platforms, including a recent partnership with the Amazon-owned livestreaming site Twitch, Fantano has built up a legion of followers and imitators who trade in nicknames (“Melon” is for the critic’s pale dome), inside jokes and Easter eggs (wearing a yellow flannel shirt signals a rave, red flannel means a pan). Along the way, he has helped to push a notoriously insular and endangered art form — the record review — toward a new default medium and younger audience.

“Obviously a lot of what is around now is heavily influenced by my aesthetic, my style, my delivery,” Fantano, a vegan teetotaler, said recently over FaceTime, where he was as long-winded as in his videos, which often top 10 minutes.

He noted that while he was not the first to bring the early YouTuber, articulate-rant treatment to music, he was meticulous about crafting his channel, studying competitors, including websites that still relied on the written word, and keeping his approach simple, intimate and communal.

“I was eating, sleeping and bleeding YouTube for quite a long time,” he said. “I had consciously chosen something that I found to be really uncomplicated, because I envisioned the delivery and the makeup as being something that was easy to copy, so other people could get in on the conversation.”

This month, Fantano posted a video on Twitter that seemed to prove his point, showing a child reviewing a new album by the rapper 6ix9ine with a preternatural bluster obviously modeled on his own. Lucas, 11, said he spent “hours a day, for years” watching Fantano and other YouTube music reviewers like Shawn Cee before building a bare-bones basement setup during the pandemic and starting a channel of his own.

ImageHe may not be able to sway opinion on a well-known rapper, “But I feel like I can break an artist — I do have the power to do that,” Fantano said.
Credit…Jillian Freyer for The New York Times

“My parents know I’m doing it, and they know that I’ll probably be something big one day,” Lucas said in an interview, adding that he was elated at being noticed by one of his heroes, and that he gained some 1,000 subscribers from the shout out. “A lot of people are telling me don’t let this go to my head.”

With more than 900 million views across his YouTube accounts, Fantano, who functions as an entertainer as much as a critic, has become a touchstone among music-focused, millennial and Gen Z content creators even as they refine and expand upon his format on platforms like TikTok.

Dev Lemons, a musician and college student whose @SongPsych account does bite-size criticism by-way-of music theory and news, called Fantano “a celebrity and an authority” among her cohort. “I know so many people that just won’t listen to something because Anthony Fantano was like, ‘It’s not worth your time,’” she said, noting that she has “looked into Pitchfork before,” but mainly consumes video reviews.

“There’s so much more personality,” she said.

Another college student and musician, Ethan Fields, 20, has used his time at home during the pandemic to build a TikTok fan base, savvily interpreting popular songs in the style of other musicians. Fantano, Fields said, was an early influence on his knowing and silly insidery content.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else like him, who’s had that reach,” Fields said. “If you told somebody on the street, ‘Name a music critic right now,’ if they’re under the age of 25, they’ll say, ‘Anthony Fantano.’” (Asked if he could even name another music critic, Fields had to take a moment. “Ummmm, let’s see … honestly … I’m trying to think. There’s a guy from Rolling Stone who loves U2?” he said. “David Fricke?”)

The old guard has not exactly embraced Fantano. Robert Christgau, a rock critic for more than half a century, has called Fantano’s career an “achievement,” but sniffed, “I don’t ‘watch’ reviews. I read writing.” In an email, Christgau added, “I literally never think about Anthony Fantano and would probably have trouble recalling his name. This isn’t a dis — I don’t know his work well enough to dis it.”

Over the years, Fantano has professionalized — working with a managing editor, a video editor, a booking agent and an entertainment lawyer (whose son was a fan) — but the look and feel of his videos has hardly changed since he started The Needle Drop in 2009, with a plain backdrop and a digital representation of the album cover in question over his right shoulder.

Such consistency, a result of his type-A workaholism, has been crucial to Fantano’s success. His output is regular and optimized: a review almost every weekday, plus immediate reactions to new tracks, music news and other recurring features on his second channel, which he started in 2017 to circumvent the YouTube algorithm. (“The more content you’re dropping on a single channel, the less likely it is that YouTube is going to appropriately promote all of it,” he said.)

His critical voice — earnest, adjective-heavy enthusiasm mixed with boyish, 4chan-inflected internet humor — and his taste, which can be eclectic but skews toward heavy rock, outré and experimental pop and rock-influenced rap, are also reliable. The only five albums to earn a perfect 10 from him are by Kendrick Lamar, the noise-rap trio Death Grips, the Kids See Ghosts duo of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, the aggressive rock band Swans, and Daughters, which he praised for its “nuclear bomb of cathartic hideousness” and “vile displays of auditory abuse.”

Predictably, The Needle Drop’s most popular videos take on polarizing stars like West, Eminem and Chance the Rapper, but Fantano often avoids big-ticket Top 40, which could bring him more views, in favor of proselytizing for something smaller or stranger. He referred to what he does as giving a “synopsis or CliffsNotes” for an artist or album, but also obviously values his role as a curator and tastemaker, too.

“There’s no number of negative reviews I can give to Nav that can end his career,” Fantano said, referencing his takedowns of the slyly popular rapper. “But I feel like I can break an artist — I do have the power to do that.”

A child of divorce raised in Connecticut, Fantano’ began his musical journey with the radio and MTV before he fell into hard rock and nu metal around the turn of the millennium, obsessing over bands like Korn and Slipknot. As a young teenager devoted to junk food, video games and file-sharing, he once weighed over 300 pounds, but lost nearly half of that as he got into punk and started wearing a six-inch mohawk to school.

At Southern Connecticut State University, Fantano threw himself into the college radio station, eventually becoming its general manager. Graduating into the dawn of a recession, he worked at a pizza place and interned at a local NPR station, where he briefly wrote about music and helmed a little-heard podcast that anticipated The Needle Drop. But an editor’s headline on a story he wrote, which inflamed Bob Dylan fans, convinced Fantano that he only wanted to work for himself.

It was a golden age of music blogs, and Fantano was watching the landscape shift underneath the usual gatekeepers, he said. But he struggled to build an audience for his personal website until he hit on an idea to stand out: “Just get on camera.”

A bigger fan of Tim & Eric and “South Park” than Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, Fantano felt no fealty toward the rock critical establishment, and said he was only ever an occasional reader of Pitchfork, the defining music publication of his generation. “Me and some of my friends thought it was funny when they did the Jet, monkey pee-pee video, you know?” he said, referring to an album review that was simply a crass YouTube clip.

Having spent a lot of time on the vulgar message board 4chan, Fantano infused his internet presence with winks, contrarian irreverence and attempts at humor, like a recurring “roommate” character that is just Fantano in a fake mustache. He became a favorite of the 4chan music forum known as /mu/, but Fantano’s flirtation with that world also led to controversy when he was accused in a 2017 article in The Fader of courting the alt-right with a spinoff channel that reviewed memes instead of music. The article was later deleted amid a settlement, and both sides are bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

Fantano said he started that channel to make more money from YouTube, and acknowledged that there were some “grubby, close-minded, young, aggressive male types hovering around the content.” (The Needle Drop’s audience on YouTube is only 6.5 percent female.) He said 4chan was “toxic and problematic,” yet also “where most internet humor draws back to — all of us are guilty of that original sin, in a way.”

Credit…Anthony Fantano

In the years since, he has become more vocal on social justice issues, adding, “My politics have become, as a result of reading things online, more intersectional.”

He chalked up the backlash he has faced to jealousy. “There’s an element of, ‘I would like to be in that guy’s shoes,’” he said. “Maybe people feel like I’m not entitled to my platform.”

Ultimately, it’s Fantano’s self-image as an outsider that continues to animate much of his work, even as he has become hugely popular, a sort-of gatekeeper of his own. Still, he maintains almost no relationship with record labels or the broader music industry, and said he has turned down numerous offers to be absorbed by a larger brand.

“I don’t want to have to sell my soul to basically make the same amount of money I’m making now,” he said.

As for the future of music criticism and his role in it, Fantano could only blow a raspberry. Does he even care? “In the traditional sense, probably not a lot,” he said after a long pause.

Whether it’s Instagram posts, TikTok videos or Twitter threads, Fantano added, “What’s most important to me is not the form that it takes, or the vehicle that it’s being driven to me in, but really that it’s observant, that it’s passionate, and that the people who are doing it care.”

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