Opinion: Don’t Ask Me to Name Three Songs – The Toxic Truth of Gatekeeping Music

Author and Boyne City junior, Phoebe Holm, displays a variety of band t-shirts on her dorm bed. She proudly wears these graphic tees, proving that you don't have to be a band’s number one fan to appreciate great music and cool merch (Photo illustration by Phoebe Holm).

A problem we have with a lot of media in today’s digital age is gatekeeping. Not in the sense of institutional power – this is still a problem, don’t get me wrong – but in the scheme of entertainment and other artistic properties. 

This kind of gatekeeping happens when people attempt to claim a particular genre, idea, group or concept as their own – essentially making it only accessible to them and people like them. 

This trend is widespread in the sphere of music, with artists’ fans holding claim over the enjoyment of their music and what it means to be a fan, something they really have no control over. Those who exclude others hold the belief that they somehow have the right to determine who is and isn’t a true fan – gatekeeping is a defense mechanism for personal connections from waves of unbearable popularity.

I understand that these individuals have deep connections to their music and that it can feel strange and unnatural when the musicians they like seem to be moving into the mainstream view. It’s difficult to see the things you were picked on for or have a deep connection with become normalized – especially when you felt belittled and razzed on when it was still “yours.” Trust me when I say I know exactly how that feels. Try liking alternative rock in a small town full of people who only listen to pop and country. 

It takes a long time to craft and develop your personal music taste, finding all the artists and albums you cherish is a whole experience in itself, one that can take hours of your life, even years – if you are truly passionate about the things you listen to. Music is imperative to expressing emotion and making connections with others across generations; it exposes us to pop culture of the past and differing viewpoints throughout. It is a place of community for many, for understanding and connecting with one another. 

There is an innate desire for human beings to be a part of or own something; people want to feel like they have something special and unique. So it’s no surprise this happens with our music taste. 

The only problem with this is that we are trying to claim something that never belonged to us individually in the first place. Music is released to the public and accessible to everyone; anyone who can buy a CD or record, has streaming apps or tunes into the radio has a right to consume that music.

I can understand the hesitancy to recommend and expose others to something you have found such solace within. There is a sort of pride people hold for their niche playlists, or knowing the existence of obscure, “unknown” bands and musicians. So, when others find a piece of music that seems like a defining piece of our musical identity, it feels like an attack on our individuality. Music has always been a form of personal expression, even influencing other forms of material expression, such as clothes and makeup. It influences who we surround ourselves with and our mindsets, so much so that the increasing popularity of a song or artist you listen to can feel like a violation of one’s own identity and mind.  

For many angry, gatekeeping fans, a common argument is that new fans don’t have enough knowledge about the artist to justify liking them. 

My rebuttal: Sometimes individuals want to enjoy music and not know every band member’s name. Maybe they don’t want to go through the exhausting process of forcing themselves to like every song, single or album the artist has released. Not everyone needs to know where the lead singer’s brother went to high school. Sometimes people just want to listen to a song and just enjoy it in its singularity. 

With that being said, can we please normalize both new and old listeners not knowing every detail about a band or musician? 

Gatekeeping has only increased with the presence of TikTok and its long-run trend of making both old and independent/niche music popular. This phenomenon is a double-edged sword for musicians and their fanbases, as fans feel that the fame that their artist finds will ruin the quality of their music, or that the emotional ambiguity of their songs will lose meaning with the slew of trends connected to them. 

What fans fail to realize, is that the perpetuation of gatekeeping only hurts the artists you love. 

When an artist gains leverage amongst music lovers and is heightened to a particular place of fame, it gives the artist the ability to continue creating. This allows them to be recognized by labels, to collaborate with other artists, etc. It allows artists to continue making the music their fans love so dearly

So maybe take a step back, and realize that this sort of popularity keeps your favorite artists relevant. Said popularity also allows you to make connections within the community that artists have built and that other fans have maintained. 

Seeing older bands being revitalized in a new light amongst new generations is something that should be considered exciting. It shows that they still hold some relevance in today’s entertainment environment. It would be disheartening to see them slip into the oblivion of time. 

As an avid music lover, the presence of gatekeeping makes it hard to thoroughly indulge in new musicians and bands because of all the discouraging statements from “veteran” fans. 

Gatekeeping fans come off as nothing short of snobby and condescending. However, it’s easy to understand why many people find themselves quick to dismiss the severity of their gatekeeping behaviors; For many people, music is a piece of their identity. 

And what do people do when they are emotionally threatened? They get defensive. 

There have been times when I’ve been guilty of agreeing with gatekeepers – never actively going on social media or up to a person to harass them about liking something – but I have felt discontent with the idea of something I love being so violated by trends and emotionless appreciation. But, in moments of clarity, I remember how annoying and irritating it is to be questioned about liking and appreciating a piece of art you find through others. I remember the annoyance of being at the mercy of countless gatekeepers. 

I can’t count on both hands how many times someone has approached me while I was wearing a band t-shirt – it has happened more than 10 times now – and asked me to name three songs of the artist on my shirt. 

If I have to hear one more person ask me to “prove” myself just for wearing a shirt, I may just implode. Just because you are more knowledgeable about an artist or have listened to them longer does not mean you lay claim to them and everything they create. 

Do I think you should have a general idea of the band and their music if you wear a T-shirt with their name or designs on it?

Probably. Otherwise, you have spent your money on something you don’t really care about.

But does wearing the shirt mean you deserve to be interrogated by others? 

No, because at the end of the day, it is the individual’s business why they got the shirt, regardless of whether or not they know anything about the band.

I shouldn’t have to name everything about a band, listen to every single one of their songs or even listen to the artist for several years, to feel like I have the right to listen to a piece of their music or wear a piece of musical merchandise. Live and let live. 

Gatekeeping is toxic, period. Just don’t do it. 

Everyone is allowed to listen to whatever they want without bounds – without interference. Look at the band shirt and move on with your life. There is no sense arguing. I will tell you to shut up if approached. 

Most of the time I know three or more songs – so don’t even bother. 

We live in a society where we can indulge in any normal pastime we want, within normal and legal reason, of course. We can buy whatever we want and wear whatever we want. Being able to search through and indulge in whatever you want is the reason artists create things. Music is made to be appreciated by all different types of people, regardless of where you found it or when you found it. 

As a music lover, it is amazing to see bands like “Metallica” and even artists like Billie Holiday still have traction in today’s society. It shows that people still have emotional connections to different time periods of music and find joy within them. Shaming people for finding an artist or piece of music from its growing popularity online is not cool in the slightest – sometimes things are popular for a reason. Being a new fan of a musician shouldn’t be taboo or looked down upon, it should be a celebration that those people found resonance in the artist’s music. 

Listen to whatever you want and have fun with music, that’s what it’s made for.

About Phoebe Holm 19 Articles
Phoebe Holm is a junior from Boyne City, Michigan and a psychology major at Albion College. She is interested in understanding the human mind, writing about things that make her passionate and creating art. You can always find her listening to music and watching movies. Contact Phoebe via email at PJH12@albion.edu

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