Acting as devoted border guards to a borderless realm, is what modern days gatekeepers do. You see them in the youtube comment sections of your favorite band’s songs or in the futile debates you have with your own social circle. Gatekeepers occupy their time deciding what is worthy of being labelled as authentic and what is not, but even worse, who has what it takes to join the clan and who should be shamed for not knowing enough. But do they even realize that in doing so it doesn’t make them any cooler?
At some point in your fascination towards pop culture, be it music, film or fashion, you might’ve bumped into one of them. The self-acclaimed gatekeepers, absorbing themselves in the heroic task of maintaining the “purity” of a fanbase. Perhaps you were also one of them, or still is? Well in that case please take all of these lightly, as at some point in the past I myself was one, so the blustery negativity I seem to be throwing at them is partly a reflection towards my younger self. With that little confession set aside, let’s look into how the very notion of gatekeeping first came into being.
In the name of exclusivity
These days gatekeeping is defined as when “someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.” as retrieved from Urban Dictionary, however this is not always the case. The term “Gatekeeping” is one that is often covered in the field of mass communication, it became even more prominent after Shoemaker and Vos created the Gatekeeping Theory which highlights the role of media institutions in selecting and filtering items of media, so that it can be consumed within the time or space that an individual happens to have.
In short, gatekeeping is an essential practice carried out by institutions to ensure that not only should there be an adequate amount of media product to consume, but also that diversity is maintained within that pool. This practice would translate practices such as daily charts released by radio, or an “artist of the month” featurette in a music magazine- routines conducted to cultivate a healthy media environment.
It is almost as though they want to completely shun the sought-after notion of “music being a universal language”.
It is striking to see how a term that is initially popularized to promote diversity and inclusivity, has now become the embodied practice of preaching exclusivity. At the core of it, music gatekeepers are itching to isolate the product they enjoy from the “mainstream” crowd by either: hindering new listeners to label themselves as fans, keeping the music to themselves, or not wanting any other artists they deem as inferior to be associated with their beloved musician. It is almost as though they want to completely shun the sought-after notion of “music being a universal language”, and reinstate borders, all for the sake of exclusivity.
The most amusing part of it all is the contradictory defense in which these gatekeepers recede back to, the false notion that this is something that their favourite musician would want. Where in truth, it is rarely the case that musicians beg their fans to isolate other listeners, after all why would they? Producing music is in itself costly, not to add, the immense struggle of surviving in a competitive industry. It is more likely of a scenario that artists would feel blessed as opposed to cursed to have their music exposed to a number of growing new audiences.
This instance can be seen in the bizarre recent event, where a TikTok clip of a man called Nathan Apodaca triggers a gatekeeping debate amongst GenZers. In the 25 seconds video, Nathan is vibing like no other -on his skateboard- to the pop-rock legend Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams”, whilst sipping on a gallon of cranberry juice. Inevitably, this catapulted the song back into popularity, as the 1977 album, Rumours, re-entered the Billboard Hot 200 chart for the first time in decades.
With the song surging back into the mainstream, some people claiming themselves to be longtime Fleetwood Mac fans denounce those who just recently found out about the song, gatekeeping what it takes to be a true Fleetwood Mac fan. As expected however, the owners of the song themselves could not care any less. Instead, Stevie Nicks herself decides to join TikTok in a celebration of Dream’s second success, by recreating the TikTok as she puts on a pair of roller shoes and sip on her own gallon of Cranberry juice. In an interview, Nicks claims to be happy to be seeing the phenomena as her music seems to “have made so many people happy”.
Outdated tending of the ego
Other than the fact that gatekeeping is just simply annoying, it is also getting more and more irrelevant due to the different technologies that play a major role in the music scene nowadays. Spotify and Apple Music, amongst many other platforms, compete to improve their algorithm through millions of user’s experiences. This unequivocally makes keeping a certain band to yourself simply impossible, as just by listening to them you would be increasing the chance of the music getting featured in a playlist of the week catered to those with similar taste as yours. That being said, the practice is simply outdated and counterproductive.
Thinking about this whole gatekeeping thing had reminded me of a fraction of an annotation I read for a piece in Alex Prager’s Silver Lake Drive exhibition, down at the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. It talks about the “human desire to be a part of a whole (a group) while standing out from the crowd”, and somehow this resonates with the spirit of the gatekeepers. Caught in the middle between wanting to tend their ego, and belonging in a pack, the only way for them to feel secure is to reinstate their position and not let others in. Where in reality getting entertained by the phantasm of borders, will only drive them away from appreciating and discovering the universal joy brought by music.