By Meagan Conley
I’m up late. It’s probably 1 or 2 am. Instead of writing articles for this magazine, I’m about to surf the net, AOL-style circa 1999. I grab a Red Bull, crack my fingers in dramatic fashion, and fire up the laptop. I open up The New York Times and you bet I’m still using that student subscription even though I graduated six weeks ago. My pupils dilate against the severe white and black words of the website. It’s the usual fare: politics, articles about the protests in Hong Kong, the opinion section. I’m reading, I’m scrolling, I’m (semi-) absorbing and I’m feeling smart. I’m feeling informed. I’m an intellectual, I think. I’m an adult because unlike these slackers out here, I’m actually reading the news instead of getting it from Pod Save America. So, of course I go straight to the trashy stuff and pick out an article about Taylor Swift. Might be fun to read, I think. I dig in, but almost immediately I’m bored. There’s something nagging me. I’m getting restless. The words blur on the page as the last drop of Red Bull hits my tongue. I should watch a video, I say to no one. I need a complete breakdown of this Taylor Swift/Scooter Braun beef so that I can talk about it at the lunch table at summer school because I am obviously fifteen again. I need to watch Anthony Fantano.
Cue up The Needle Drop.
Music critic Anthony Fantano started the video channel The Needle Drop on YouTube in 2009, which was when YouTube started to really take off and become more mainstream. Fantano mainly does music reviews on rock, hip hop, electronic, metal, experimental music, and pop. Other segments include “Weekly Tack Roundup,” “Let’s Argue,” “Interviews and Podcasts,” and a silly playlist from his alter ego, Cal Chuchesta. Part of the success of his channel is the frequency at which he posts. In the span of ten years Fantano has uploaded nearly three thousand videos. He has two million subscribers and as of July 3, 2019 the channel has 475,649,201 views. And these aren’t slickly produced videos with multiple angles and soft lighting, but rather DIY vids that are simple with a bit of panache and humor. His channel is the antithesis to 4K videos and drone shots; it’s just a simple shot of him, his famous plaid shirt, and a picture of the album in the background.
Self-described as “the internet’s busiest music nerd,” Fantano is dedicated to posting new and informative content. Days or hours after an album has dropped, Fantano comes through with a thoughtful review. His work ethic is crazy. It is The Needle Drop, not Pitchfork, that I seek when I want to get the real-real on an album or EP because 1) it is in video format and therefore easier for me to absorb; and 2) he points to elements in songs that, even as a classically trained musician, I have never thought about. Fantano has an excellent musical vocabulary. He can explain, in detail, the colors and texture of an instrument, or how good the mix is. He is curious, fair, and astute. His review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is one of my favorites. To Pimp a Butterfly is a dense work of art, an album that takes serious concentration. Fantano does an excellent job of pointing out the complexities and takes his time (22 minutes) to flesh out all the themes, musical elements, and racial angles. Knowing that Kendrick Lamar is a poet, Fantano analyzes the text like a scholar. He is quick to point out the funk influence stemming from George Clinton and James Brown, and, as a kid who grew up on those funky records, this shout-out delights me. It shows that Fantano knows the history behind the music, which ultimately leads to better understanding.
You can tell that Fantano loves albums that teach us about ourselves, that give us unique sounds and new perspectives. You can tell when he thinks something is lazy, cheap, or so lyrically vapid that it doesn’t even make sense (I’m looking at you Lil Xan). I like when Fantano’s hands go up in the air when he talks about something he really appreciates. I love it when he destroys an album with one word. I like his zany alter ego Cal Chuesta, who sometimes introduces the show complete with a fake mustache and a bad accent. Most of all, I like that The Needle Drop is fun to watch. His reviews challenge me to be more thoughtful about the popular music I listen to, to take it seriously and explore its good and bad elements. Because of The Needle Drop, I am no longer a passive listener. Now, this is my twentieth year as a musician. I’ve had classes upon classes and projects and score study and sight reading and more concerts than I can count. So, isn’t it ironic? I’m finally starting to hear music with a more critical ear.