With Kendall Jenner plugging Boygenius online, columnist Mark Beaumont sees a terrifying future in which Insta celebs control pop
I am, I’m regularly informed, an ‘influencer’. No longer a writer, a critic or a ‘tastemaker’ – a word that went out of fashion the moment it started making you think of Greg Davies sitting on a cheap Dave throne recommending Goat Girl – us music media types are now solely in the business of ‘influencing’, like online versions of the grub-fingered school scrote who swore you could get a serious buzz by sucking on the chemistry lab’s gas taps.
Us influencers come in all shapes and sizes. If my relatively meagre social media reach had that much influence, for example, then you’d all be decked out in Make Britain Indie Again caps, every pub would have a perpetual happy hour on Beaumonts (two glasses of red wine in a festival pint cup, please keep up) and the internet would currently be ablaze with people complaining that The Magnetic Fields were headlining Glastonbury yet-a-bloody-gain. At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, the biggest bloggers, vloggers and YouTube mascara monkeys shill products to their millions of followers and pocket the sort of fees that Arron Banks might consider questionable.
At the very top of the pile (or thereabouts) sits Kendall Jenner, queen of vacuous celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake culture and a selfless proponent of the millennial dream of becoming fabulously rich by having the best cheekbones on a shit TV show. Kendall’s the ultimate symbol of the blind devotion that’s now paid to the stunning yet pointless. Social media allows her followers to feel as though they’re somehow involved in her life, despite having the same level of personal, one-on-one relationship with her as I have with Pizza Hut’s monthly discount code generator.
Hence, a single plug on her social media feeds can turn a brand or product into an instant best-selling phenomenon (okay, except Pepsi). So Boygenius – the new band formed by Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus – must have been over the moon when Jenner posted a video of herself enjoying their spectral folk-pop tune ‘Me & My Dog’ for the delectation of her 90 million Instagram followers. Online chatter suggests Boygenius might well be catapulted into mainstream superstardom by Jenner’s post, and good luck to them, perhaps the world needs a slightly waftier Haim.
But I kind of hope they don’t.
Us influencers, you see, are generally individuals. And, like nuclear codes and James Bond in a death trap, it’s never advisable to leave just one, not-fully-engaged person in charge of music. Historically, individuals have been the foot soldiers of pop culture; magazines and radio stations were directed by groups of editors, writers, DJs, programmers and producers with a breadth of tastes, reaching a broad consensus on acts to back and scenes to hype. Only one media figure was ever widely trusted enough to direct a sub-culture all on their own: John Peel. Or Jan Pill, if you said his name at the correct speed.
Now we’re facing a future where individual A-list influencers like Jenner become out-of-control ultra-Peels. To be honest, part of me thinks that leaving Insta big-shots like Huda Kattan and Cristiano Ronaldo in charge of pop music can’t be any worse than the current algorithm system, which just gives you more and more of what you like already. I’ve been experimenting with clicking endlessly on whatever video is ‘Up Next’ on my YouTube feed and it turns out I’m never more than five clicks away from a Muse video, usually via several screenings of ‘Fever’ by something called Balthazar, who have presumably shelled out the big bucks to clog up my internet feeds for the foreseeable future. It’s all further proof that entertainment technology is tantamount to cultural surveillance. The other day Spotify started playing Tony Orlando’s ‘Bless You’ when I sneezed, and I only had to mention to a work colleague that I was considering listening to the new Mumford & Sons album and suddenly Facebook started showing me adverts for Dignitas.
At least influencers might plug something unpredictable or challenging. But since they’re all so buyable, I suspect we’ll see the high priority acts queuing up to pay their way into the latest industry fast-track, another way for the money men to secure the ramparts of success. And what of those with a tighter budget? Will the musical landscape become defined by the level of internet star each act can afford to endorse them? Will rising rock bands start bunging Scarlett Moffatt a couple of grand for an Insta shot in their T-shirt, in the hope it’ll get them enough exposure to land an afternoon slot at Bestival? Will glamorous pop hopefuls shove a monkey Piers Morgan’s way in return for a sexist diatribe about their naked poster campaign, thereby bagging five minutes on Graham Norton’s sofa?
Are paid celebrities set to become the new musical gatekeepers? It would certainly mark the endgame of an ever more cynical pop machine; fans buying into acts merely to emulate a façade of an A-list lifestyle, concocted to sucker them in and bleed them dry. Songs written by committee, performed by puppets and sold like shoes and perfume by high-profile charlatans, with no critical filters or objective media judgement to get in the way of the drab, meaningless money churn. Beware advertising disguised as word-of-mouth fan engagement; please, let’s not fall under the influence.