2013: The Year Everything Changed, Part 7

2013: The Year Everything Changed, Part 7

This is the seventh and final installment of a series of essays about how 2013 marked the point in which popular music and the culture around it changed forever. You can read the first six installments here, here, here, here, here, and here. Thanks for reading.

Was Beyoncé’s self-titled album the most game-changing release of the decade? Quite possibly. As far as the already-megastar’s career was concerned, her fifth album elevated her to a new level of widespread critical acclaim previously unreached. (4 has been awarded more retroactive hosannas than at the time, while many a longtime fan swears by B’Day as an early high watermark.)

I want to stress, for purposes of dissuading critical myopia, that Beyoncé was a massive star before Beyoncé—but it’s undeniable that pop’s tectonic plates shifted upon its release. You wouldn’t have Lemonade without Beyoncé, obviously, but I’m also unsure that indie-focused music writing as a whole would’ve embraced (not to mention eventually shifting their collective gaze towards pop as a whole) her already evident talents without this album.

Beyoncé didn’t just affect pop culture, though—it affected the way in which popular culture, especially music, was covered by what was at the time an era of digital media about to enter its greatest period of largesse to date. (I suppose I should put a warning here: this installment is not so much about Beyoncé’s music, and much more about how music writing had to adapt after Beyoncé’s release. It’s gonna be a bit insider-y, so if you’re not into that, I don’t blame you for not reading any further.)

Another thing to get out of the way: when I talk about Beyoncé shifting music writing alongside popular music itself, I am not talking about the supposed rise of poptimism or whatever. (If you’re not familiar with the term, God bless and look it up. Now is not the time.) Beyoncé essentially marked a turning point in how digital culture media operates, especially when it comes to the dissemination music news. After its release, writing music news itself became a full-time job, as its surprise release caused various ripple effects that affected the frequency of music released and, by extension, the traffic-driven necessity to cover that frequency.

Granted, this is a belief that is partially driven by anecdotal evidence. My first job in media was at SPIN Magazine from 2008-2009 when it was still an actual magazine, working in the publication’s digital section. At the time, print publications were clearly struggling to adapt to the perpetual creep of the internet, and SPIN was absolutely in that category; we were a very small team and mostly walled off from the print staff, running news stories on Twilight and Top Chef guest appearances in an attempt to make anything stick. None of it did.

I bring up this point in time to emphasize what music news used to mean to publications—how they prioritized it, the speed at which they covered it, etc. The day after the 2009 Grammys, I took a day off because, honestly, I was a per diem employee as well as a college student in my senior year and I stayed up too late with my friends the night before while drinking and watching the Grammys. The next day, I came into the office to what was essentially a full-blown argument about whether or not the site should run a news story on Chris Brown’s assault arrest against Rihanna. The news had already broke a full two days before. Can you imagine a single website in 2020 that would take two days to cover a news story of that magnitude?

A year later, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Fridays series wreaked further havoc on digital outlets still struggling to adapt to an increasingly demanding news cycle. Even Pitchfork—which, I’m assuming you know because you’re reading this but in case you don’t and for good measure, I worked at from 2010 to 2014—struggled to adapt, especially since the blog era was on something of an influential high due to the brightly-burning chillwave influx and there was more of a focus on curation than ever before. With small staffs and smaller budgets, digital outlets could only be truly good at one or the other—curation or timeliness—unless they pushed the staff beyond their means (which they often did).

I don’t think it’s divulging any industry secrets to mention that, until 2013, Pitchfork operated on a catch-as-catch-can policy regarding after-hours and weekend news. This policy, of course, did not always work great behind the scenes, although I think it’s a testament to everyone involved that any struggles were rarely apparent to readers. By the time My Bloody Valentine surprise-released their long-awaited third album m b v on a Saturday afternoon, with numerous staffers attempting to coordinate coverage and check the site’s veracity, it was clear (and long overdue) that some sort of after-hours and weekend coverage would be necessary moving forward.

Even with dedicated after-hours writers, though, there was no real way to prepare for Beyoncé. The album dropped with no hints, no promo, no nothing, essentially in the middle of the night (around 3 am EST, I think?). In my 19 Thoughts on Taylor Swift’s folklore, I mentioned how the out-of-character sudden release that the album received was essentially “pulling a Beyoncé,” but even then we had 24 hours notice. (One of the only artists in recent memory that have pulled an actual Beyoncé, really, was mystic shoegazers Hum with their truly unexpected two-decade comeback Inlet earlier this year.)

Even though few have actually pulled a Beyoncé since Beyoncé, plenty have done some form of surprise-release format since. It’s practially become de rigeur amongst huge and not-so-huge artists alike. Arguably, it’s become very rare to learn of an album’s release more than a few weeks ahead of time, which was certainly not the case pre-Beyoncé (never mind the 40 years that preceded the 2010s).

Of course, there’s still plenty of releases planned out ahead of time, too—on top of an increasing tide of surprise and last-minute releases. On a general coverage level, this makes things a nightmare if you’re not on the inside track (and even some of the biggest publications can still get caught off-guard these days). When it comes to news, however, the intensity of anticipation and preparation increases in a post-Beyoncé world. You simply have to be ready for anything, which means you have to be ready for everything—and you have to act quickly when that any or every thing happens, too.

The perpetual wave of surprise or with-little-notice releases—not to mention everything else dominating the attention economy—can be exhausting for anyone who works in digital media specifically covering music. Pitchfork themselves spent nearly a full month between Beyoncé’s release and its proper review, which was reflective of just how jarring the shift that Beyoncé had brought to music coverage. Such a delay is something else you could never imagine to happen seven years later.

But does it even matter when you run a review at this point? The urgency in publishing an opinion as quickly as possible, from a critical standpoint, certainly feels less high-stakes than before; if anything, it’s more of a traffic game than anything else, as the majority of critical discourse unfolds on social media immediately following an album’s release these days.

Due to a combination of function, necessity, and urgency, a lot of of digital media music writing over the last seven years has essentially become news writing—signaling awareness of existence and promoting said existence to an audience, essentially an act of promotion above all else—which has undoubtedly led to a lack of varying critical perspective across music writing as a whole. If Beyoncé wasn’t the start of the shift towards this model, it was one of the final acting agents in solidifying the results of the shift as the norm, and how you feel about those results is, as always, entirely up to you.

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Jamie Larson