Writers are scared. How could they not be?

The changing face of celebrity and the rise of cancel culture is intimidating journalists into uniformity

While reading a recent interview between Rolling Stone and Dua Lipa, I found myself treading over one section several times. It was the bit in which the interviewer admits to what she describes as a faux-pas: asking Dua about the power of her own beauty. She then relays Dua’s ensuing offense:

“I’ve been thinking about it almost every day, and I was just a little bit taken aback,” Dua tells the interviewer. “I’ve never really seen being pretty or beautiful as some kind of power. It’s never been something that I identify with and — with no disrespect to you, obviously — I feel like I was a little bit shortchanged in a way, because I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to where I am because of that. I’m extremely hardworking and driven, and I feel like that’s the reason why I got to where I am, through my hard work and my drive, and I just wanted to make that clear because it has been playing on my mind.”

After wrestling with her own feminism for a few moments, the interviewer concludes, a little opaquely, “Sometimes, I reason, empowerment is a matter of will”, and apologises. I was left frustrated: while Dua makes a valid and compelling point, the interviewer’s question was interesting and relevant: wasn’t there room for debate? “Pretty privilege” is, after all, a giant issue that still gnaws at the centre of the music industry – we would all benefit from unpacking it. But instead, the disagreement was hurriedly shoved under the carpet, and muffled silence followed. 

It’s always uncomfortable, reading a confrontation between an interviewer and a celebrity. Partly because it’s so rare that a writer includes it – we’re too busy licking our wounds – and because, when they do, it often feels like the writer is doing so ostentatiously, to expose the celebrity’s lofty hubris against the writer’s humble logic. 

But with this piece it was different. The writer – a very good one, I should add – seemed to be self-flagellating unnecessarily. In fact, I felt uneasy: the power dynamic felt skewed. This is an interview, and her question was reasonable. What was the writer apologising for, exactly? And why did she sound so scared?

Without wanting to tangle myself up in the debate around whether it is a privilege to be beautiful, which deserves its own opinion piece altogether, I do worry that, as cancel culture continues to dominate, and as young celebrities become more disillusioned with the need for press, the power balance between a journalist and their subject is becoming all the more off-kilter.

Now don’t get me wrong, cancel culture has many benefits – the power and support a voiceless and abused individual can find via an online collective has led to many terrible people toppling from their pedestals. And if anything, cancel culture is wielded against celebrities, not by them. I’m also aware that the media can be cruel – it’s no surprise pop stars with giant social followings would prefer to speak directly to their fans than through an unfamiliar third party. Particularly when many artists no longer need press to sell records.

But all the same, it seems inevitable that the quality and sincerity of emerging journalism is being compromised as a result. Young writers are not as fearless as they used to be – myself included. And how can we be? Engaging with celebrity culture, and sharing our views online, has become a completely terrifying experience. 

I’m lucky that I was already two years deep into my first permanent job in journalism – as staff writer at British GQ – when the rules of writing about celebrity began to change. At the time, cosying up to publicists at the expense of honest reviews and celebrity profiles was simply not done. I still remember the look of pride on one editor’s face as he picked up the phone to a publicist who had become so furious with my line of questioning during one interview that she’d asked me to leave, before reporting me an hour later. But the question had been completely valid: a director of a documentary about the advent of global warming had been funded by a company involved in deforestation, and I asked him whether he’d known about it. Back then, the worst reputation you could have as a writer would be one in which publicists requested you for the interview – it meant you wrote puff pieces, not journalism. 

This was also just before online fandoms had become quite so powerful – it seemed like only One Direction had recreated a kind of Beatlemania for the internet age. When I wrote about musicians – fandoms rarely apply to actors – I would do so without thinking of how my piece would be received on social media. I didn’t consider whether the talent would share it, making me Twitter famous for a day, and earning me rapturous DMs from fans that would have my endorphins pinging for hours. While I wanted the talent to like me (and I certainly don’t believe in offensive celebrity interviews with malicious agendas) I didn’t feel like this compromised my work. I didn’t feel that, just because they were more powerful than me, that they had enormous platforms and I didn’t, that people were paid to fight their corner and not mine, that our conversation had to be on their terms. Particularly if they had something to answer for.

But in 2017, I got burnt. I had written a piece about the rise of rapper Cardi B, and had made the mistake of comparing her (sonically) to fellow rap queen Nicki Minaj. The comparison – which, admittedly, was unnecessary, and I wouldn’t make it now – did not go down well. Within hours, I was receiving hundreds of messages from Minaj supporters (known between themselves as the Barbz), telling me I was the most sexist, lazy and evil journalist they had ever read. At first, I ignored them, reading out some of the most preposterous ones to my friends at dinner. 

But then they became nastier: they were reporting me to my editor for sexism, they were going to get me fired. And they got scarier: someone said they were going to post my address online, someone else said they were going to kill my family. No matter how many times my friends told me it was nonsense, written by teenagers hiding behind Twitter avatars, I simply couldn’t stop the waves of anxious nausea. Might I be fired? Am I a bad journalist? What if someone actually comes to my home? The next evening, alone in my flat, I alternated between muting different swear words on Twitter and nervously peering out of the window. Meanwhile, the trolls had infiltrated my friends’ and my employer's Instagram’s too, commenting torrents of abuse. It was mortifying.

After that, fear of celebrity fandoms began to colour what I wrote. I would decline to write certain pieces for fear of prodding the beast, while my album reviews became increasingly glowing. Meanwhile, celebrity interviews started to become evermore rigid. While most publicists I know are brilliant, I noticed many were giving me less and less room to move. They would define set lines of questioning (I remember one telling me that I was only allowed to ask footballer Hector Bellerin “about the contents of his wash bag”). They listened-in on interviews so as to veto questions when needed, and some would phone me, furiously, if their talent felt in any way ‘misrepresented’ by the resulting profile. Of course, I don’t think the majority of these publicists mean badly – many are beholden to notoriously overprotective music management. Others are trying to look out for understandably sensitive talent – just because someone makes art for public consumption doesn’t mean we should expect their skin to grow 10 times thicker than our own.

But for the journalist who means well, the terrain isn’t easy either. It doesn't matter if we spend weeks diligently researching our interviewee and engaging with each piece of their work out of admiration for their craft, before preparing questions based on curiosity and respect. If the talent dislikes just 10 out of the 3000 words on page, the whole piece capsizes. Often, after receiving rather threatening emails asking me to edit quotes out, I would spend hours with my stomach in knots, re-listening to my audio to make sure I had transcribed everything correctly, and feeling deflated that something I worked so hard on was making me feel so down. As a result I noticed that I became more and more obsessed by whether talent shared my pieces, whether they felt I had ‘understood’ them, and by the praise from their fans. I became concerned that, if a fandom turned against me, I might lose my job. Or, worse, that people might no longer want to read my work.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I know I’m not the only one. In 2018, pop culture writer Wanna Thompson criticised the maturity of Nicki Minaj’s lyrics, suggesting she might need fresh themes considering she was “touching 40 soon”. Minaj, incensed, direct messaged Thompson on Twitter, saying: 

“When ya ugly ass was 24 u were pushing 30? I’m 34. I’m touching 40 ? Lol. And what does that have to do with my music? Eat a dick u hating ass hoe.” When Thompson, understandably shocked, posted the message on her Twitter, Minaj’s fans trolled her relentlessly, going as far as to post pictures of her baby daughter alongside violent threats. She ended up in therapy as a result, and lost her music internship.

Then, last year, music critic Ann Powers wrote a brilliant and lengthy essay on Lana del Rey’s album Norman Fucking Rockwell. She described the album as compelling and meaningful, praising del Rey’s capacity to emote. “Whether her music makes cultural connections that are obvious or obscure, they always feel deeply personal, individuated, like mementos,” she wrote. As is to be expected with any quality review, and from any decent critic, Powers also assessed the album’s flaws. She described some of del Rey’s lyrics as “uncooked”, which prompted the artist to address Powers via her 9.2 million Twitter followers, saying, “I don’t relate to one observation you made about the music.” Powers was hit by thousands of messages from trolls as a result, (as well as supported by music fans who couldn’t believe an artist wouldn’t be anything but flattered by such a thorough analysis of their work). For many young music writers watching these dramas unfold, the message must have been clear: write what you think, and pay the price.

I see the ripple effect when commissioning writers, too. Many young freelancers I’ve met have talked about writing some of their most honest (and proudest) work under pseudonyms, and explain that they simply cannot afford to be blacklisted by a publicist – their livelihoods depend on celebrity access. It’s also par for the course for writers to turn down commissions that could land them in hot water with certain fandoms, some won’t even review work from certain artists. One music publication, clearly frightened by the might of K-pop stans, didn’t even commission a journalist to review Blackpink’s new album – they commissioned a fan, who gave it five stars.

Over the past year, I’ve noticed my role as an editor has become increasingly pastoral: checking in with writers after they’ve been badly trolled is now routine, as is fretting over whether a commission will get anyone "cancelled" and is worth the grief. It’s harder to get young journalists to write pieces about celebrities that don’t border on the sycophantic, that aren’t more preoccupied with befriending their interviewee than educating their reader. I am guilty of it too.

So where do we go from here? Having raised many questions, I find myself with few answers – each of my criticisms seems to come with a caveat. I certainly don’t want journalism to go back to the days of treating celebrity like game, to hunt and torture for entertainment’s sake – there have been too many casualties already. And I am so glad that writers with problematic views can no longer spew them without consequence. 

But also, I am bored by celebrity profiles that read like press releases, I am exhausted by trolls who see everything in extremes, and I am disappointed by celebrities who feel entitled to move people like pawns. Most of all I am worried for brilliant and fair-minded writers who are scared of their own opinions. If we all have the same voice, then what is the point in speaking?

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As ever, I absolutely love hearing from you. Thank you so much for all the lovely emails sharing your own experiences of writing, journalism and other things. Email me with any feedback, random thoughts and suggestions for future newsletters: eleanorahalls@gmail.com

This week in links:

I’ve been reading: this totally mind-boggling Times interview between my favourite writer Decca Aitkenhead and Jordan Peterson and his daughter, as well as this unsettling BBC piece about sexual assault in the music business, which is of particular interest to anyone still following the story around rapper Octavian’s alleged abuse.

I’ve been commissioning: Josh Schot on Arlo Parks, the 20-year-old pop-soul singer whose music is reminiscent of both Corrine Bailey Rae, and Beverley Knight. She tells Josh her reservations around being heralded as ‘the voice of Generation Z’, and why sad music isn’t bad for our mental health. Read it here. Follow @JoshSchot

And Emma Wilkes, a brand new Telegraph contributor, who wrote a sensitive piece looking back at how Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl made music out of grief. Read it here. Follow @emmabwilkes

I’ve been writing: about Rafferty Law, son of Jude, who could also be his mirror image. He stars in a bizarre adaptation of Oliver Twist, alongside Michael Caine and Rita Ora. I don’t recommend you watch the film, but I do recommend you check out his up-and-coming punk band Stella Outer Overdrive, with he formed with Damon Albarn’s nephew. Read it here.

I’ve been listening: to Fredo’s excellent new album Money Talks. I’ve got the song Back to Basics on repeat.