The most famous music critic on Earth has never written a Pitchfork review. He’s never appeared in Rolling Stone or dropped a blurb in The New York Times. He's a bald vegan from Connecticut named Anthony Fantano whose thoughts on everyone from Kanye West to Parquet Courts have so far attracted a combined 260,000,000 views on his YouTube channel, The Needle Drop. Beloved by his fans for his outspoken opinions and early support for acts like Death Grips, he’s a bona fide vlogging pioneer. In 2017, many music publications are pivoting to video — Fantano has been there for years. But as it turns out, music is not this 21st century mogul's only interest.
Up until this afternoon, October 3, Fantano had another booming YouTube channel — practically unknown outside of his fanbase, but immensely popular within it — called thatistheplan. (It had nearly 400,000 subscribers compared to 1,100,000 on The Needle Drop.) He started the channel in 2007, initially posting earnest covers of songs by Man Man and the Mountain Goats. At first, it was little more than an offshoot of The Needle Drop, but increasingly, thatistheplan took on a bizarre life of its own — sometimes with a stark contrast in tone. Until today, Fantano updated it regularly, posting dense videos full of references to memes and other YouTube channels you probably haven’t heard of. His vocabulary took on a screechy, 4Chan-friendly slant — video titles from the past year include “pepe the frog triggers hillary clinton,” “I CHANGED MY GENDER CUZ DONALD TRUMP,” and “MEGA-CUCK SAYS POKEMON GO IS LIKE DOGFIGHTING.” He raged against SJWs and feminists, and, in video after video, treated black musicians as a punchline.
Yes, like other prominent YouTubers, Anthony Fantano has become an edgelord.
He’s referenced constantly on the 4chan music board /mu/, and has been known to frequent it himself. The 4Chan-affiliated wiki site Encyclopedia Dramatica crowned him “the king of /mu/,” and in 2014, he appeared on the forum for an AMA. /mu/ is a complex environment — many people on it are serious music fans who care about the scores he awards records on The Needle Drop; they are also steeped in the shock-jock culture of 4Chan. Over time, Fantano had begun explicitly catering to the latter crowd’s sensibilities. His two channels allowed him to serve that audience from multiple angles, maximizing engagement, clicks, and profit.
That is, until today, when Fantano removed all videos on thatistheplan except for one: a 30-second clip of YouTube’s monetization logo. In a series of tweets, he explained the decision to end the account as a result of YouTube’s controversial demonetization algorithm — which, based on confusing and secretive criteria, takes away the ability for uploaders to earn income from certain videos deemed inappropriate for advertisers. He’d recently set up a thatistheplan Patreon, looking to crowdsource income outside YouTube, but he tweeted that he’d be refunding donors and shut down that page too. With the content offline, the discussion moves away from content to center around free speech and the rights of creators. It’s a savvy move.
Today, nearly every online outlet focusing on music has some kind of socially conscious slant. That’s where most artists stand, and most readers too. While The Needle Drop covers a similar beat as sites like The FADER and Pitchfork, it exists in a totally different context — the surprisingly conservative world of YouTube. Last month The New York Times reported on the rise of “the YouTube right,” a community of “monologuists, essayists, performers and vloggers” who, among many other ideals, “deplore ‘social justice warriors,’ whom they credit with ruining popular culture.” From PewDiePie to Paul Joseph Watson, anti-social justice views are de rigeur among popular YouTubers. These are Fantano’s true colleagues and competition — not the lefty bloggers who have traditionally covered music — and he has adapted to their world, awkwardly.
In September, PewDiePie, the most subscribed vlogger on YouTube, used the n-word during a videogame stream and set the YouTuber community on fire (although it wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone familiar with his recent work.) In response Fantano released a ten-minute video titled “Why I Don’t Use the N-Word” on The Needle Drop. It’s a calm, thoughtful video: “It’s a matter of respect, and it’s a matter of understanding,” he says. “It’s especially important to me because in my line of work I am regularly stepping into, interacting in, and engaging with predominantly black spaces. It’s just not really cool. I feel like as someone who is white, I don't feel like I can just step into the house of hip-hop and do whatever the fuck I want.”
That respectful sentiment towards “the house of hip-hop” didn’t seem to extend to his posts on thatistheplan, however. On The Needle Drop, he tries to give rap albums extensive, patient analysis. But on thatistheplan, he served up straight parody. Some of his most disturbing videos are in a series that includes “XXXTentacion is the Greatest Rapper,” “J. Cole is the Greatest Rapper,” and “Hopsin is the Greatest Rapper.” The gag is simple: he pretends to rap in the style of these artists. In order to impersonate Hopsin, Fantano says, “You should have something around your neck-kek, just on the verge of choking you to death as you read Hopsin lyrics.” Here he throws in a little Easter eggs for 4Chan heads; when his voice is edited to say “kek”, a background image of Shrek with the title photoshopped to read “kek” appears (Kek is a popular 4Chan meme).
The next shot is even more disconcerting. Fantano wraps a cord around his neck, while an image of a black guy with a white noose around his neck that appears behind him. Next, we see a background image of another black person being choked, right as Fantano says the words “choked to death.” He’s playing the specter of black suicide and death for laughs.
A series of images flash behind him — black faces warped in Photoshop, black figures holding guns, cartoon monkeys, a clip from the racist Disney cartoon Steamboat Willie, poop in a toilet. Fantano launches into a nonsense soliloquy about “hugs and drugs… don't do drugs, do hugs” as the background scene shifts — Fantano’s in jail, then he’s screaming on the floor in a mental asylum, a direct reference to Hopsin’s highly publicized struggles with suicide and mental health.
“XXXTentacion is the greatest rapper” — which you can watch in the archives of the Wayback Machine — offers more of the same. Again Fantano does the cord-around-the-neck shtick and mumbles nonsense in his comedic version of the rapper, only this time he’s also given himself a mockery of XXXTentacion’s face tattoos. This video came out in May of 2017, so while the most recent allegations against XXX were not yet widely reported, it was already common knowledge that X’s ex-girlfriend had accused him of assault.
Fantano addresses the situation in a strange way. ”Free X, Free X, free him now, I don’t care how, I don’t care how, I don’t really care what he’s not free for,” he chants, before looking at his phone. ”It turns out X is already free,” he announces, then sings, “Let freedom ring, let freedom ring.” Then he looks at his phone again: “There’s all these people in the comments talking about it. Not good things… He didn’t beat her… he didn’t...”
Turning one rapper’s imprisonment on domestic abuse charges and another’s mental health struggles into shit-tier meme videos does not seem like best practice for “stepping into the house of hip-hop” with “respect” and “understanding.” But was that ever really his goal? In a 2014 article, The New York Times estimates that 1 million YouTube views earns a content creator approximately $2,000. The XXXTentacion video has 631,000 views and the Hopsin video has 397,000 — Fantano earned enough from these two half-baked parodies of troubled black men to buy himself an all-inclusive weekend at a Sandals resort.
Thatistheplan never released any parodies of white rock musicians.
As for Fantano’s sanctimonious rejection of the n-word — while it’s true that he doesn’t say it out loud, it still figures prominently on thatistheplan. Case in point: a few weeks ago, Fantano released a video called “DEEP FRIED MEME REVIEW.” I won’t try to explain the plot — something about summoning “black meme magic” by burning a copy of Death Grips’s album Exmilitary as an offering to Pepe the Frog — but the point is, several memes featuring the n-word appear throughout the clip. This doesn’t require much complex analysis. Fantano thinks the n-word is funny, so he put it in his comedy video. His fans certainly got the message: dozens of comments on this video, and on many of his other videos, use the slur.
The red-pilling of Fantano follows the same dark trajectory as that of American political culture at large, which is to say, it started with Gamergate. In 2014, Fantano wrote a response to a question on his blog about the feminist video-game critic Anita Sarkeesian. His post aligned with the nascent Gamergate movement: he calls Sarkeesian an “outsider” to gaming culture spouting “pure, unsubstantiated BS,” and says that video games offer a harmless but “easy target for [people who are] quick to complain.” Life, he argues, does not imitate art: ”People have been whining and moaning over ‘harmful’ media for generations. And it should be no surprise that those desperately seeking to be offended lose every time.” At the time it didn’t feel particularly inflammatory. But in retrospect, this post provides a roadmap for where Fantano’s beliefs would take him in the future.
These days, political ideologies that crystallized during the Gamergate maelstrom dominate society. “The alt-right … has its roots in the Gamergate movement in terms of ideology and online mob mentality,” writes William Turton in The Outline. Much of the “YouTube right” emerged during the movement, including a 38-year-old British man named Carl Benjamin, whose YouTube channel Sargon of Akkad currently has 708,000 subscribers. Though he describes himself as a “classic liberal” and has disavowed the alt-right, most of his videos revolve around his anger at feminists, whom he describes as a “hashtag hate group.” He infamously responded to a British Labour MP who complained about rape threats by tweeting, “I wouldn't even rape you, Jess Phillips." In November of 2015, Fantano invited Akkad onto his podcast on the Needle Drop.
They spent two hours in friendly conversation, commiserating about the rise of “authoritarian social movements” in the music industry. Akkad describes “extreme left wing activists” who are “quite authoritarian,” and “all feminists.” Fantano agrees, and notes how Tyler, The Creator has been targeted by these activists. Then Akkad unleashes a series of abhorrent opinions, arguing that the statistic that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college is a “myth,” and that mass murderer Elliot Rodgers was spurred to kill by the “feminist system” destroying his self-esteem. The video ends with final critiques of feminism from both vloggers — ”the gender debate distracts” from more important issues, Fantano concludes. It’s believers are “useful idiots,” adds Akkad.
One intriguing theme throughout the podcast is the way Fantano fawns over Akkad’s channel’s engagement. “Even though your subscribership is not as large as mine is,” he says, “your videos are engaging with your very passionate audience in a very intense way.” Later, he asks Akkad how his channel became so popular, and where he thinks it’s going to go next, now that Gamergate is no longer a hot-button issue. It seems like Fantano isn’t just asking idle questions — he’s doing market research.
A few months after Akkad, Fantano welcomed another fringe figure on his podcast: Sam Hyde. Hyde is a complex person with a confusing narrative. Essentially, he was an absurdist comedian who garnered attention through his YouTube comedy show Million Dollar Extreme; last year, the show moved to Adult Swim, until it was cancelled after it became clear Hyde was using the show to smuggle noxious alt-right in-jokes and racist memes onto TV. During the presidential election, he was a prime vector for Pizzagate fake news; recent stunts include donating $5,000 to the neo-Nazi website Stormfront.
Hyde’s conversation with Fantano is horrific, offensive, and enlightening as to where both men stand. Fair warning: he describes violence toward a woman. At one point Hyde brings up Lena Dunham and explains in detail what he’d like to do to her. “I’ll take extra time, OK?” he says. “I’ll be nailing her, I’ll be punching her in the back of the neck, I’ll be boxing her eyes in. I’ll break both her orbital bones. I’m gonna destroy Lena Dunham so badly that the people that come to clean her up, they’re gonna be puking when they see what I did to her. I want them to know how I feel about her, so I’m gonna fuck her up so bad that they’re gonna puke when they see her bruised mangled body.”
You might be wondering what exactly the joke is here, but Fantano finds the bit hilarious — he laughs along without challenging Hyde. Nor does he push back when the pasty comedian says that he’s “strapped with my niggas,” or when he complains about “the government giving women a paycheck to use their pussies like ATMs and crap out kids.” Fantano just chuckles. It feels reminiscent of middle school, when one edgy kid would push the limits and bring more timid kids along for the ride — regardless of Fantano’s true beliefs on the subject of Lena Dunham’s violent death and ATM-pussies, he seems to find Hyde’s performance compelling and cool, and would never let himself, God forbid, get triggered. You can almost feel Fantano’s desire to be able to do what Hyde does.
In the 18 months since the release of the podcast, his content has swerved much farther right. On June 8, 2016, he uploaded a video called “Trigglypuff MEME REVIEW (#MessageToFeminists).” It has since been reuploaded by another user, and you can watch it here. It’s a dissection of a viral clip in which a protester yells at Milo Yiannapolous during a campus appearance — Fantano calls the protestor, who was nicknamed Trigglypuff by 4Chan, a “Hostess cake huffer” and a “loud obnoxious pig of a human being,” and awards the video ”500 points … for an accurate portrayal of social justice slacktivism.” He describes social justice advocates as “walking cringe compilations” and fills the screen with images of women he believes fit that description, including the aforementioned Sarkeesian and Emma Sulkowicz, known for carrying a mattress around Columbia University in protest of the school’s refusal to expel her alleged rapist. Fantano has chosen to paste the phrase “fuck me in the but” [sic] over her image, a reference to a text Sulkowicz allegedly sent to her rapist, which, according to anti-feminist bloggers, proves her rape claim was a hoax.
Hyde noticed. “This is so good… you gotta do more of these,” he commented on the video. “Thank you for your blessing,” Fantano responded.
In July, 2016, Fantano appeared in a video called “QUESTIONS WHITE MEN HAVE FOR SJWs!” Posted and commission by TJ Kirk, also known as the Amazing Atheist, it brought together a group of prominent political YouTubers: Sargon of Akkad, a talking suit of armor called the Armoured Skeptic, and an anthropomorphic kangaroo called Atheism is Unstoppable. They take turns posing questions to an imagined audience of SJWs. Speakers ask things like, “Do you realize that your war on language has made you bedfellows with true rape culture … Islam?” and “Why is it if that if a woman dresses sexy or even topless in public you support it, but if its a female videogame character you want her clothed more modestly?” And here comes Fantano: ”What do you think will happen when you leave your safe space?” he growls. After more questions from the other YouTubers, Fantano closes the video with a sight gag. “Have you guys ever tried drinking this shit?” he asks, holding up a bottle of bleach. “It’s great!”
Fantano’s fans are divided over his rightward turn. Shortly after this video came out, someone posted a thread on the reddit fanpage r/fantanoforever entitled “Anthony's politics have really been bugging me lately.” The poster, who goes by HHHVGM, wrote, “If he saw this post he'd probably think I'm ‘entitled’ and ‘can't handle other people's opinions’ but it's so annoying when I'm watching one of his reviews and he feels the need to throw in an out-of-place comment about SJWs or Tumblr.”
“Get over it,” responded commenter Subwade.
Like PewDiePie, Fantano became famous yelling benign cultural opinions on YouTube until deciding that he was a victim of SJW tyranny. Why? Jeremy Gordon’s profile of Fantano in Spin last year offers a remarkably simple explanation:
“After years of grinding, Fantano has reached a level of stability that many music writers would find enviable, but constant shifts in the media business mean that his future remains uncertain. To earn enough money to pay [his production assistant] Austin a full-time wage, Fantano started recording more regularly on That Is The Plan, a separate channel where he reviews memes and records often irreverent videos that don’t fall into the record review format.”
In short, Fantano may have discerned from the popularity of his friends like Sam Hyde and Sargon of Akkad — not to mention his own icon status on /mu/ — that a market existed for reactionary video content. He understands his own audience (94 percent male, according to the Spin profile), and he realized he could double his money by posting on two separate channels — one for music lovers, and one for edgelords. One for people interested in his take on rap music, one for people who want to laugh at his crude rapper parodies. Hardcore fans would watch both. And then, when he deleted them, they couldn't. These screen grabs are all that's left.
This leaves just one question. Deep down, what does Fantano actually want? In Gordon’s profile, Fantano says that he “would at least like to be treated with the same amount of legitimacy” as other music writers. Even though thatistheplan has been deleted, it seems farfetched that Fantano will keep his “edgier persona” under wraps. As long as he continues to undermine his actual criticism with toxic cash-grab bullshit he can kiss that dream goodbye.