Lately, I’ve been opening Twitter and finding my feed saturated with debates on privilege in the indie music world. I’ve seen people I follow learn that Frankie Cosmos is the daughter of two successful actors, and witnessed fans express disappointment that Clairo’s father—an advertising guru with ties to the music industry—likely played a role in crafting the easily marketable “soft girl” persona that endeared fans to her music.
These discoveries aren’t unfamiliar, as hierarchies of power and wealth in music are eerily similar to the broader economic inequalities that continue to worsen in the United States. And while digital platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud provide free opportunities for exposure and potential fame, working and middle-class individuals committed to professionally pursuing music still recognize that they’ll be clawing up a ladder while their rich counterparts launch past them on a high-speed elevator to critical acclaim and financial success.
The music industry operates like the intricately painted core of a Russian nesting doll. It sits at the center of the mountainous disparities that have debilitated the average person’s chances for success in nearly every lucrative, entertainment-related profession—trapping many artists with modest backgrounds under the country’s systemic wealth disparities. In fact, the music industry mirrors the U.S. economy so markedly that former White House Chief Economist Alan Krueger used it to discuss the distinctions and ambiguities associated with how wealth affects success in a 2013 speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“The music industry is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S. economy at large. We are increasingly becoming a ‘winner-take-all’ economy, a phenomenon that the music industry has long experienced… The lucky and the talented—and it is often hard to tell the difference—have been doing better and better, while the vast majority has struggled to keep up,” he acknowledged.
Krueger’s statement conjures a vital question that I see posed on social media in many forms: are the musicians we know and love lucky, talented, or both? And if it’s determined among fans that they are both, does the financial support from family that helped them get off the ground diminish their previously awarded artistic merit?
While there may not be an answer to that question, many fans and musicians are becoming more vocal about the wariness they feel toward artists with generational wealth. Fans and non-wealthy musicians alike want to prioritize elevating the careers of ordinary musicians like them who deserve the same opportunities—and public platform—to show off their talents.
But there’s another online community that harbors more malicious intent. I frequently encounter people on social media who are perpetually out for blood, desperate to fabricate a personal stake in whatever conflict happens to be trending. These contributions often lessen the nuance that is so vital in discussions about the worthiness of work produced by trust fund babies and those with questionable pasts. It’s easy to write someone off as canceled and deem them unworthy of further thought—but there’s a major problem with this line of behavior. Cancel culture isn’t one-size-fits-all, or always fair, and the controversies that follow popular indie musicians King Princess and Mitski exemplify how online judgments of morality and professional merit can go terribly wrong.
To kick off 2019, I attended a show on King Princess’s Cheap Queen tour. At the time, the artist held an undeniably god-like status. She had natural swagger, a sultry voice, and an irresistibility among her mostly queer, female fanbase. At the venue, I tuned into the conversations of other concertgoers—mostly high schoolers and college-aged women—and discovered that they did, predictably, hold her in high regard. As one of the teeangers standing in front of me excitedly shouted to her friend, King Princess was a “queer savior.” But since the last time I saw her perform, her status as an icon has faltered in my eyes.
In a September 2019 interview with Vulture, King Princess discussed her song “Cheap Queen,” the title of which was borrowed (or more accurately, appropriated) from drag culture:
“I was going to name the album after the interlude because it was so cute… It’s an homage to my community. We are all cheap queens. It’s a drag term for someone who is resourceful, who makes something out of nothing, who is a creator on a budget. That’s how I feel.”
There are numerous misunderstandings and indications of privilege packed in her words. Calling the phrase cheap queen “cute” is reductive, and she trivializes the existence of the drag queens who coined the phrase by asserting that the term is universally applicable. But in actuality, there’s a specific context in which the phrase should be used. A cheap queen—according to the sparse examples of its original usage I miraculously found buried in King Princess’s monopolization of my search results—is someone who manages to thrive creatively despite facing meager finances and backlash for participating in drag culture.
King Princess has never faced these challenges or forms of oppression. And to be frank, her upbringing has never been cheap. She grew up in Mission Sound, her father’s New York recording studio, with access to all the connections, equipment, and resources she desired. She also hails from a long line of generational money—her great-grandfather was Isidor Straus, former U.S. Congressman and co-owner of Macy’s. While Straus has stated that she doesn’t directly receive familial money, she struggles to understand that the privilege awarded to her by her lineage—and exposure to the inner workings of music production from an early age—gave her a networking advantage rather than a financial one.
King Princess has yet to address her upbringing, issue an apology for her questionable use of drag aesthetics and elements, or acknowledge that her position as a queer music icon has been tainted amidst relatively abundant backlash.
These reasons are precisely why her background and the criticism surrounding it do matter. She has the ability to opt in and out of identities whenever is convenient for her, a privilege that the community she takes inspiration from doesn’t have. And, as is made clear by her eyebrow-raising Vulture interview, she desperately wants to convince fans that she made something out of nothing, though she’s only ever known a world of abundance.
Mitski, on the other hand, has had to capitulate to a more passive, unfair role in the controversy that clouds her public persona. For months, fans have alleged that her father is a CIA operative who participated in a violent 1980s regime change in the Congo. While there hasn’t been an official statement confirming the claims, his undetermined role within the State Department meant the singer’s family had the financial capacity to send Mitski to Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music, where she transferred to study studio compositions.
While Mitski has experienced a share of the advantages held by King Princess, she’s faced an onslaught of career-shaking criticism that the latter never has. People online accuse Mitski of protecting her father by declining to speak publicly about his former career, despite the fact that she’s likely prohibited from doing so. It’s also unfair to hold the 29-year old musician accountable for her father’s past actions, as she has expressed in numerous interviews her desire to shed the years of loneliness associated with living in seven different locations due to his job.
The King Princess and Mitski controversies show that family backgrounds only matter if you decide to make them matter. King Princess’s tendency to flaunt or conceal her familial privilege with queerness is sometimes exploitative, but Mitski’s decision to separate herself from her potential CIA operative father whose job contributed to past trauma simply isn’t—no matter which angle you look at it.
As fans with valued voices in online music communities, it’s our responsibility to spark constructive discourse rather than drama. It isn’t feasible, or fair, to condemn every artist who was fortunate enough to study music in college or happened to grow up adjacent to the industry. However, it is important to note when people are unaware of—or are reckless with—the concessions they’ve been provided. And, most importantly, it’s vital that we treat every conversation, musician, and situation with the individualized attention it deserves.
By Avery Matteo