Cultural intermediaries, such as reviewers, play a prominent role in how cultural products are perceived and evaluated in society . Even in an era of social media and a decline in audiences for general broadsheet media, people turn to cultural intermediaries to make sense of and engage with cultural products such as music [2, 3]. Besides the influence of numerical evaluations in terms of grades or scores for specific cultural products, cultural intermediaries produce, maintain and/or deconstruct specific discourses which substantially shape how people perceive cultural products and how cultural products and genres are hierarchically valued and canonized [3, 4]. In other words, the way intermediaries in media outlets classify and discuss cultural products, such as music, film or literature, provides the contours for how people in general understand and assign value to these forms of culture [2, 5,6,7,8].
For example, in her classic study on media representation of music genres, Binder  demonstrated how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, rap music and metal music were both discussed in terms of their potentially harmful influence on America’s youthful audiences, yet with a distinctly different, racialized focus between the two genres. In a comparable study on the media representation of popular music, Van Venrooij and Schmutz  show that cultural intermediaries in a variety of international media outlets increasingly used terms in their reviews that were once exclusively reserved for ‘highbrow’ culture. For example, critics writing for broadsheet newspapers on popular music were found to increasingly focus on aspects valued within highbrow arts, such as the music’s alleged seriousness, complexity, originality, or ambiguity . In line with findings on the rise of the cultural ‘omnivore’, i.e. the cultural consumer who effortlessly moves between highbrow and popular cultural products [11, 12], this shows popular music’s increasing perceived legitimacy and continued role in social distinction processes within the (new) media landscape [cf. 13, 14]. Moreover, it highlights that media framing of cultural products is rarely stable and always in flux. Empirically grasping how cultural products are classified in key media outlets can, in other words, tell us how cultural hierarchies are changing over time.
While such studies have provided valuable and compelling insights, they often, understandably so, rely on qualitative content analyses within limited cross-sectional samples. Moreover, this tradition of research has mainly focussed on the way cultural intermediaries have propagated the distinction between supposedly ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’—popular and/or explicitly commercial—discourses on cultural products. This perspective can be extended beyond this distinction and applied to other dimensions of the public perception of cultural products, such as gendered variation in how these products are discussed (see for example: [15,16,17]). If we want to capture the prevalence of such discourses while simultaneously studying whether and in which directions these are developing over time, novel methods from computational science may be useful to explore. Moreover, the breadth and scope of such automated analyses also affords a more detailed focus on how discourse generated by cultural intermediaries are differentiated based on genre categorizations, which are crucial to how popular music is generally understood and classified .
In this article, we use a novel technique—word embedding models—to explore how cultural intermediaries' discourse surrounding popular music, in terms of legitimacy and gender, has changed over time. We do this by analysing a corpus of 23,992 music reviews spanning 22 years (1999–2021), published by the highly influential online music reviewing platform Pitchfork. Practically, we explore whether reviewers use a more legitimate or illegitimate (popular) discourse and, simultaneously, whether this discourse has become more masculine or feminine. Considering the central role of genre categorizations in how music is understood and perceived , we further explore how these evolving discourses are differentiated based on genre.
Our study makes three key contributions. First, understanding cultural intermediaries' changing discourse is key to assess whether public perception of cultural genres is changing. Such changes can directly affect the institutionalization of culture, such as in educational programmes and/or (cultural) policy [19,20,21]. While previous studies have convincingly demonstrated that popular music (and popular culture more generally) is increasingly discussed using legitimate criteria [2, 10, 22,23,24], it is important to include genre as a potentially differentiating variable within these developments. Second and related, the last decade we have witnessed a surge in attention for gender inequalities in Northwestern societies and media representation more broadly. This occurred alongside other music industry-specific initiatives towards more gender equality (for example, the European Keychange project to increase the number of women working in the music industry and the #metoo movement since 2017). Therefore, we do not only study cultural intermediaries discourse in terms legitimately vis-a-vis illegitimacy—the primary focus in extant research—but also in terms of masculinity versus femininity [15, 25]. Seeing that perceptions of legitimacy, particularly in terms of status, and gender are often related, with masculinity regularly being tied to legitimacy, and vice versa [26,27,28,29,30,31,32], it is important to explore such axes in comparison. Third, our study makes use of a novel methodology—word embedding models—to capture changing discourses within a substantial corpus of textual data. While qualitative discourse analyses remain highly relevant for studies on media discourse, our study offers a first attempt to approach this differently with a different and substantially increased scope.
In what follows, we will first discuss the role of cultural intermediaries and how they influence public opinion on cultural products such as music. Second, we zoom in on two central aspects that play a role in how popular music genres are perceived more broadly: (1) differences in whether genres are perceived as ‘legitimate’, i.e. ‘highbrow’ cultural genres or not, and (2) differences in whether genres are perceived as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Third, we explain the analytic strategy for this article, including the usage of word embedding models to explore the corpus of Pitchfork reviews. After this, we discuss our results. Here we demonstrate that, overall, discourse on Pitchfork increasingly uses a legitimating and feminine discourse. This provides evidence that popular music is increasingly discussed in terms historically preserved for highbrow art forms, while also moving from a masculine to a more feminine discourse. This, however, substantially differs between music genres: some genres follow this broader line (pop, experimental and electronic), whereas others (metal and rap/hip-hop) remain discursively represented in masculine and illegitimate terms, and jazz remaining masculine yet legitimate. We conclude the article with a discussion of the broader theoretical repercussions of our findings and the study’s limitations, and discuss potential opportunities for the usage of word embedding models in future social science studies.
Media discourse on popular music
The way media products are reviewed by critics and journalists has consequences for how these are perceived in society. Like any discourse, however, cultural intermediaries’ ways of discussing media products are subject to change over time. Focussing on music specifically, studies have convincingly demonstrated that assessing the attention dedicated to certain music genres within media sources provides a good means to learn about evolving musical hierarchies. For example, based on a quantitative content analysis of newspaper articles, Schmutz  demonstrates that between 1955 and 2005 a growing share of broadsheet newspaper space in several Northwestern countries was dedicated to popular music genres: a sign of its increasing cultural legitimacy. Yet, the extent of media attention for popular music and its various genres is not the only source of information on changing media perception; it is important to assess the discourses used as well .
While conceptually ‘discourse’ has seen various uses since Foucault foregrounded the term in his work [cf. 34–36], we define discourses as “broad systems of communication that link concepts together in a web of relationships through an underlying logic” . Discourse produced by cultural intermediaries is important to consider because they contribute to and reproduce the taken-for-granted vocabulary people need to make sense of cultural products. When certain associations often occur in media discourse, for example, ‘bubblegum pop’ and ‘superficial’, these associations are considered more ‘natural’ and are more easily activated cognitively than other associations such as ‘bubblegum pop’ and ‘masterpiece’. The importance of understanding dominant associations within discourses and how they change lies exactly in the perceived ‘naturalness’ of the associations embedded in discourses: they reveal how some ways of understanding and perceiving have gained cultural dominance over others, making media discourse an important aspect of perceived cultural and social hierarchies. As such, scrutinizing aspects of discourse specifically how concepts used by cultural intermediaries are connected or disconnected from each other can benefit our understanding of the common underlying logics used to make sense of (new) cultural products, and how dominant these are within the media landscape. In studying the content of media discourse generated on popular music, we hence focus on two central aspects that are related to social and cultural hierarchies: legitimacy and gender.
Media discourse on legitimacy
Over the last decades, the question whether a cultural product is considered ‘artistic’ or not has moved beyond the strict bounds of the high arts into popular culture. Whereas fields such as popular music and film have a history of being conceptualized as ‘mass’ or ‘popular’ media, undeserving of artistic acclaim, this has broadly shifted since the 1990s [17, 37,38,39,40]. By producing the discourse, critics, journalists and (social) media commentators play a crucial role in legitimating some fields (and certain genres within them) over others [41, 42]. Ample studies demonstrate that many genres of media have been able to acquire artistic legitimacy over time: music genres such as jazz and rock [18, 43], comics and graphic novels [44, 45], or indie video games [46, 47]. A crucial ingredient to these processes of legitimation is whether the discourse surrounding such products is changing . However, this is not simply a struggle about which opinion is deemed ‘best’. Cultural sociological studies, particularly the work of Bourdieu , demonstrate that whether a genre is perceived as (il)legitimate bears considerable consequences for the symbolic power asserted through affiliating oneself with this genre: ‘legitimate’ tastes versus ‘popular’ tastes [2, 11, 12, 48].
The question on how genres within popular music are generally perceived has received ample attention by cultural commentators and scholars in the past decades. The first studies on music taste by Arnold  and members of the Frankfurter Schule  departed from the binary and normative notion separating ‘highbrow’ genres, such as classical, from ‘lowbrow’ genres, such as pop or rock. In the 1960s, we were able to witness the rise of the so-called ‘rockism’ discourse that offered a first escape from this binary . The term rockism was first used in the 1980s as a critique against this newly risen discourse that celebrated rock music for its supposed sincerity/authenticity, rawness and anti-commercialism. This discourse was typified ideologically combining legitimate aspects (anti-commercialism, seriousness) and aspects considered illegitimate (rawness, celebration of the visceral) from the perspective of a highbrow, ‘disinterested’ aesthetic disposition . In response and adjacent to the rise of the cultural omnivore and the increased dominance of ‘middle-brow’ tastes, cultural intermediaries started advocating for the legitimacy of commercial, mainstream pop music and adjacent subgenres. This later became known as the ‘poptimist’ discourse , which “simultaneously embraces the pleasure of listening to pop music while asserting its legitimacy through making it the object of criticism” . As such, poptimism unapologetically celebrates the commercial aspects of popular music genres, which were historically considered in an antagonistic or ironic way by cultural intermediaries (encapsulated perfectly with the term ‘guilty pleasure’) . However, increasing or decreasing notions of (il)legitimacy in cultural intermediaries discourse rarely occurs in a vacuum and the process of legitimation is often coupled with masculinization as well. Historical examples can be found in the increasing masculinization of novel writing  and screen writing , which happened while these fields gained legitimacy in the broader cultural landscape. Indeed, as indicated by Schmutz, “the symbolic boundaries that sustain musical hierarchies continue to be linked to social boundaries, including gender” . This underlines the necessity to include both legitimacy and gender when studying changes in media discourse on music.
Media discourse on gender
Focussing on gender, ample research has demonstrated that women and men are differently represented as artists across music genres. Whereas men are dominant across musical and technical positions in genres such as jazz, rock, metal and rap, women are generally better represented in genres such as chart pop and folk, although often still limited to specific positions such as vocals [52,53,54,55,56,57]. As a consequence of these divisions, discourses within these genres have often found to be masculine, which aids in keeping symbolic boundaries between genres intact and making bridging attempts relatively challenging . Indeed, the ‘rockism’ discourse that gained traction in the late 1960s has also been a notably masculine one and has been widely criticized for it [2, 22, 23]. For example, studies find that masculine discourses in rock, punk and metal music historically portray these types of music as a form of masculine rebellion against ‘mainstream’ sensibilities, which are perceived as feminine [26, 58, 59]. When women participate in such genres or associated behavioural styles that are considered masculine, they are often judged more negatively than their male counterparts [60,61,62]. Instead, group category traits—identifying or being identified as women—become dominant in the evaluation process: successful (sexualized) performances of femininity [29, 63, 64], rather than individual musical skills. As such, gender has become an entrenched aspect of discourses surrounding specific music genres and their fields [10, 62].
The importance of gendered discourses within genres not only has consequences for representation of gender groups in various genres, either as audience or as artists, but also for how legitimate these genres are considered. For example, pop music was historically considered—at least until the rise of ‘poptimism’ sentiments—generally pre-fabricated, inferior and simple, and hence tied to notions of femininity [58, 65], whereas genres that are increasingly legitimated, such as jazz and rock, have come to be associated with masculinity [43, 66, 67]. The question remains, however, whether the coupling between legitimacy and masculinity that Schmutz  found and that the rockism and poptimism discourses allude to [2, 22, 23], can also be found in popular music discourse (re)produced in the last two decades. As such, the research question that drives this study is: how has the discourse on music in terms of (il)legitimacy and masculinity/femininity changed over time? While assessing this, we also explore to what extent this discourse differs between music genres, and whether changes in both dimensions of discourse relate to each other.
To analyse changing media discourse on music, we focus on Pitchfork—one of the largest and most influential music reviewing platforms available online. The self-proclaimed “most trusted voice in music”  was founded in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber and in 2015 acquired by major media company Condé Nast. A focus on Pitchfork has clear empirical advantages. While the platform initially focussed on indie/rock music, it diversified over time and, in this way, included most major genres. Importantly, there is no apparent relationship between genre affiliation and receiving a favourable review or not [8, 68], which we also corroborated in our research. In addition, it allows us to analyse a long period of time. Finally, according to our data, Pitchfork reviews have been written by a relatively diverse pool of over 650 authors in the last 20 years. This makes the site a relatively stable critical source in terms of professional cultural intermediaries firmly familiarized with journalistic practices, yet offering substantial within-source variation.
From a theoretical viewpoint, Pitchfork is interesting as it is a dominant voice in the field of music production, distribution and consumption and, in this way, has a major influence on how artists and genres are perceived. Since the early 2000s, reviews on Pitchfork are deemed highly influential in the making (or breaking) of artists, leading to the so-called ‘Pitchfork effect’ in musicians’ careers, particularly for early career artists [8, 69]. Even in an era of increasing reviewing practices on social media such as TikTok and YouTube, content published on Pitchfork has considerable global reach, specifically through their own social media channels which have millions of followers. According to the website itself, they welcome “more than 7 million monthly unique visitors” . This would place them above other well-known music reviewing websites such as Stereogum and Consequence of Sound, and slightly below giants such as NME, Billboard and Rolling Stone (which, unlike Pitchfork, all have a considerable history as paper magazines). Data from similarweb.com  shows that the gender distribution of visitors of Pitchfork is about 60% men versus 40% women, with most visitors being between 25 and 34 years old.
To analyse the media discourse on music in our corpus, i.e. the total collection of reviews, we use word embedding models. Word embeddings represent words as vectors in a shared vector space . Put simply, words that often share similar contexts will produce similar word vectors and will, therefore, be closer to each other in this so-called ‘vector space’. Consider this vector space as a giant, n-dimensional, semantic space which includes all the words present in the collection of texts one is analysing. The more similar words are, the closer they will be to each other in this giant semantic space. For example, the distance between the words ‘guitar’ and ‘music’ will be smaller than the distance between the words ‘guitar’ and ‘climate’. How is this semantic space created? From linguistic theory, we know that the meaning of words can be inferred from the context in which they are used . So, words that are used in similar contexts throughout the corpus are similar to each other in terms of meaning. Thinking specifically about the context of music reviews, consider, for example, the words ‘vocalist’ and ‘singer’. Both words may never co-occur in a review, as some reviewers may systematically prefer one word over the other, but they will share similar contexts as they are likely both surrounded by words, such as ‘voice’, ‘charismatic’, ‘falsetto’, or ‘nasal’. Because of the similarity in context, a word embedding model is able to detect that the semantic similarity between ‘vocalist’ and ‘singer’ is very high. In this way, word embeddings allow to capture complex semantic relationships integral to discourse.
Word embedding models have been used in computer science for text classification. They are, however, also extremely useful for social science as they are able to detect recurring associations in texts [72,73,74,75]. For example, Kozlowski et al.  use word embedding models to trace historical changes in the way social class is understood. Similarly, Nelson  uses word embeddings to map how black and white persons are discursively represented in the nineteenth century US South. Rodman  studies’ 160 years of newspaper coverage to track the changing meaning of political concepts. In line with these studies, we use word embeddings to track changes in the discursive representation of genres.
In this article, we are specifically interested in the (potentially) changing discourse on popular music on the poles of two oppositions: illegitimate vs. legitimate (as an indicator of legitimacy) and masculine vs. feminine (as an indicator of gender). To measure the engagement of documents with these poles, we use Concept Mover’s Distance (CMD) which was developed by Stoltz and Taylor [76, 77]. By extending the idea of similarity between two words, CMD measures the similarity between a document and a theoretically motivated concept. CMD holds “the embedding space constant while measuring the position of documents relative to it, specifically measuring each document’s distance from a specific ‘region’ of the embedding space” . In this way, our analysis will track the relative position of documents towards each pole of both dimensions. We use a pre-trained word embedding space. More specifically, we use word embeddings from fastText which were trained on Wikipedia 2017, UMBC webbase corpus and statmt.org news dataset [78, 79] and which are known for their high quality .
Using CMD, we can measure the position of each review on the legitimacy dimension, which ranges from illegitimate to legitimate, and the gender dimension, which ranges from feminine to masculine. Consider, for example, a review that is close to the feminine pole of the gender dimension. This review may be full of negative gender stereotypes with sentences such as: ‘she offers a simple, feminine style to the guitar playing’. That review may also be located on the feminine pole of the gender dimension because of other things than gender stereotypes. For example, suppose a reviewer discusses an all-woman group and reflects on the role of each band member. The reviewer may use sentences like ‘she is very skilled in her guitar playing’ or ‘she is displaying her well-known style of singing’. The words ‘she’ and ‘her’ will strongly pull the review towards the feminine pole. This type of aspects picked up by the model are more ‘objective’, compared to gender stereotypes, in the sense that they relate to ‘objective gender divisions’ in music. That does not mean, however, that this is irrelevant for social sciences. Quite the opposite: the ‘objective’ gender division is also a concrete reflection of how genres are perceived in society. If genre x is, according to the dominant beliefs in a society, clearly a ‘feminine’ genre, it may prevent boys/men to listen to it, to develop a preference for it and, in the end, contribute to the genre by producing music themselves (as indicated by, for example: [56, 62, 66, 80, 81]).
So, in general, we aim to capture the discourses surrounding popular music in reviews on two dimensions: legitimacy and gender. While these discourses are obviously shaped by dominant beliefs in society (because the reviewers themselves are part of society), these representations also become strong drivers themselves. Once these beliefs are included in the discourse of a dominant player in the music field, which Pitchfork is, they become a strong force in further shaping the way genres are perceived.