For a while, in at least a few corners of the Web, Emily White was the most controversial D.C. intern since Monica Lewinsky.
For a while, in at least a few corners of the Web, Emily White was the most controversial D.C. intern since Monica Lewinsky. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

At an NPR listening party in mid-September, at the Gibson Guitar Room in Chinatown, the punk-cabaret singer Amanda Palmer is sitting on a couch backstage, anxiously composing a blog post on her laptop.

Palmer’s high-profile Internet presence had endured a roller-coaster ride of hype and schadenfreude over the past few months. In June, she wrapped up an astonishingly successful campaign through the website Kickstarter to raise money to make her new album, becoming the first person in the crowdfunding platform’s history to collect more than $1 million. By September, however, she had gone from new-media trailblazer to DIY pariah, having ignited a controversy with her decision to crowdsource the backing band for her upcoming tour but pay them in beer and hugs, not dollars.

As she waits to perform for the small gathering, Palmer works on a response to her many critics, including the producer and indie-rock icon Steve Albini. “Pretty much everybody on earth has a threshold for how much to indulge an idiot who doesn’t know how to conduct herself,” Albini had written a few days earlier on his recording studio’s popular message board. “And I think Ms. Palmer has found her audience’s threshold.”

When someone tells Palmer that Emily White, a 21-year-old former intern for the music program All Songs Considered, is at the event, the singer requests her presence. They’ve never met before, but when White walks in the room, Palmer heaves a sigh, as though White is some sort of fabled Internet-troll whisperer.

“You are the only person who understands how I’m feeling right now,” Palmer says.

No kidding. Over the course of her 10-week summer stint at NPR, White’s name appeared in Time, in the New York Times, and on MSNBC. She received an avalanche of hate mail, one possibly earnest marriage proposal in a comments section, and a message from a deaf person wishing that she would go deaf, too. A YouTube user uploaded a “Song for Emily White.” White watched her name become not just a well-worn hashtag on Twitter, but a pageview-baiting keyword. (“Emily, you are blowing up so hard that people are using your name for Search Engine Optimization,” one of her co-workers emailed her, along with a link to a story unrelated to anything she’d written, yet still tagged “Emily White.”) The cacophony of tweets, blog posts, and—occasionally—even real-life chatter died down as the summer waned, but for awhile, in at least a few corners of the Web, Emily White was the most controversial D.C. intern since Monica Lewinsky.

White’s infamy resulted from a widely discussed post about downloading music, which she wrote for NPR’s All Songs Considered blog in June, three weeks after she started her internship. In the 520-word piece, “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,” White confessed that she’s only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime, even though there are 11,000 songs in her iTunes library, and that she doesn’t lament the recording industry’s current transition away from physical media because iPods and MP3s are all she’s ever really known.

“As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts,” White wrote. That’s hardly an unusual experience, but the post poured gasoline on the debate about illegal downloading, artists’ rights, and the consumer generation gap that’s raged ever since Lars Ulrich helped zap Napster 1.0 out of existence. In particular, White’s closing salvo—“All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want, and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?”—slipped snugly into the media’s dogeared narrative about entitled Millennials.

The most widely read response to White’s piece was a blog post by David Lowery, who sang in early alt-rockers Camper Van Beethoven in the 1980s and Cracker after that, and who now teaches economics at the University of Georgia. “Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians,” Lowery wrote, notching half a million hits in two days. His kicker: “You’re doing it wrong.” (Travis Morrison, the frontman of D.C.’s Dismemberment Plan, who now works at the Huffington Post, parried Lowery’s argument, defending White in a piece called “Hey Dude From Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like Those Damned Kids When I Was A Kid”: “If you duped a copy of a Dismemberment Plan record in college or something,” Morrison wrote, “it’s cool. I guess I’d like to have the money, but you know what, I hope you just listened to it with even 1/10 of the consciousness I gave to the music I listened to as a kid—copied, stolen, or bought.”)

For about a month, White’s name became synonymous with her generation’s habits of cultural consumption—with the entire battery of forces that have upended the ways we listen to music and the ways artist make, or struggle to make, their livings. But for all her name’s ubiquity, one thing was weird: Following her initial blog post, White was completely absent from the conversation. Who was Emily White, the most reviled byline on the Internet? And, as weeks passed, the critiques of her post proliferated, and she became a full-fledged online meme, why hadn’t she responded?

I wondered these questions with particular interest, and more than a twinge of guilt. Bloggers were blaming White personally for everything from an entire generation’s presumed attitude of entitlement (Vice’s “Open Letter To Emily White” proclaimed “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and featured an image of Veruca Salt, the spoiled brat from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) to the suicides of a pair of indie musicians, Vic Chesnutt and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, who were living in debt when they took their own lives (that was Lowery, delivering a low blow in a largely sensible, if overwhelmingly patronizing, post). The monsoon of open letters to White—which became so overdone that I saw the parody tweet, “A Closed Letter To Emily White: .”—was telling. The discourse surrounding White wasn’t so much a two-sided conversation about consumption habits as it was a digital shouting match, with countless voices hollering, each a little louder and more self-righteous than the last, at a silent void.

But I felt some responsibility for the whole contretemps: When I went to American University, I was the general manager of WVAU, the campus radio station where White now works. In her blog post, she mentioned ripping a lot of music from the station. I was the staffer who oversaw the effort to digitize our CD library—which means, if you extend the blame back a couple years, I’m partially responsible for the ease with which White added a couple thousand songs to her now-infamous iTunes library.

By some kind of logic, I am #EmilyWhite.

Given all the shit she was getting for this, I felt like I at least owed her a coffee. Though White was no longer a trending topic on Twitter by late summer, when her internship ended, I still wanted to know a little more about the girl who strayed onto her crotchety neighbor’s lawn and stepped on a landmine.

Also, I wanted to go record shopping with her.

When White and I meet on a Friday afternoon in August, at Dupont Circle’s Red Onion Records, I’m a few minutes late, and she’s already beaming about a couple of not-terribly-esoteric finds: a vinyl copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On, and a used CD copy of Justin Timberlake’s Future Sex/Love Sounds, which costs $3.

So is this CD purchase No. 16? Not really, White explains: It’s a birthday present for a friend. “And she’s going to love it.”

White is bubbly but precociously poised, with brown curls and an animated, excitable nature. Given all I’ve read about her, I was expecting someone more jaded and more interested in talking tech than art. But I actually can’t remember the last time I met someone so unabashedly excited about music. As we browse the crates, she gushes about the Dirty Projectors show she caught at 9:30 Club the night before and her recent foray into Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

The daughter of a union lobbyist and a secondary-education administrator, White grew up in a suburb of Charleston, W. Va. She’s been passionate about music and the arts for as long as she can remember, but lacked hometown examples of how to turn that passion into a career.

“When I was a kid, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I’d think, ‘You need to be a lawyer or a diplomat. That’s what I grew up trained to be,’” White says. But like any suburban creative type’s, her teen years were fueled by a desire to leave the white picket fences behind. “I started a bank account when I was 8 and started putting in money so I could go to school out of state,” she says. “I worked all through high school, and all of my money went straight into the bank, in hopes of getting out of West Virginia.”

White says her town didn’t have much of a music scene, or at least not one she was aware of. There were no record stores and no big indie shows coming through town. (She didn’t go to her first concert, Yo La Tengo at 9:30 Club, until she came to D.C. for college in 2009.)

Every music fan has that moment that looms large in their personal mythology, the turning point when they break with, in White’s words, “the shitty music [they] used to listen to.” For White—whose 15-CD collection mostly consisted of pop acts like Destiny’s Child, Michelle Branch, and Christina Aguilera—that came in 2004, when she heard Modest Mouse’s hit “Float On” on an episode of the teen soap opera Degrassi. That might cause plenty of people to face-palm: “Float On” has gone down as the prototypical indie-gone-mainstream moment of the early-aughts, but White still speaks rapturously about the moment. It was her gateway drug into weirder music—and the Internet.

Even in her teens, White confesses to being unfashionably scrupulous about downloading music. (Even now, she says she’s never downloaded a “leak”—an album that finds its way online before its official release—and doesn’t understand how torrents work.) Her older brother was the Napster freak in the family, and she’d give him lists of albums to download for her, an arrangement she describes with the clandestine tone of a drug deal. She soon made some friends at her high school who shared her interest in indie rock, and together they engaged in less controversial methods of piracy: ripping each others’ CD collections, swapping iPods, and making mix CDs. (This is nothing new: In Morrison’s defense of White, he ticks off a list of similar ways Gen-X-ers obtained music—home-taping, mixtape exchanges, dubbing cassettes from the college radio library, and of course, “straight-up shoplifting.”)

“It sounds so weird to say, but in my high school, in my little town in West Virginia, I was known as ‘the Music Girl.’ Everyone was always asking me to make them mix CDs, so I was always looking for new music on MySpace and assembling these personalized playlists for people,” White says. As fun as it was to scour the Internet for new favorite songs, White says the most satisfying part of being the Music Girl was discussing, debating, and sharing music in real life. MySpace didn’t turn her into a shut-in; it brought her out of her shell. “The Internet opened up the world to me,” she says.

As I listen to White wax philosophic about coming of age in the age of the Internet, her words remind me of one of the summer’s other cultural memes. In June, around when White set off the Web’s musical commentariat, Globe and Mail reporter Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote a profile of Aaron Sorkin. When interviewing the famously loquacious showrunner, Prickett mentioned that his new HBO drama about cable news, The Newsroom, seemed uninterested in—and perhaps patronizing toward—the influence of digital media. Sorkin didn’t really help his cause: “Listen here, Internet girl,” he said. “It wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while.” “I’m not sure how he’s forgotten that I am writing for a newspaper,” Prickett wrote.

And so the meme “Hey Internet Girl” was born, thanks to an anonymously run Tumblr compiling real and imaginary “Important Things” Sorkin “has to say to the ladies of the Internet.” (“Hey Internet Girl, America used to be great…before you were born.”) As funny as the blog was, at its core was something contentious and complex: an ongoing battle between old media and new media, with an additional sexist undercurrent, in which value judgments are applied to phenomena for which there is no obvious precedent. Hey Internet Girl, you’re doing it wrong.

But maybe the conversation surrounding #EmilyWhite presents an opportunity. “I think we can learn a lot about modern music from talking to early twenty-somethings about it,” writes Eric Harvey, who’s written extensively about digital media for Pitchfork and teaches communications at Indiana University. (Disclosure: I also write for Pitchfork.) In an email, he says he’s been fascinated by the perspective provided by White’s post and a similarly controversial, Millennial-penned NPR post from this summer in which an intern copped to his ignorance of Public Enemy. But Harvey wishes NPR’s musical braintrust hadn’t “been so Web 2.0 about it, and actually talk[ed] to these kids about their tastes and habits, not just have them cough up a free blog post designed to look like a feature.”

Initially, NPR wouldn’t let White discuss the whole thing. The terms of her internship forbade her from talking to the press, even after she became infamous online. In July, NPR’s Media Relations Director shooed me away with a one-line email: “She’s an intern working at NPR, and is not in the position to give interviews.”

A few months later, NPR Music Director and Executive Producer Anya Grundmann agrees to speak with me, and sheds a little more light on the situation. “Of course, we felt protective of Emily, since part of the joy and horror of the Internet is that it’s so easy for other people’s comments about you to reach your ears, whether they’re supportive or disparaging,” she says.

All of which was understandable. But as one of White’s most spirited defenders—a 29-year-old talent manager, label owner, and contributor at the music tech blog Hypebot also named, weirdly, Emily White—notes, it led to a frustrating dynamic. “For someone who was paying attention to that conversation, it was like, ‘Why isn’t this girl [responding]? She must know she’s wrong or something.’ But that wasn’t the case.”

“It was tough for me to watch a 20-year-old—particularly female—intern get the crap beat out of her online when she had no voice,” White No. 2 continues. “I would never want a student to be scared to voice an opinion at any point in their life in the future because of that experience.”

But as usual, the conclusions drawn from the online chatter don’t tell the full story. For starters, White may have only purchased 15 CDs, but she clarifies that she purchased a sizable chunk of her music collection through iTunes, which makes her a better citizen than many listeners her age. And she wasn’t, as many of her detractors assumed, put up to writing the blog post by traffic-hungry editors trying to troll music lovers: The blog post was her idea. Though it’s not general protocol for interns to write op-eds, White had begun work (without telling her co-workers) on a draft inspired by All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen’s personal account of moving all his MP3s to a cloud-based storage system. A week and a half into her internship, she got the nerve to sit down next to her boss in the cafeteria and show him a draft. “I said, ‘Oh, hey, can I sit with you?’ And I told him I’d been working on a response to his article. Which I showed him,” she says. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, this is good.’” (Another fact her silence has unfortunately obscured: Emily White does a serviceable Bob Boilen impression.)

White turned 21 the week she went viral, and she recalls sitting at the bar at The Diner in Adams Morgan, laptop open, obsessively checking comments and tweets about the story. Within a few days, she had to stop reading: There was too much, and some of the comments were too cutting. “So many posts were incredibly condescending,” she says. “And it was just a flood of responses—after a while I couldn’t even process it.”

The conversation, such as it was that White spurred, wasn’t any less dizzying for the rest of us. Talking to White, however, you learn what was really going on in the eye of the shitstorm—and what this summer’s debates got wrong about the next generation of listeners.

White is emblematic of something, though it’s a little different than what Lowery had in mind. In the end, her tale is about both the positive and negative powers of the Internet—its ability to connect people and facilitate musical discoveries, but also the ways it can clog a potentially productive discussion with strawmen, suppositions, and holier-than-thou sanctimony (a representative op-ed title, from Minneapolis’s City Pages: “I Buy More Music Than Emily White, And You Should Too.”)

As great and multivocal as viral online discourse can be, it’s often allergic to nuance, managing to paint people who essentially believe the same things as enemies. Though Albini and Palmer disagreed about how she should pay her band, his subsequent apology (written after many outlets had drawn attention to what he’d written on his message board) speaks to this: “I’m sorry Amanda Palmer, the Internet is going to tell you that I think you’re an idiot,” he wrote. “That’s not true, it’s my fault.” Similarly, discourse fueled by the social Web has a way of making villains out of the wrong people. To say that White is apathetic about the future of the music industry is about as ridiculous as Sorkin’s claim that Prickett should pick up a newspaper.

For White, years of mix-making, discovering new bands on Degrassi, and hosting her own college radio show illuminated a career path more fulfilling than lawyer-or-diplomat: She realized at the beginning of college that she wants to be a music supervisor for TV and film—a pursuit she’s approaching with characteristic enthusiasm. When I ask her if she has any favorite music supervisors (a profession not exactly populated with boldface names), you’d think I just asked her to name her top 10 desert-island discs. She quickly ticks off a list that includes KCRW DJ Liza Richardson and Wes Anderson’s music supervisor, Randall Poster, who just oversaw a compilation of Fleetwood Mac covers. Which is, of course, how she got into Then Play On.

As Morrison attested, the music industry has always been powered by the same fuel: the passion and rabid enthusiasm of young fans. The Internet-raised music fan, like White, isn’t better or worse, or right or wrong—she just is. And, says the older Emily White, the industry will ignore her, trivialize her experiences, and reduce her to a meme at its own peril.

“The music industry will continue to move forward,” White No. 2 says. “But if we want it to in an efficient, smart way, we don’t need to attack and lecture the younger generation. We need to listen to what they have to say, and adapt.”

The day after the NPR event, Palmer posts an account of the evening: “Amanda Palmer & Emily White…Resisting The Trolls.” Though the post is sympathetic to White, it ultimately feels like yet another self-serving attempt to make her a totem of something else—a hashtag—rather than understand her as a complex person. “Emily…probably never imagined that she’d be a symbolic poster-child/whipping-post in a huge cultural argument” Palmer writes, before returning to a tone not so different from those sanctimonious open letters. “No doubt about it: My band has hit a DEEP, PAINFUL cultural nerve.”

The response on Twitter, as usual, isn’t particularly kind, but this time around, White says she’s too busy to follow the chatter. School has started back up, and she’s busy training new DJs, renewing the station’s streaming license, and booking events for the new semester. White says she’s constantly thinking about how to create meaningful musical experiences in a listening experience overloaded with choices—how to get her peers to stream the Web-only WVAU when they’d rather just listen to their own music on shuffle, for example—and the most innovative idea she’s come up with has been a series of station-sponsored pop-up shows, at which local bands will play an unannounced show in a campus coffee shop or student center, and often reach people who wouldn’t normally tune into the station. The first one was a success: “Some people showed up because they knew what was going on, but there were all these people who came to get coffee and then stayed to watch, and ended up having an unexpectedly awesome Monday evening,” White says.

Also unexpected: the intellectual-property course syllabus her friend forwarded her on the first day of school: “Tuesday’s discussion: The Emily White Debate.” White says her experiences have generated some debate in her classes, and that the classroom conversations have been a great deal more civil than the ones she’s had online.

Another friend asked to interview White for an assignment in his communications class. “This is just for class, right?” White says she asked him. “It’s not going to go on the Internet anywhere?”