I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings online, not specifically. I would follow that with “I don’t think anyone does” if that wasn’t—evident to anyone who has spent even a millisecond within 50 feet of a computer or phone—false. For the purposes of this discussion though, I’m starting with, if not the assumption of good faith, then the setting aside of those thousands (or more) who, by weakness of spirit or misplaced sense of grievance, do set out to hurt people’s feelings. I’m not talking to them, I don’t respect them, and they wouldn’t listen anyway. Nor am I talking about critics with a capital “C.” Critics writing about criticism is of interest largely to other critics and I’m trying to spare you any spraining from grandiose jerking off motions. I’m talking to and about everyone who has an opinion about art, either as an enthusiast or a naysayer, and wants to express that opinion, whether it be to defend Taylor Swift or denounce Radiohead or, as some of us who should maybe know better but don’t, to see what everyone else is saying and then say the exact opposite. It’s a wild world that allows for a vigorous debate, or maybe we’re all pack animals and/or bullies despite ourselves. I want to talk about fandom versus criticism, loving things critically. Is that even possible in an online world where often people only hear the criticism? Is being critical publicly useful or just a weird passive aggressive need to make people feel bad for their passions? Conversely, if you love something, why does someone saying maybe Star Wars is a child’s movie send you into paroxysms of rage? Essentially, with no hope of settling the matter in limited space if ever; do people who hate Kanye dream?
There are two dictums useful for this exploration; “Don’t shit on what gives people joy” and “Do you want new wave or do you want the truth?” The first is an oft-repeated tweet by Jason DeMarco and the second is a Minutemen song title. Jason DeMarco has a longer job title at Adult Swim than space or sanity permits but he’s essentially Face Of Good Taste for the network. The Minutemen were an influential punk band beloved by many who, prior the ascension of poptimism, take particular pride in not liking George Michael. The song “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth” is not, despite its title, not actually about the ethics of taste, but if The New York Times can use The Minutmen’s “What Makes A Man Start Fires” to justify giving tuggers to Nazis, I can use them as jumping off point to talk about being mean about The Chainsmokers online.
When DeMarco says not to shit on people’s enthusiasms, he’s means that, as he tells me over the phone, “There’s a point where, in our current media cycle, and if you’re on social media especially, you can just feel like bombarded by thinkpieces about a particular album or movie or whatever it is, eventually some part of you just wants to go, ‘shut up!’ I think that’s a natural response to the saturation we deal with every day but I think what people don’t think about that negativity travels more than positivity. People think about it more, they focus on it more. Like myself, I can hear five hundred positive comments and the one negative comment will make me go, 'Maaaaan.' It’s human nature.”
No one needs a lecture on the nature of social media. We know that reading for tone is difficult, nuance is rare, and the tendency to hyperbole… is very strong. As the professional critic goes the way of the dragon slayer—the entire online world has gleefully stepped in to lance whatever is available, be it windmill, boil, or, too often the case, princess. I don’t begrudge the democratization. Having a tempestuous relationships with professional critics, from the days of rolling my eyes at Rolling Stone’s four star Mick Jagger reviews and criminal inattention to the Western Mass Hardcore scene all the way to being told (correctly) that I couldn’t sing by Time Out New York, it’s not a class I’m inclined to romanticize. And the ability to click a button and hear or watch the music or film the music or movie discussed renders all but the most astute critic largely irrelevant. People now read critics largely for pleasure and take what they want from it and I think that’s fine.
But, and here’s the hitch: I still think a lot of people are fucking morons feeding themselves, let alone art. Maybe Trump didn’t win the popular vote, but he still got more votes than there are Teena Marie fans. And, while not being a child and therefore not confusing taste with morality, I don’t know that the Taste Pope needs to be handing out taste dispensations to the mob rule anytime soon.
As you can see, I may be one of those people who shit on what makes people happy.
But I don’t want to be! I respect fandom, both as a concept and as a grouping. While I’ve never loved any band enough to send out for the literature (the Nation of Ulysses newsletter was sold out before I discovered them), I have more band shirts than is appropriate a man ten years my junior. I love the signifiers and I love the advocacy. When I was attacked by name searching Lady Gaga fans for tweeting that she was a phony or hack or whatever it is I call artists like her when my dander is up, I didn’t apologize to them because I was convinced (if anything, my distaste for Gaga-ian empty gestures towards meaning—be it her glomming onto whatever cause du jour, political-as-of-November-2016 “punks,” or any generic neo-indie goths using death and darkness as a prop—has only grown over the years) but because I loved that they loved her, and what was my contempt serving at that moment? And if you think pop fans are somehow more sensitive and more inclined to name-searching-to-get-mad, you’ve clearly never made a ‘Mats joke online. I keep my Hold Steady bashing to a ritualistic monthly affair now, even if only to make sure that there are still some Greenpoint bars that I can get a drink for free.
I don’t claim to represent anyone, but it’s worth interrogating my own reasons for taking the shots I take at the targets I take. If it’s pure objective thought, why the need to share? Why not just bathe in my own self-satisfaction as Guy Who Didn’t Fall For It till my skin wrinkles and falls off, no harm no foul? When we feel the need to attack something we perceive as “overrated,” do we think anyone’s mind will be changed? Are we just sparring with friends, killing time at the bar till the dealer arrives (I’m old, they used to come into the bar)? Or do we (I), despite protestations, really hope to wound some theoretical enemy out there? Some devilish adversary who has committed the vile apostasy of having skin in the Radiohead versus Lana Del Rey game. Those fools, those feelers.
The answer to all those questions is “maybe.” Or “sometimes.” New Wave Versus Truth is a useful but false binary. Sometimes the market driven populism of new wave is as true and life-affirming as, if not more so, an art that wears “authenticity” as a badge. And a beautiful lie can still be beautiful, otherwise we’d call it something else. I certainly prefer the electroclash trash of current Taylor Swift to the “true” airtight and joyless craftwork that made her famous. And her nemesis, Kanye West, has made a career of rendering divisions of high and low art, ear candy and experimentation, almost laughably irrelevant.
It feels patronizing to have to point out that art is subjective and all that. But of course if we were all at peace with that notion in our souls, we’d hardly be calling each other philistines and dumbasses on twitter dot com. We like what we like. We also have ideas about what makes something “good” that either informs this affection, or justifies after the fact. In matters of fan heart and fan hate, nobody wants to hear the scolding voice of reason. When we fight over Radiohead, the pedant with their “all art is subjective” can fuck right off.
Though it’s an accusation I’ve luckily/strangely/maybe—by dint of my cultural irrelevance—managed to avoid, it grates when I see vocal negative-opinion-havers being accused of being “trolls” or, worse if you care about criticism, “contrarian.” Of course some are. Jerks are pandemic in all mediums. But being in the minority on the relative merits of Guardians of The Galaxy, or even Lady Bird (which I haven’t seen and am not insulting, just using as an example of higher-minded fare uniformly loved, please don’t @ me), shouldn’t be taken the sole province of serial provokers. Sometimes, even those who largely love popular culture, through the foibles of taste that makes distinct raindrops (now that “snowflake” is off the table forever) of us all, we just don’t like what is uniformly liked, and we have reasons.
While striving for empathy, or at least to keep in mind the feeling you had the last time that one of the dudes from Chapo Trap House’s willful misunderstanding of the work of Andrew Eldritch made you see red, we don’t have to let some theoretical fan’s potential sorrow dictate our online behavior. Sometimes the consensus can be maddening, and we have feelings too, you know. If everyone loves a particular thing, maybe their collective joy deserves space and maybe they can take a little extra joy in their numbers and allow for the occasional dissenting yowl.
When I talked to DeMarco, he used anti-Beyoncé thinkpieces as an example of the sort of criticism he can’t respect, and I understand where he’s coming from: “Someone is writing a thing just because they’re tired of hearing about how Beyoncé is great so they write an entire thing about how Beyoncé sucks and it’s like, ‘C’mon, man. You’re not going to convince anyone that Beyoncé sucks. No one is going to think that you’re taking a brave stance. You’re just define yourself by pushing against someone else and that has nothing to do with Beyoncé, it has to do with you being a type of person, which is really boring to me.” But I also know a few people (OK, a couple) who genuinely, because of taste or Marxism, just don’t dig her. They’re not contrarian. They’re just weirdos and bless them for it.
Do people who hate Kanye dream? DeMarco says, “Yeah. In black and white.” Maybe he’s right. Or maybe those people who hate Kanye dream vivid dreams of Drake or Replacements b-sides instead. And maybe, worst case scenario that, being a booster, I’m loathe to subscribe to just yet, all our dreams are being made dreary. By the time, before sleep and first thing upon waking, spent lying in bed, feeling the flush of anger spread over our face and body, refreshing Twitter and Facebook, watching strangers and loved ones strongly imply that we’re suckers, bad-taste lovers, terrible kissers, that our opinions on Vampire Weekend and Eminem will follow us straight to hell. Where we deserve to spend eternity.
You can @ Zachary Lipez on Twitter.