I’ve had some really good conversations on Twitter today, which really foregrounded a problem with criticism. The idea of a critic landing a cross-genre shot, contre-pied’ing our expectations (think: David Wallace on Terminator 2) is delightful. But it has to be done extremely well, drawn from a decent amount of knowledge and even more empathy.
Most times, when a critic of one type deals with an unfamiliar topic, he enters parlous territory. Think: Chuck Klosterman on Tune-Yards.
The bigger point, then, is that sometimes something’s not for you. It’s a challenging presumption. Eve Barlow treated it in a piece on criticism and Rihanna:
I’ve seen it time and again – people reviewing artists outwith their comfort zone. The reviews may as well write themselves. Alexis Petridis wrote the Rihanna live review recently for The Guardian. Why?! What is the point of Alexis, a highly esteemed writer but someone who blatantly doesn’t want to embrace Rihanna’s Grace Jones-indebted pop shtick, writing that review? I don’t want to assume too much about you. If it is the case that you are a relentless pop junkie like me and await the next of Sean Rowley’s Guilty Pleasures nights with enormous glee then please let me know. I’d love to go out clubbing and bend your ear about all the tricks of the trade. It’s just that reading your review of Rihanna’s album, I can’t help but get the sense that you’re not enjoying yourself and you’ve missed the point.
A big pop release? Please, I’d love to read Jonathan Bogart on it. Death metal (or whatever I’m to call it)? Brandon Stousy, definitely. The latest King Louie tape? Get me David Drake. People have wheelhouses, sets of knowledge, and most importantly, appreciation for different things. Those are the people who should be working on those things. That doesn’t mean those things would only get positively reviewed. In fact, the opposite. The more into something, and the more you know about it, the easier it is to find its faults and identify where it’s gone astray.
But there’s an even bigger problem than a failure to match up the right people with the right things. (That actually does happen pretty regularly — there are good editors out there.) The bigger problem is that the predominance of white male writers covering basically everything says to me that popular culture as written will tend to be packaged and understood from a white male point of view. Not everything is for you.
It’s not that the above writers aren’t great. In fact, the opposite. But I want other points of view. The problem I have with some publications is that, through chance more than design, the staffs are predominantly white and male, and so we get a critical consensus behind Bon Iver, say, instead of The-Dream or the above Rihanna. I think Talk That Talk is much better than Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but the shape of musical discourse is structurally and perhaps inexorably white and male perspective’d. It’s not to say Bon Iver is objectively worse than Rihanna, but viewed through ‘our internet media’ there is really no way to tell.
If you conduct a thought experiment where all the major online music publications are run by women and people of color, I’m sure our idea of a 10.0 perfect album would be a lot different. Maybe Bon Iver, Bon Iver gets the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy treatment, and it does get a 10.0 (to great and loud derision). And maybe Rihanna, Miguel, Drake, Janelle Monae, and The-Dream are the usual suspects crowding up every top ten of the year list.
In a country with our ethnic and gender demographics, I refuse to believe that the best ten to fifty albums every year are mostly made by white guys. And I’m not saying that anyone at the big online magazines is racist or sexist. But there is a privileging of perspective, and a process of normalization, just because we are who we are. And not everything is for everyone else — either by taste or by rights.
When Jessica Hopper said, “Funny how a lot of the Lana Del Rey review are more or less aesthetic slut-shaming, esp. when you isolate the critical phrases/language used”, there’s a point behind the point. Sure, many women may dislike the album for aesthetic reasons — and of course women aren’t going to automatically have an affinity for a thing because it was made by another woman — but the structure of thought and language framing most every topic on the internet is a white male one. The way we make sense of things aesthetically is not natural; there is no natural aesthetic framework as concerns pop music, I don’t think.
It’s slightly vexing that there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution. And I’m not trying to sound vituperative or anything. But it pays to keep in mind that the issues of the day are usually framed by someone else’s perspective. Also, you know, I think that people — guys especially — should maybe ask other people what they think of things before spouting off. The ‘general idea’ of things is usually a guy’s idea of them. But not everything is for us. You know, I have no idea what it’s like to be a teenage girl. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black woman or a black man. It’s hard to acknowledge the fact that your opinion and thoughts aren’t the be-all/end-all of something. Sometimes, when confronted with something you don’t like or don’t get, you just have to accept that and move on. I think a lot of times, diversity is seen as an obligation — foreign films, math rock, Greek tragedies, whatever — but if you are clearly disengaged from something, really hate it for reasons that can’t outpace ‘but it’s stupid…’, then maybe it’s just not for you.