Last week, The Fader published its 100th issue, complete with a Drake interview, a Rihanna non-interview, and an oral self-history, with quotes from major players from the magazine’s past and present. The piece is a moving collection of stories on what it means to love and care about music above all, and includes a number of gems regarding their particular brand of genre-neutral “new journalism”. For both Andrew and I, The Fader is an emblematic example of how to do music journalism right, so as we read through this piece, we kept a keen eye, digging for the secrets behind the outlet’s success. One of these pieces of wisdom, however, given by former Senior Editor Sam Hockley-Smith, gave me pause:
”I remember coming in as an intern, and I got assigned to write a small review of some compilation. I was like, “I wanna be the cool critic guy.” It wasn’t a negative thing, but I was a little extreme on the negative side. I remember at the time Will Welch was like, “Hey, I get what you’re saying, but did you like this at all? Because if not, we just shouldn’t run it. Let’s run something that you’re enthusiastic about.” It was such a nice culture to be a part of.”
The issue at hand here is negative reviews, and it’s one that arts critics have been negotiating for ages. Why write a review of music we don’t like when we can instead simply refuse to write about it at all? It’s a complex question that gets at the fundamental nature of what criticism is, why we do it, and how to go about it with integrity and thoughtfulness. And while The Fader is correct in acknowledging the corrosive and harmful effects that a negative review can create, I find it a tad naive. Negative reviews are an essential component in critical world building and cultural discourse. To put one artist on a pedestal often requires taking another off of it. Is it not more honorable to commence that de-throning openly, publicly, and without shame?
Firstly, let me admit that I love a harshly worded slam. Reading someone shit all over an artist can let us revel in the animalistic joy of denigration, bathe in a sense of aesthetic schadenfreude through which we vent our anger and pent up frustrations onto a disappointing individual work of art.
On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of scathing write-ups of some of my favorite albums (fuck you, Anthony Fantano). And although I can’t say that it ever changed my mind or made me doubt my own tastes, it certainly has made me upset, much in the same way that I’m sure the artist themselves feel when they read it. When you invest yourself into a piece of music, whether as creator or receiver, any criticism of that work has the potential to come across as a criticism of your very worth and personhood. So, how might we attempt to balance the visceral fun of reading and writing destructive critique with the acknowledgement that those negative words can indeed do psychological harm?
One solution is the “only punch-up” philosophy, often employed in critiques of comedy. The gist is that “violent” language should only be used as a weapon against those who are “above” you on the ladder of privilege and power. It’s unacceptable for a white dude to make slavery jokes, you might say, but totally fine for an Asian girl to make an “all white people look the same” joke. In terms of music, this means that you can rip apart anything that a pop-star does, but that it’s rude and unnecessary to bring that same vitriol to an up-and-coming local band. While I do think this kind of morality makes sense in many circumstances, there’s no doubt that it can get complicated to determine when you might be punching “up” versus “down.” Should I refrain from lobbing disses at Janelle Monae when she releases a song as vapid as “Yoga” simply because she’s a black woman and I am a white man? Where do we even position her on the pop-to-underground privilege scale? She’s a self-made act who just so happened to succeed wildly. An artist’s level of success can’t be the only indicator of whether a critic can throw shade… even from a incentivization perspective, that’s the opposite of what we would hope for.
Another way to think about the issue is to consider an artist’s potential in relation to their output. If you loved what The Weeknd was doing with his Trilogy but think he’s currently wasting his talents on Top 40 pop fodder, that’s a critique that comes from a place of love and respect for his abilities. Of all the critical ideologies, this is perhaps the most well-rounded and simple answer. It provides us with a rationale for writing about the things we don’t like, under the guise of saying that we actually really do like the artist. But on the other hand, what if I simply don’t like an artist, and that dislike begets the urge to write about exactly why I find them and their output so unappealing? It’s highly misguided to reject that there exist credible, thoughtful, and even beautiful ideas that can only be expressed through negation, through the self-aware analysis of the forces behind our disgust.
Indeed, music criticism, like all artistic debate, is about so much more than its surface-level content and context. It’s not about what’s hot and what’s not. Iit’s not about helping artists find their audience (though that is certainly a positive byproduct)… it’s about living within and intentionally representing a set of values. It’s about re-structuring and re-defining the world we live in. Culture is malleable and critics and artists alike are two crucial parts of the process through which we all attempt to destruct and reconstruct our realities. When we talk about what we music we love, we’re really talking about what values we cherish, what ideas we want to espouse. When we dismiss a sound as irrelevant, we’re really relegating its creators and proponents into the unwanted catalog of historical debris. We talk about what’s hip and what’s new because the present is where our future is created.
That’s why criticism, or at least good criticism, is so fucking hard; it’s a moral task. To write a bad review is to decide that the benefits of publicly and decisively shunning an artist outweigh whatever psychic damages are done to the artists, their fans, and anyone who cares enough to empathize. Once music is put into the world, it is part of something much greater than its auteur, full of individual sensitivity and fragility, might have intended. It becomes a portal through which we are able to find our own meanings, create our own worldviews, and spin grander stories about who we are and who we want to be.
There’s been a lot of backlash over the past few years in response to the proliferation of the thinkpiece-industrial complex; that it’s the result of egoism and internet-mediated inflation. To me, however, it is neither. Rather, it’s an evolution, a next step forward in the development of critique. No longer is it necessary to hide behind “taste” in our efforts to build a world that suits our utopian fantasies. Instead we can cut straight to the source and discuss the underlying real life issues that inform our aesthetic temperaments.
Now, if there’s any problem with this strain of thought, it’s the potential claim that in painting entertainment culture as merely another part of socio-political discourse, we lose some of the magic, some of the life-affirming, bridge-building, humanistic essence that has made art so important throughout human history. I would insist, however, that we try to see it the other way around. Perhaps in melding together the worlds of the unknowable and the artistically divine with the objective rationality of daily affairs and profane existence, we might be able to fuse them into a more beneficial whole. Words are words, I say. What you do with them is always your choice. In reviewing music or any aspect of culture more broadly, we are simply choosing a topic – what we have to say about that topic, and whether we have the ability to phrase those thoughts in a kind and responsible way, is ultimately a decision that each of us must be constantly making. Don’t be afraid to tear down what exists, but make sure you know precisely why you think it deserves such a fate and why people need to see it fall.