I may never fully recover from the psychic trauma visited on me by the insufferably zany be-dreadlocked band 4-Non-Blondes and their all-too-memorable charting single “What’s Up?”
While it was released nearly 20 years ago and was nothing but a flash in the pan, the horror of “What’s Up?” still stings a little, and I believe that we as a culture were incrementally but irreversibly weakened by it. Seeing the song as a vapid, “alternative” and criminally upbeat dilution of an already milquetoast moment in pop music history is easier in hindsight than it was when I was in high school. That’s because the present discomfort felt in dragging it back into conscious recollection stems not from the vitriolic and idealistic outrage of youth, but a systemic remorse for the popular culture of the early ’90s as dictated by MTV, and the attendant broad-spectrum alienation that has grown stronger in its wake and which might have been avoided. But the rank horror of the song is trumped by its importance as a placeholder. At a distant remove, I’m allowed a dispassionate perspective on a cultural temperament that provided a fertile, if vaguely fetid growth medium for expressions like “What’s Up?”
“Criticism” is one of those words that has a rough time getting settled in polite conversation. Immediately upon hearing the word, we’re on the back foot, waiting for a reign of blows and, with bozos like me out there who seem to be lurking, waiting to take a swing, this posture regarding criticism is not for nothing. A quick Google search will turn up roughly 1.5 million hits for the phrase “nobody likes a critic.”
But criticism is not just the sport of pointing out missteps like “What’s Up?” Good artistic and cultural criticism extends into our daily lives and includes the conversations we have at every turn about the creative and social expressions that affect and in many ways determine the way we perceive the world and respond to it. Critical evaluations of the way art affects us are healthy not only for a community’s discourse but, in the end, for the art that the discourse orbits.
The voices of music critics in the late ’60s who panned Led Zeppelin as sloppy imitators of a form already perfected by Jeff Beck were drowned out by the 7 million humans who purchased the first Zep record, firmly placing them in the canon with an audible crash. The critics may have gotten it wrong, but they were a necessary part of a discourse that elucidated what was right and accurate, namely that Led Zeppelin is fucking awesome.
When Justin Timberlake’s first solo record dropped, I was, to be kind, dismissive. After a few listens with a friend who was able to point out JT’s novel innovations on the form and place them in a larger context, a light went off and I was mesmerized. The whole critical episode called into question the steamer trunk full of assumptions I carry around with me about what good-art-is-and-ought-to-be, and I was made to re-evaluate not just one artist, but a musical movement, and most importantly, my position as a listener with an opinion.
Thoughtful criticism can help create a metric for determining what good art looks like, methods for engaging with it fruitfully, how to understand it in a larger cultural context, and lend a hand correlating works of art with the human conditions that simultaneously stimulate them and give them relevance. In this way, criticism can be not just a response to art, but a creative extension of it.
But what about liking-something-just-because-I-like-it because I think it’s good? Isn’t that worthwhile? Our individual tastes and desires are definitely good enough, but I would argue that, more than being entitled to one’s opinion about art and expression, we’re tasked with (thoughtfully one would hope) openly articulating those opinions as much as possible, because critical discussion has the potential to render art even more meaningful. The goal of criticism shouldn’t necessarily be “getting it right” as much as it should take the discussion about art and culture it seeks to represent seriously, and thoughtfully engage with that art and with the audience in an attempt to, briefly stated, make the world in which art occurs make more sense.
Reading: T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”