Exposure

I’ve been reviewing pop singles on this blog for almost eight years, and I’ve never gotten a reaction like I’m getting to my review in the Village Voice of OneRepublic’s new single. Part of it is numbers (I’ve never averaged much more than 40 hits a day), but it’s also the type of reader. I assume most of my readers are friends, other critics, or both. Most casual pop fans aren’t interested in criticism, and since I’m lousy at self-promotion I’ve never tried to reach out to them, anyway. So most of the readers of this blog would either share my dislike of OneRepublic and Ryan Tedder, or wouldn’t care.

But it’s the casual pop fan who does most of the record buying, who forms the strongest attachment to certain stars, and who is, though they would never admit this, most likely to be terrified of any opinion that’s the opposite of their own. I’ve experienced this in the past, on web forums and listserves where the merest hint of criticism will either get you pummeled with negative messages or ignored until the end of time. One person on The Well told me that since I didn’t like The Piano, I wasn’t worth talking to about anything. When I suggested that our disagreement was a basis for discussion rather than a reason to ignore each other, I got no reply. I did, however, hear from other members. They accused me of harassment and told me to leave the person alone.

I wondered for a long time why so many people were afraid not only of criticism, but of anyone who expressed a strong opinion. My theory at the moment is that people know that most of their own opinions, however strongly they may be held, are built on nothing but air. They are either borrowed from sources they trust and consider more knowledgeable on the subject than themselves, or derived not from thought and consideration but from an emotional reaction (the situation of most pop fans). In either case, if they were asked to defend their opinions, they would find themselves at sea. Other than citing their sources, if they have any, their only options are flight, silence, or attack.

Which doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Every day, every person in the world does something like this. Faced with the need to have an opinion about something we haven’t thought much about, either because we’re asked or because a situation arises that makes it seem important, we wing it. Only the impossibly wise keep their mouth shut when asked their opinion about something they don’t know. And once we wing it we tend to stick to it, even when there’s no basis for it but emotion or some kind of gut feeling. Hence our defensiveness. But there isn’t any real defense, and we know it, and no one likes to be exposed in that way.

Which is why, though I always use both barrels in print, I’ve learned to hold back or even remain silent in face to face conversation. If someone told me they loved OneRepublic, I might politely demure, but most likely I wouldn’t say anything at all. I’d just nod. This goes for any direct communication, not just face to face. Unless I know that the person I’m talking to knows me well enough not to be offended (or is also a critic, in which case we let it rip), I’m more cagey and polite about my opinions. If it were a matter of morality, or ethics, maybe even politics, I might not be so hesitant, but pop music isn’t weighty enough (to most people, anyway) to get in that sort of mess on a regular basis.

Attacks on critics are another aspect of this. I don’t think people hate critics any more than they ever have, but they have more outlets for expressing it: comment sections, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, the reviews section on Amazon. The old saying that everybody is a critic is true. I’ve recently come to the conclusion, in fact, that the term “critical thought” is a redundancy. All conscious thought is critical thought, an attempt to make sense of the world as we face it each day, to navigate the dangers and confusions and novelties that pop up in our environment and in ourselves. Criticism seems odd to people because it’s applied to other people’s critical thought as expressed in the arts, and seems to deal only indirectly with life itself. It’s an added, often abstract layer of discussion that many people consider unnecessary or insulting. That criticism is as much an art form as any other, that at its best it deals directly with life as viewed through the prism of art either doesn’t occur to them or makes no sense.

That the critic exposes herself as much as the artist she writes about, as much as the audience for whom she tries to interpret the art, is something that’s lost in a slew of fear, doubt, and misunderstanding that too often express itself in frustration and anger.

People don’t like that the world is difficult to understand. I don’t like it, either. It scares me as much as it scares them. But cocooning yourself in the easy listening affirmations of OneRepublic isn’t going to make things better. You need to open up to more than that, no matter how scared you are. You need to expose yourself.