Monday, April 05, 2021

The function of criticism at the present time, or how not to behave, NBC

 No, this is not a Matthew Arnold fan post. It's about meanness for the sake of meanness on the interwebs.

You may have seen this a few days ago:

In it, a writer called (checks notes) Jeff Slate* takes the occasion of Paul Simon selling his back catalog (as Dylan and countless others have done, let it be noted) for megabucks to slam Simon for no clear reason: 

  • "Always a ruthless operator, Simon no doubt saw the sale by Dylan to the rival company as a golden opportunity."
  • "It may feel as though he's saying "screw you" to all the folk-loving fans** who grew up with him (who are no doubt listening to his recordings on Spotify — which pays him pennies, of course — in their Audis), but Simon has never worried about what anyone thinks of him. "
  • "That means Young and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Paul Simon — all giants in their day — will be no more than footnotes, at best, to Dylan and the Beatles, if only because history is a blunt instrument and doesn't have room (at least not in the broadest sense) for subtlety.

    "So, Paul Simon, who is essentially an also-ran '60s icon on a centurial or millennial scale, is making a rational calculation. "

    Wow. I don't hold any particular brief for Paul Simon or know anything about his life, or whether he's a "ruthless operator," or "broke Art Garfunkel's heart," or any of it. 

    I know some of his songs, but I'm not a drunk music bro in a dorm somewhere at 2 a.m. arguing about the relative purity and worth--and worth because purity--of 1960s musicians, so I'll let that relative worth argument lie there.

    The reaction on Twitter was damning, and the ratio, lovely readers, was satisfyingly long. The comments were along these lines: 

    • Jeff who? 
    • Did Simon reject his demo tape, or something? 
    • JFC, what is wrong with this guy?

    My bigger question is this: why did NBC publish a screed like this? What's the point? There's no information in this article. There's no informed music criticism. There's nothing specific at all. There's nothing but what Charles Dickens would have called a bit of spleen.

    Now, 19th-century writers loved to tear up fellow writers; Poe in particularly was known for the savagery of his reviews.  But his reviews had a point, and this  . . . has none except the writer's animus toward Paul Simon. 

    We've gotten used to internet meanness along with items like The New Yorker not knowing the difference between "discreet" and "discrete" in a headline. (I have a screenshot!).  

    And I've seen some snide and pointless swipes even from music critics like NPR's Ken Tucker, aka a Derry Murbles wannabe for you Parks and Rec fans. 

    But Matthew Arnold told us that we could do better, even if no one clicks through.  Do better, NBC. 

    It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,– disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.

    *I wondered at first if this is a pseudonym, given Slate's reputation for full-on snark in most of its articles. 

    **Same argument was made when Dylan went electric at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. Get. Over. It.


Servetus said...

I feel like it's important to be informed about things you're speaking of. The record Simon will probably be remembered for as a solo artist is Graceland. 1980s.

undine said...

Servetus, that makes sense for a memorable album. Simon is one of those musicians that I feel as though I ought to like better than I do, but he didn't deserve that. The writer of that hit piece took time out to slag Simon for Graceland, calling it appropriation. He really hates Paul Simon.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

What's wrong with making money for your creative work? I thought we'd got over that idea about "selling out."

Z said...

Great post!