The End of Criticism

Who even needs it?

This is the year of Lizzo.

The rapper, singer, and classically trained flautist released her third album Cuz I Love You in April, during a week sandwiched by performances at Coachella that both experienced technical difficulties. On Weekend Two, during her closer, “Juice,” the sound cut off — but neither Lizzo nor her dancers did, and the highly charged audience brought her home by acting as a collective vocal track to fill in any holes.

This laid the groundwork for a prolonged period of adulation for a charismatic, body-positive performer who radiates enough confidence to make anyone forget about their insecurities for a while. She’d already given a shout-out to Beyoncé, whose 2018 Coachella performance knocked the Earth out of its orbit and paved the way for curvaceous, sexually fluid women like Lizzo to follow. She even got in a politely indignant rebuke against Terry Gross when the NPR interviewer thought she was paying Lizzo a compliment by saying the nude cover art for Cuz I Love You “wasn’t sexual.” (Oh yeah, Terry Gross? Why might that be?)

One thing marred this love-fest, though. In a since-deleted, late-night tweet in response to a middling album review from Pitchfork, Lizzo wrote — in all caps — “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.”

Some people made a bigger deal out of this remark than necessary, but for someone so life-affirming and self-assured to appear that touchy about some smartass criticism seemed off-kilter.

In revealing that she’s only human after all, Lizzo joined many other celebs in slapping back at online criticism. Plenty of famous people respond directly to nasty comments from ordinary people, but others go to greater lengths. Kevin Durant created a fake Instagram account to defend himself, while German director Uwe Boll chose to physically fight four film critics in a ring. Even more unusual was the specter of Netflix’s Twitter account swatting down a user with barely 600 followers over his accusation that Brie Larson was unqualified to direct a movie. Granted, the guy was smug and a self-described “Cryptoasset Enthusiast,” but is that really necessary coming from a giant media corporation?

Opinions, it seems, are like assholes. Even the best of us gets the occasional urge to smack one and walk away.

 

Doubtless, many people agreed with Lizzo’s assessment as a matter of course. Why do we allow — even exalt — people who spend their time thinking up reasons why this or that cultural artifact is good or deficient or essential, especially if those people display no formal training in the genre or medium they’re ostensibly charged with criticizing?

It’s helpful to distinguish between legitimate analysis and trolling, of course, but if you’re the target, the words sting nonetheless. “Don’t read the reviews” is a perfectly acceptable choice to make, but the spotless mind doesn’t really enjoy eternal sunshine. Moreover, the world is full of entitled artists who surrounded themselves with sycophants and groundless adoration, cosseted figures whose art went to hell for it. And someone somewhere must read those reviews, or no one would get paid to write them.

But the act of taking someone like Lizzo down a peg seems off somehow. As American culture’s understanding of structural inequities deepens, the realization that the voices of marginalized groups have been smothered starts to color certain previously acceptable cultural practices. Perhaps the very idea of album criticism is only as free of exclusionary bias as supposedly race-blind college admissions are.

Further, as one of the country’s two main political parties slides further into an embrace of white supremacy, the ground has shifted under us. Cutting a wide swath through millennial culture is a recognition that disrupting the stale status quo and amplifying previously unheard voices are more important than ever.

Consequently, to offer institutional critique — even when it’s concentrated on the aesthetic merits of a given piece of art — can feel like a person or a publication has chosen to ally itself with the sinister and potent forces that would just as soon see women, Black people, and queer people not speak at all. At its worst, it starts to sound like mounting a defense of keeping racist literature in the Western canon or offensive murals in a public school. Yes, those things are historical and forgetting history can be dangerous — but Germany has banned Nazi imagery in public life for more than seven decades and it’s not as though the memory of Hitler faded into the mists of time.

 

Over the last four years and change, I’ve written about hundreds of restaurants for SF Weekly, and it’s simultaneously the best and hardest part of my admittedly sprawling, cobbled-together job. (This, incidentally, is my final week as editor, although I hope to contribute to this newspaper for as long as they’ll have me.)

I have no delusions that I’m omnipotent, but when I eat out, I think about what effect my words might have on a restaurant — which is really an entire ecosystem built on sweat and hustle. The servers might be picking up extra shifts to keep their head above water and pay their student loans off. The back-of-house staff might be remitting their hard-earned money to family in El Salvador. The specialty purveyors the chef works with might be two clients shy of breaking even. The rent is too damn high for all of us, so why spread misery?

Suddenly the role of critic feels — well, insufferable. Zooming out farther, I think about my ethical responsibility to fight anthropogenic climate change after eating all these exotic ingredients and all this meat (plus the 30 pounds I’ve gained since March 2015). Even if I wanted to continue on forever — and I don’t — the financial pressures on newsrooms have slashed budgets for fanciful baubles like omakase tasting menus.

Throw Yelp into the equation and now restaurant reviews feel almost anachronistic, like when newspapers printed exhaustive tables of yesterday’s closing stock prices. I like Instagram as much as anyone, but it’s not a forum for nuance and context. Just as film writing is devolving into comparisons of box-office receipts, restaurant reviewing has been annexed by P.R. and handed to influencers whose vocabulary consists of the word “yummy!”

As the Chronicle’s brilliant Soleil Ho wrote in her newsletter, she may soon be the last of a dying breed. Take all this together, and it seems we are moving out of the age of criticism and into an entirely new epistemological landscape where fewer outlets pay for it and fewer readers want it.

 

At its face, the idea that criticism is dying is almost a patently ridiculous statement. We live in a veritable age of vituperation, of ad hominem screaming matches, of passive-aggressive subtweets, of deliberately obtuse outbursts of click-baiting righteousness, of people getting put on blast for microscopic deviations from ever-evolving online orthodoxy, and of planters of pipe bombs citing this crazy-making media saturation as a legal defense. Criticism engenders meta-criticism, too. A president with strong fascist leanings uses his platform to call women ugly losers and tens of thousands of people thrill to the spectacle. Many thousands of others tweet pointedly at Twitter itself for its cowardly refusal to stand up for its own terms against co-optation by a revanchist political movement.

But maybe the art of criticism — so to speak — isn’t so much under attack as sliding out of its useful lifespan.

We can’t go back to the good old days because we know how terrible they really were. Postmodernism deserves some of the blame, because dethroning Englightenment values like objectivity and reason was a much more nihilistic project than we thought.

Ultimately, criticism depends on the existence of some agreed-upon criteria, and in an ideal world aesthetic excellence would be at the top of that list. That sounds perfectly acceptable — there’s a lot of crap out there — until you realize that the people doing the agreeing-upon are not so much an organic community bound together by common tastes as a self-reinforcing elite. And beyond elites’ unsavory tendency to grant admission to their ranks largely to white guys from top-tier universities who then have the audacity to deny charges of elitism, they also tend to devolve into cliques, with all the pettiness, status-obsession, and groupthink that entails. “Music critics like Elvis Costello because music critics look like Elvis Costello,” David Lee Roth of Van Halen is alleged to have said. It’s impossible to disagree.

 

We need a fuller reckoning with the tradeoffs of this, though. In the defiant push to get American society to a better place — and it’s going to get worse before it gets better — we need to be clearer about the role of aesthetics in that political project. It’s a bit like the conundrum of ugly infill housing developments. Building large, dense projects in transit-adjacent parts of the Bay Area is a way out of Northern California’s housing emergency while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, but a lot of people shudder when they see one of those beige monstrosities, watered down from the original rendering to come in under budget and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and safety codes.

One of the running jokes around SF Weekly’s newsroom has been my intense dislike of deadening marketing-speak and other cliches. Too often, stories about fascinating people doing important work regurgitate the same empty phrases, over and over: a seat at the table, access to resources, reclaiming the narrative. They’re boring, and they’re mostly just shibboleths, ways of signaling to readers that both the journalist and the subject are progressives in good standing who are conversant in the lingo.

Further, they rely on an earnestness that feels fundamentally out of step with the irreverent, puckish voice of an alt-weekly. There are many things about millennials that I respect and admire, but we/they — I was born in 1981, so you make the call — have a hideous tendency to parrot corporate-speak without blinking. It’s not as though I was covering the anti-WTO Battle of Seattle for Adbusters, but when I hear people refer to “the wellness space,” I die inside. When people call cities “markets,” I want to throw furniture. I guess I have to make my peace with the word “content” so I don’t become a total curmudgeon before I’m 40, but as an editor I’ve felt duty-bound to insist that writers find their own voice. (Keeping this newspaper clean of the hideous, non-word word “impactful” has been my hill to die on.) I know P.R. and algorithms will replace us all someday, but until then, you’re not going to sound like a soulless, Los Feliz-based brand consultant on my watch.

But — corporate jargon notwithstanding — sometimes, good people want some of those shibboleths. They want to read stories that reassure them that the world isn’t falling entirely to shit, that people think like them and talk like them and we’re all fighting together and we’ll win someday. Historically, the alt-weekly voice has often been a very white voice and a very male voice, one that often adopted a disaffected tone. That is simply no longer desirable or tenable. Hopefully, we have long since changed that for good while keeping the irreverence.

 

In my time at SF Weeklyabout two-and-a-half years as editor-in-chief, two years as arts editor before that, and a couple years as a freelance before that — I’ve seen big changes. I’ve worked with brilliant people who’ve gone on to do wonderful things, and I’ve edited stories that went on to win prestigious awards — undoubtedly the thing I am proudest of. (Interviewing Grace Jones is a close second.)

I’ve also caught some brazen plagiarism, had stories fall through on hard deadlines, worked with writers who appeared to simply vanish, and yelled into the phone at the publisher of a different outlet. Among countless errors, I made three mistakes that — based on my sleepless nights — I will take with me until my dying day. Like most people who sometimes work too hard doing what they love, I can be my own harshest critic, and I fucking deserve it.

Above all else, I’ve been motivated by a love of San Francisco. You have to keep on guard that that doesn’t transform into mindless boosterism, but if there’s one element to my approach that’s at odds with received notions of what a critic is or ought to do, it’s that I want other people to love San Francisco, too. It’s getting harder, because this city deserves a great deal of criticism — “I’m crying ’cause I love you,” as Lizzo sings — along with a great deal of assurance that it can still be a viable place to live. In all honesty, I burnt myself out executing the task, but what I’ve been entrusted with was always a caretaker position. Now it’s time to pass it on, get on my task of visiting every national park, and see what’s next. Running around town night after night, seizing almost every opportunity to drink life to the lees and be a visible presence on the Weekly’s behalf is unquestionably the best job I will ever have. A commitment to an aggressively life-affirming hedonism in a city that needs it more than ever comes at a cost, but none of that matters now because it was such an incredible thing to get to do.

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