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everyone's a metacritic

...there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

– GH Hardy, with "men" sic.

When someone raises points we don't like, there's always the temptation to spitefully psychologise them, to dismiss their points by reference to who they are, rather than the falsity or fallacy of what they're saying.* It is a universal trick; you'll probably have heard some version of it today ("yeah but he's a straight white dude"; "a syphilitic neurotic"; "ancestrally a victim of the British Empire"; "a woman").

In nominally rational subcultures like academia or literary society, there are some weak barriers to doing this (though Freud's brutal legacy continues to enable awful behaviour even there). In pop music and its journalism there is absolutely nothing to stop you.

Here are some revenge songs about music critics; most of them psychologise their tormentors, though some go further and call the act of criticism pathological in general. O course, critics have been despised and psychologised for as long as they have existed. Ways to dismiss a bad review (if you have decided against coolly expressing gratitude for helpful critical feedback, yuk yuk), none of which are new either:

  • Call them jealous or otherwise spiteful: a wannabe, a failure, a hater. The critic as too weak to create and to thereby face the lazy scorn of their own kind. (Nietzsche says this about Epicurus; Lester Bangs says it about himself; MIA said it about Lynn Hirschberg.)
  • Or pretentious. A bourgeois intellectual appropriating a pure, populist and instinctual artform. (Nietzsche said this about Wagner; John Peel said it about this guy.)
  • Or fakes, hacks. Shallow, insincere, sensationalist predators, just looking to fill copy. (Plato said this about the Sophists; everyone said this about Garry Bushell.)
  • Or snobs - nay! tyrants. Repugnant fashionistas, suppressing new sounds to protect the status of their old expertise. Call the critic excessively powerful ** and thus corrupt. (Plato said this about Aristophanes; it is the plainest fact about FR Leavis.)

Revenge songs tend to be good, though - often better than the band usually manages - because honest and single-minded. And criticism is easier than creation, just because all the material (i.e. 1) an artwork and 2) your mind) was there already; you had little to do with it. And most art criticism is total crap - contentless, ignorant, inflated and rushed.

And but the ideal of criticism - sceptical attention, careful justice, the generation of meaning - is the most important thing in the world, despite how poor even quality-press, even university press, even home-stapled criticism happens to be.*** (That claim of importance looks excessive, but it is true, if science is a form of criticism: objective criticism of empirical claims.)

Listen easily here.

  1. I Wrote a Book About Rock n' Roll - MTX

    Don't you tell me I can't tell you what to do -
    I can, on the whole - 'cause I work for a magazine
    and I wrote a book about rock and roll

    ...I compare the Shaggs to Wittginshtein - how cool is that?
    Oh, you don't? I didn't think you would.
    Aren't my references out of control? Sometimes I even stump myself -
    but it's all in my book about rock and roll.

  2. We Didn't Come Here To Rock - Andrew Jackson Jihad

    If that's what gets your dick hard:
    Telling people they're bad at making art.
    Feeling just like you're the one in charge,
    Pissing on my most pathetic parts

  3. Press Darlings - Adam Ant

    ... if evil be the food of genius / There aren't many demons around
    If passion ends in fashion / Nick Kent is the best-dressed man in town.

    Are we different? No / We are exactly the same
    There are no boxes for us / The ones you love to hate...
    We depress the press, darlings.

    ...If passion ends in fashion / Bushell is the best-dressed man in town.

    (or else)

  4. There is Nothing Wrong with Hating Rock Critics - Of Montreal

    The thought of it is really just absurd
    Your cynical opinions have no depth
    Uninsightful and irrelevant, haven't you heard?
    It's time that you heard...
    You Lester Bangs wannabe...
    You don't even create, you just critique.

    Writing a revenge song is a mark of weakness, of course; they've rattled you with some truth or untruth. (Is it coincidence that one of the absolutely basic building blocks of masculinity-obsessed mainstream hip-hop is "fuck the haters!!!"?)

  5. Packard Goose - Zappa

    All them rock n' writers is the worst kind of sleaze
    Selling punk like some new kind of English disease
    Is that the wave Of the future? Aw, spare me please!

    Oh no, you gotta go who do you write for?
    I wanna know; I believe you is the Government's whore
    And keeping peoples Dumb is where you're coming from
    Fuck all them writers with the pen in their hand
    I will be more specific so they might understand
    They can all kiss my ass but because it's so grand
    They'd best just stay away. Hey, hey, hey...

    Journalism's kinda scary and of it we should be wary.

    (Zappa is not the author of the most famous bon mot about music writing by the way: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.", but he did say the greatest one: "Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read".)

    (It was jazz writers that set the tone for pompous, hollow, you could say crypto-over-thesaurised writing about art of all kinds, in the last century. Yet jazz critics don't get doxxed and despite looking I couldn't find any bebop written as revenge on a reviewer. This is assuredly not because the artists are any less hardcore or street. Maybe they realise it just isn't a cool thing to do.)

  6. Bad Review - Half Man Half Biscuit

    Wait ’til our PR men hear of this!
    It’s a bad review – what we gonna do? Oh Lord!
    I can’t walk down the street ‘cos other groups I might meet, and they’ll smirk
    Oh, it’s a rum old do, is a bad review …oh Lord
    And my girlfriend’s fuming...

    (The fearsome hollow boom of the older boys in the deep end
    The green shoots of recovery shrivelled up in harsh tomorrows
    Left to pick dry sticks and mumble to myself a melancholy emblem of parish cruelty.)

  7. Critics - The Gay

    If the critics are so wrong, why do you have to be so tough?
    When will you say enough is enough?

  8. Your Early Stuff - Pet Shop Boys

    I still quite like some of your early stuff
    It's bad in a good way if you know what I mean
    the sound of those old machines...

  9. Imposter - Oingo Bongo

    You don't, don't, don't believe what you write.
    You take credit while others do all the work
    You think you discovered them first
    But we all know you moved in after it was safe
    That way you know you could never get hurt

  10. Journalists Who Lie - Morrissey

    They're only trying to make their name
    By spreading sickening lies
    About the ones who've made their name

    Does anyone believe Morrissey when he claims to be the innocent victim of malicious forces? Did they ever?

  11. Brent Dicrescenzo, You were Too Harsh on the Reinhold Messner Album - Passionate & Objective Jokerfan

    Why you gotta be so mean to Ben Folds? Why you gotta be so mean to Billy Joel?
    Have you ever listened to
    The Stranger? It's brilliant. You ever listen to Nylon Curtain, it's amazing.
    Oh Brent Dicrescenzo, you gotta go back and listen to the unauthorised biography of Reinhold Messner
    and don't go into the movie theater with cool people who like to make fun of Ben Folds. Ohhh! Give it another chance.

    The only actual metacritical music I found is the entire second half of the second disc of this album (itself a derivative of Wesley Willis' opinion rock). Lovely stuff; shaming in its sincerity and lack of rage.

  12. Admit It - Say Anything

    Despite your pseudo-bohemian appearance
    And vaguely leftist doctrine of beliefs
    You know nothing about art or sex
    That you couldn’t read in any trendy New York underground fashion magazine
    Prototypical non-conformist, you are a vacuous soldier of the thrift store Gestapo
    You adhere to a set of standards and tastes that appear to be determined by an unseen panel of hipster judges
    Giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to incoming and outgoing trends and styles of music and art
    Go analog baby, you’re so post-modern, you’re diving face forward into a antiquated past
    It’s disgusting, it's offensive, don’t stick your nose up at me

  13. The focalization here is hard to follow. The first two minutes seem to be about a hated critic, then the break is the band's voice being proud about themselves, then it's them flagellating themselves, then it dissolves into standard, vague, motivational pop-punk. An orgy of meta-criticism.

"Kill Yr Idols" and "The Way I Am" are taken as read. HMHB are at the root of this list, as they are all of my lists, and my life. They (and The Gay) are meta-meta-critics, pushing back against the unthinking rage and superiority of artists, breaking the party line, as is this list.


* Unfortunately we can't simply declare ad hominem a straightforward and unconditional intellectual sin, because we are all imperfect reasoners acting under violently asymmetric information, and because we know that bias systematically infects people in certain circumstances. For instance, we know that accepting partisan funding biases half of all medical research in the funder's favour, even in the absence of evidence of conscious fraud by researchers or unethical pressure by funders. ("Researcher allegiance" - basically just ordinary human partisanship - maybe contributes a 7% of variance distortion towards your pet theory.)

This amusing^ philosophical discussion about Dennett versus the Templeton Foundation is a wonderful instance of how dogmatism can obscure both scientific and common-sense solutions. (Here, solutions to the question "Does accepting funding from interested parties influence research outcomes?")

See in particular Gwern's ignored plea for a non-binary scale of researcher dubiousness, pioneered by the medical sciences and which other fields took thirty years to even recognise the existence of. (See causal inference for another case of this unforgiveable lag.)

^ Sorry did I say 'amusing', I meant fucking depressing; this is wilful incommensurability.

** (which they really aren't. Consider the undented finances of many utterly panned albums and films. One estimate is that film critics have just 10% power over box office earning variance.) Or, lyrically:
Colleagues of mine will tell you that people despise critics because they fear our power. But I know better. People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar — flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music. It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone. It neither saves the things we love (as we would wish them saved) nor ruins the things we hate. Edinburgh Review could not destroy John Keats, nor Diderot Boucher, nor Ruskin Whistler; and I like that about it. It’s a loser’s game, and everybody knows it.

*** Perhaps more important even than creating things, in this, our age of sheer cultural overproduction.