I haven’t listened to the new Arcade Fire album yet. I’ll get around to it eventually, but lately I’ve been listening to a lot of showtunes, which is probably not as cool according to my indie-rock-loving straight friends, although, hey, I do love a Sondheim tune. Not that I should have to qualify that in any way, simply because I don’t believe in guilty pleasures — to jokingly suggest that you’re ashamed about something you like reminds me of the line Edith Wharton wrote in The House of Mirth: “Miss Bart was discerning enough to know that the inner vanity is generally in proportion to the outer self depreciation.” We typically use our personal tastes to define us — you can see this on any online dating site, where pop-culture titles determine personality — and that’s why the Internet, and Internet-based cultural criticism, facilitates reactions from readers who assume that a bad review of, say, the new Arcade Fire album is a bad review of them.
Arcade Fire’s public profile has skyrocketed since their 2004 debut, Funeral. I managed to see them on the Neon Bible tour a few years later at one of the several sold-out concerts they performed at the Chicago Theatre, an extremely large venue that, at the time, seemed much too big and formal for an indie rock band. (“Indie rock,” in this case, is a relative term, as it always is. It’s a term that means little these days, saying more about the person using it than the band they’re describing.) By the time The Suburbs was released, I knew the band was too big for me — not too popular to enjoy, of course, but too popular to attempt to see live (I was more interested in seeing A Little Night Music on Broadway twice that fall anyway).
But I don’t discount the band’s songs that I do like. I enjoyed The Suburbs fine, and I was certainly annoyed when the “Who Is Arcade Fire?” trend happened — not because people didn’t know who they were when they won the Grammy, but at the so-called “cool” indie establishment that made fun of the out-of-touch mainstream fans who were too stupid to know a popular band. (Of course, the same people who shared that blog were also seemingly confused by the success of Lady Antebellum, proving that popularity is as relative and subjective as taste.) Basically, Arcade Fire exist in a space, for me, that is neither mind-blowingly awesome nor insufferable. They’re there, with the same bands that I used to listen to who have slowly fallen off my radar throughout the years (I’m looking at you, The National, The New Pornographers, of Montreal, and Belle & Sebastian).
Maybe I’m one of the few people on this planet who do not take umbrage with negative reviews of the things I like. Good criticism, in my mind, does not necessarily equate a correct opinion (there’s no such thing as that, obviously). Criticism, which is an art form despite what many artists might say, is made up of original thoughts about the purpose of art that transcend the critic’s personal tastes. Of course, the personal taste is there, which is why criticism isn’t perfect, either. But that’s why some of the best critics don’t just trash an album, or a film, or a book; they provide a different take on it that can be illuminating whether you agree or not. Of course, a dissenting opinion is deemed, with a convenient buzzword that fits within a 140-character limit, “hate.” Or “trolling.” Which is silly, because a lot of cultural critics actually care enough about art not to base their opinions on what is most likely to piss off their readers!
And criticism can be quite funny, too. Take a look at Roger Ebert’s one-star reviews. Anthony Lane’s review of Mamma Mia! is a great work of comic writing. And today’s review of Reflektor in The Washington Post by Chris Richards, which begins with the line, “Look, I’m sure they’re very nice people, but on their fourth album, ‘Reflektor,’ Arcade Fire still sound like gigantic dorks with boring sex lives,” does the same thing. While it may appear to be an ad hominem attack (and plenty thought it was), it gets to the heart of Richards’ issues with their music: for a band so inspired by Bowie, Springsteen, and Byrne, their brand of epic arena-rock songs lacks any sort of sexuality and grit. Hell, even I, as a sometimes-fan of Arcade Fire, can admit that’s absolutely true. That doesn’t make me hate the band, but I can see how someone’s personal aesthetics can influence his or her listening tastes. After all, I don’t tell my friends who love the folk-rock stylings of Tom Waits that they might actually like Barbra Streisand’s Stoney End. But that doesn’t mean I’d be offended if they weren’t into it, either.
As someone who comments on culture and has often written critically about movies, music, books, TV, and what-have-you, it always baffles me how “I disagree with your opinion” turns so quickly into “YOU ARE WRONG AND STUPID.” First of all, I’m not, obviously. But furthermore, I’m rarely trying to invalidate the art in question; rather, I’m questioning why it works the way it does, and attempting to pinpoint the many things it says. That’s how an opinion piece works, and why it isn’t the same thing as the “objective reporting” people seem to expect from anyone they see as a “journalist.” (I am rarely, by the way, called a journalist in a nice way. It’s usually lobbed my way on Twitter, preceded by a few insults and a hashtag.)
The point is that taste is subjective, and no one likes the same things. This should be obvious! But it’s mind-blowing to watch people lose it over a negative review of a critically acclaimed band (or author, or filmmaker), to take those people or the thing they made so personally as to believe that anyone who can’t appreciate it on their level is a monster. At the same time, there’s no reason to get so put-upon by the existence of Arcade Fire because, after all, none of us has to listen to them in the first place. Ignorance is bliss, but even I know that bliss is really hard to achieve in this brave new world.