The Currency of Cool: A Troubling Trend in Modern Criticism
Editor’s Note: Despite the picture above, this isn't about Billie Eilish. It really isn't, not even a little bit. I am going to use her as a case study here because her work gave the inspiration for this piece: more so than almost anyone else's in recent memory, her work and the resulting fame encompasses the point of this argument concisely and her rocketship to megastardom is only just now leaving the Earth's gravitational pull. But while not a fan of hers fundamentally, I want to put it on the record that I have absolutely no problem with her artistry or performance or popularity. On the contrary, I wish her all the success in the world and am excited to watch her career unfold from the outside perspective of one who appreciates it sociologically as much as purely in the sense of it as a manifestation of the Pop Culture Machine. But for now…on with the show.
Read a review of Billie Eilish's new album When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?, and you are highly likely to come across an iteration of the following line of thought: "While not the target demographic for this act, I found the album to be enjoyable…blah blah blah". The 21st Century has been nothing if not a time for newly blooming flowers of self-awareness and culture cynicism, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this rhetorical construct. I find myself perturbed by this, though I admit it is purely due to my own reading of the arithmetic involved to reach its apex. The statement is defined by two ideas: 1) this art (or specific artist) is not meant to appeal to me, or someone like me (in terms of age, gender, politics, etc); and 2) I like it anyway in spite of that seemingly undeniable fact. This leads to an implicit result that no one I have read or listened to has yet come out and said, but is nonetheless there between the lines: "If we accept the preceding conditions, then we must conclude that I, even in my somewhat advanced age and with my incongruent pedigree for understanding/appreciating the art in question, am still cool and relevant in this modern artistic moment."
Criticism is an art like any other. The modes of thought that critics employ are as susceptible to shifts in cultural ideals and trends as are the modes of thought in any other discipline. Unlike many without platforms, a critic has the luxury of presenting their thoughts on either side of a binary line (good vs. bad, like vs. dislike, recommend vs. warn against, etc), but at the end of the day all they (we? Yes, "we", since I am one, too.) are really doing is taking the opportunity to offer thoughts and opinions about art in the hopes that someone out there finds them worthwhile. The "Billie bias", as I am calling the above situation, compromises our ability to purely judge on merit because it presupposes that if it is new and liked by many people it must be good - starting from the thesis and working back toward the hypothesis is never a recipe for healthy analysis.
I just can't shake the feeling that this sort of thing used to be a bit more civilized. Opinionators had values that were more akin to convictions in that they developed organically and were held over time irrespective of what was happening in the broader culture. They had preferences based on who they were as people and the eras in which they had come of age. These had intrinsic value as both a holdover from previous times (a reminder of our shared artistic/appreciating history), and a yardstick by which to judge our own opinions (when you know how your own opinion typically aligns to that of a specific critic, you can gauge your anticipation by reverse engineering from what they think). Critics were seen more as tastemakers than they are today, since today criticism is largely more an ingredient that is already baked into the pie of media consumption - Rotten Tomatoes is essentially just another spoke in the wheel of movie industry hype, Rolling Stone is more of a fashion magazine than a cultural barometer, etc, etc.
As a by-product of what may be a fundamental insecurity in our reading of the value of our opinions, we are so hyper-aware of the possible interpretations of them that we want them to be at least somewhat unassailable. We want to have the backing of others to show that our take is not merely a fluke, or we want to be able to point to past art released in a similar context so it can be used as a guidepost for what might be expected in the current time. Perhaps even more than any of these things, we want to still be cool. And if we can't actually be cool, then it is more than acceptable to simply be seen as being cool. (I am consciously avoiding any discussion of the insidiousness and inauthenticity in the online culture of the "hot take" - I see that as button-pushing, and don't feel it deserves a serious place in this conversation.)
Opinions date us as humans. My distaste for a piece of art may have a lot to do with the fact that I went to high school in the nineties and the piece of art reminds me of things I hated at that time. My love for another piece of art may be motivated by the fact that it strongly reminds me of a similar but unrelated artwork that opened new doors for me as an appreciator back in, for instance, the mid-2000s. It goes without saying that other people won't see these things in the same way since they didn't feel these past things the way that I felt them - but the other side of that coin is that, in a larger sense, my thought has become tied to specific times whether or not I want it to be. And if opinions can date us, they can also evolve beyond us and in some ways outlive us. At a certain point in a life lived critically, one loses the thread of what makes things popular in the current day. This is merely a consequence of human thought, and it is not unique to critics, but it arguably means much more to people for whom understanding trends and developing coherent opinions around them is how they make a living, and quite often a significant part of their identity.
The problem may be then that we are too aware of what our opinions mean in the context of the societal moment and in the narrower confines of what they mean about us as individuals. The thinking may be that if one can't find a way to appreciate a new artist then it must be because they are now on the outside looking in, slightly unsure of what they're seeing and wondering how they can jimmy the lock to get back inside. Individually, the lack of ability to find enjoyment in something new and fresh may feel like an indication that one's own joie de vivre and admiration of novelty is in fact beginning to grow stale. In either case, there could be an inherent motivation to stave off the inevitable time when most of us will cease to be able to "get" new art.
And this is where things get wonky when it comes to Billie Eilish and her sudden rise to pop stardom. Critics are as aware of the news cycle as anyone else, in most cases probably much more so. The noteworthiness of Eilish's rise through the ranks of internet fame wasn't reserved only for fourteen-year-olds in Consohocken and youth soccer teams in Tarzana to the exclusion of those over the age of seventeen - it reached everyone who was plugged into the culture at all. So while we can understand that this was a phenomenon that truly swelled from the grassroots of a youth-centric movement in ways that we hadn't seen for years, we can also understand that its origin as music "by kids and for kids" served notice that it may not be something adults could fully embrace. This is a large part of the reason it becomes necessary to point out that we don't fit the demographic - we are, in fact, adults, and we know that this isn't being marketed to us specifically.
So then comes the opinion part. In fairness, I have to allow that critics are in a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don't situation here: strong feelings for the album can be characterized as pandering to the audience, no matter how authentic the feeling; strong feelings against it can be painted as evidence that we are "over the hill" no matter how measured the analysis and well-explained the reasoning. Even in a profession that is largely carried out under various Sword of Damocles-worthy levels of precariousness, a situation like Eilish, one that is so visible and focused, is an especially fraught one because it is so compelling to such a wide swath of people - it is a fork in the road where a critic might feel the need to define themselves by virtue of their opinion. In a way, the only rational thing to do is to say that you like it. Better to be dismissed for pandering in one review than to be written off for eternity, regardless of whether the charge is warranted.
And this is the part I hate. Granted, I read into this probably much more than anyone reasonably should, but I do it because as a writer myself I know how much thought goes into my opinions - and that increases exponentially when I know the opinions will be made public and available for general consumption. But even allowing for that, the smarminess of the "I'm still relevant even though I'm old" implication as described above is an embodiment of that absolute worst of stereotypical critical troping: the pretentious, holier-than-thou critic. The only thing to be gained by pointing out (even implicitly) that you, as a critic, are still viable with regard to the appreciation of current trends is the retention of the seat you occupy as a mediator of art and a middleperson between artist and public. But the thing that we critics need to realize is that this isn't a deal where we get elected for life to sit in that seat - it's closer to a game of musical chairs: we all have to occasionally get booted from our seat before going the long way round to find it again, and then we can sit a bit longer until the tune resumes.
I'm not saying that criticism is useless. Far from it, I love criticism and I always have. Some of the best things I have ever read have been reviews of art, and some of those reviews I didn't agree with at all but I was awestruck at the clarity and wordsmithing with which they were expressed. What I am saying is what I already said: criticism is art. Art changes, it evolves, it never stands still in a freethinking society because thought never stands still in a freethinking society. Instead of clinging to our positions as idea-brokers in the new economy, we should perhaps instead rededicate ourselves to the idea that our inclination to decode art is an art in itself on its own merits, and we, as purveyors of it, are artists and creators. Your opinion will always be yours, your ability to express it is something that only you possess. Don't be afraid to seem outdated, just explain your opinion and back it up, defend it when it's challenged while respecting the opinion of the challenger. Don't be afraid to occasionally sit a play out when the results are clearly lose-lose, as in the case of a modern artist that you may be seen as not understanding regardless of your opinion. Don't worry that you are replaceable, unless you think you actually might be - and if that's the case, refocus on the craft of what you do until you are confident no one else can do it in the same way.
I think it bears repeating, so I'll say again here that I love criticism. But as much as I do, I fear it is on the wane in a society where people are far more likely to click on an aggregator website to see a two-digit number than they are to engage with two thousand words that delve into a piece of art and its effect on one person who sees it in a way that no one else ever could or ever will. I firmly believe that the only way to keep the art of criticism vibrant is to give consumers details they would have never known, references they can use to learn more, and a real sense of who the critic is as a person so that they see the point of view at play. Criticism is more than the voice of the artist, and far more than the voice of the salesman - it is listening in on the conscience of another human being. As critics, we offer the intimacy of a diary, the platforming of a politician, the depth of years of thought, and the distillation of all of that into a few paragraphs - no other art offers those things in the way that criticism does.
The "coolness" of our opinions doesn't truly matter and it never will. When it’s all said and done, no critic is remembered for how in touch they were with youth culture - they are remembered for the value of their opinions and the way they explained them. What matters is the existence of our opinions and our passion for sharing them. "Cool" is a construct that divides us into cliques; art is all.