STAFF 2012 WRAP UPS: RAVE SNOB
Posted by Rave Snob
in defense of XLRH8R
Before I even set foot in the office of the first music publication I ever interned for, the editors told me that they don't post pan reviews. The internship guidelines document explained that they only post one or two reviews a day, and didn't want to waste them on albums they didn't like. It seemed odd at first, but I soon learned that this was the fundamental modus operandi of web-based music writing and blogging.
It's become clear to me that MP3 blogging is *about* love. The very practice is founded upon an ethos of affirmation, admiration, and proliferation, which is why MP3 bloggers usually only post tracks they like. It's the philosophy that inspired the Hype Machine's slogan, "Every day, thousands of people from around the world write about music they love—and it all ends up here." The MP3 blogosphere is a place to seek recommendations for good tunes you've never heard from passionate and devoted music buffs.
Author Larissa Wodtke observed that this "positive ethos" reflects "the purpose of providing download links to MP3s" because "if an MP3 blogger were to express a negative opinion about a particular artist, it would seem counterintuitive to offer readers a chance to hear the artist." Promoting and expressing appreciation for an artist's work mirrors the nature of MP3s as a medium, which is designed for proliferation and ravenous collection. It also cuts down to the very purpose as to why MP3 bloggers take the time to do what they do, and often for free. They wade through the endless haystacks of music on the Internet and guide their readers to the needles.
That's one of the reasons why XLR8R's lists of the most overrated and underwhelming albums of 2012 sparked an outcry. The features were part of a series of year-end lists, only in addition to the rote "Top Tracks of 2012" or "Best Albums of 2012," XLR8R published two negative lists: one declaring which were the most overrated releases of the year, and another that identified the most underwhelming ones.
The lists racked up more comments than perhaps any other posts on the site this year, and the conversation spilled over onto Twitter, where irate douchebags and butthurt artists aired their grievances. There were three criticisms that came up a lot, and all of them allowed readers to dismiss the features instead of investigating why they pissed people off so much. One called the blog's negative commentary "unnecessary," another lambasted the publication for link-baiting, or posting sensational pieces for the sole purpose of getting more traffic so that ***the writers*** could make more money, and a third accused XLR8R of hypocritically slandering artists they had supported in the past or in other year-end lists.
The latter two accusations emerge as a result of the tension between XLR8R's simultaneous roles as a news outlet, MP3 blog, source of criticism, and a branch of a business with a bottom line. Since blogs like XLR8R are functioning as several entities at once, people get confused about what their motives are. They conclude that the publication's profit motive corrupts any ethical considerations, that XLR8R writers are two-faced and hypocritical because they only write pieces to increase their traffic and get more money.
XLR8R is a for-profit company, which means it's ultimately beholden to advertisers and the need to make money. But so is every publication and media outlet, even hobby blogs, which rely on foundational economic industries that power electricity and the Internet and feed into the wallets of those who run the blogging platforms that host the site (Tumblr, Blogspot, Wordpress, etc). Frankly, it's naive and obtuse to point out that a media outlet is a business and to insinuate that its profit considerations completely stamp out all others.
The entire culture industry relies on underlying economic structures, but I don't see you guys losing your damn minds every time Scion A/V sponsors a music video, or every time Red Bull Music Academy prints an issue of its magazine. Scolding XLR8R for acting like a for-profit company and not PURELY an idealistic passion project devoted solely to the ethics of journalism and thoughtful critique is like getting upset about peering into a port-a-potty and finding a huge pile of shit. All media outlets have to balance being a business and being a creative institution.
That's not to say that I think XLR8R was link-baiting. They weren't. To accuse the publication of link-baiting implies that the staff was rubbing their hands together, plotting ways to dupe and manipulate their audience into clicking links so that the increased traffic would lead to more money for them to, I don't know, pay the rent on their shithole apartments in Bushwick. It insinuates that XLR8R's need and desire for profit corrupted its journalistic ethics, or as readers complained on Twitter, "bullshit attention seeking at the expense of artists who's [sic] hard work makes them semi relevant" and "click bait disguised as high-minded consumerism." But from what I've seen, it would be more accurate to say that editors are conscious of hits, but they mostly care about traffic because they work really hard and would like others to see the fruits of their labor. That goes for most publications, and every publication I've had personal contact with—except for one of them, but I won't call them out.
While the XLR8R editors certainly knew the features would provoke a reaction, that's not why they posted them. After all, that's kind of a circular logic: "XLR8R posted an article to get a big reaction, and it got a big reaction because XLR8R was trying to get a big reaction." Accusing them of link-baiting is a way of dismissing the pieces for being provocative instead of questioning what made them controversial, and speculating as to WHY the blog posted the lists is less productive than asking WHY they got such a huge negative reaction. It seems to me that they were controversial and provocative because people aren't used to receiving negative criticism on the blogosphere, so when it happens they fucking CRY like babies. Artists aren't used to getting bad reviews on the blogosphere because blogs usually follow the "positive ethos" of big-upping artists you like, and because XLR8R's lists transgressed the taboo against saying anything unfavorable, they sparked an uproar.
This positive ethos has corrupted the blogosphere more than XLR8R's profit motive has corrupted its journalistic ethics. It really concerns me that people think negative criticism is "unnecessary," an argument that piggybacks on the trope "If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all. " That's an idiom we teach to 5 year olds because their brains literally haven't developed enough to allow them the capacity to handle criticism with any degree of maturity, but on the blogosphere, this expression is turned into an ideology. This way of thinking is so pervasive and strong that it stifles all potential for an open and honest dialogue, which includes some unfavorable criticism. And that's why it's all the more valuable and necessary for outlets like XLR8R to post a negative feature—because it expands the limits of the blogosphere's discourse.
XLR8R's contemptuous lists violated this foundational premise of the blogosphere—as do negative reviews by Pitchfork and Spin, although since they're not quite blogs in the same way as XLR8R, it's more expected. XLR8R knew they were crossing a line, too, which is why the list of underwhelming releases started by asserting that "we're honestly just trying to spread the word about the music we're excited about." It's the very premise upon which their authority as discerning needle-finders is based on, and their posts transgressed a taboo in blogging that encourages contributors not to post music they don't like. Not only that, but by lampooning popular releases by darlings of the electronic music scene, XLR8R was effectively telling their readers that their taste sucks, which undoubtedly made them sore.
I admire them for it. Their lists pushed against and rejected the traditional purposes of year-end lists and MP3 blogs at large, which aim to propel readers toward quality artists and establish the publication's tastes and identities. However, the very impulse to promote music and give it big ups has a downside. It can choke out parts of the discourse that don't profess big ups and love. It can lead to, as one commenter wrote, "endless false enthusiasm and shameless rehash of [the] PR boiler plate that often masquerades as music journalism." And it can lead to groupthink and overinflation of an artist's work, which makes the task of reflexively curbing that tendency all the more important.
The goal of Rave Snob is to stand up against the current of endless and often disingenuous praise that is the blogosphere. “We need more CRITIQUE from our critics and journalists, otherwise what are they? PR monkeys cranking out copy to drive traffic and ad revenue, thatʼs all,” wrote one commenter on an XLR8R-based thread. “Do you know why the music nerds are grumpy and bitching? Because everyone keeps saying that all the music is AWESOME all the time.”
This insistence on positivity has led to a defensive mentality where negative criticism is immediately dismissed because it's perceived to be a bitter attack. For instance, the nickname "XLRH8R" uses the overused term "hater" to imply that the criticism was no more than a vitriolic attack. The fact that the term "hater" exists, and that it's used so often, reflects a defensive mindset that immediately dismisses most or all criticism, substantiated or otherwise. It was exactly this thinking that fueled the backlash against XLR8Rʼs lists, as they challenged the taboos and restrictive ideologies that are so pervasive on the blogosphere. In some ways, it doesn't matter why they posted the lists, because negative criticism is necessary to discourse, and because it's more telling that the lists sparked outrage. At the end of the day, they were one of the only blogs to post negative year-end lists alongside their positive ones, which balances out their own internal discourse and points out how one-sided the blogosphere often is.
It seems to me that music writers are pawns in the grand, manipulative, profit-hungry schemes of the culture industry just like the rest of us. I mean, I've been interning at all these different publications because I want to be a professional music writer, but I don't want to be a music writer because I want money—obviously, it's not the most lucrative career path. If I weren't obsessed by the stuff that I write about and places I intern for, I would give up the battle with my parents now and go to law school. And judging from the music writers and bloggers I've gotten to know, it seems we're mostly just passionate nerds.
And yet, I've been disappointed by a lot of what I've seen at the publications I've interned for. It's definitely a lot more regimented than I thought, and some of my idealistic hopes about "intelligent critique" and "eye-opening social commentary" and even "objective reporting" or "enthused blogging" have been dashed or curbed by the realities that writers are ultimately beholden to the business and the advertisers and the labels. But I understand that money considerations are just part of the deal. Writers and editors work around those concerns and pressures, which is maybe the only way they can fight against those constraints.