Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Subjugation of Subjectivity

Somewhere in the past ten years or so there has been a seismic shift in people's ability to handle subjectivity. Opinions, while proffered at unprecedented rates, transmogrified from simple observations and standpoints into full-fledged mission statements and personal philosophies; modern Americans have so much of their self-esteem tied up in their viewpoints that they no longer view them as malleable manifestos but rather as rigid truisms--ones that they must convince others are not simply the right ones but in some cases the only ones. Whether it's about something as intimate as one's personal politics and religion or as inane as musical or television preferences, people have inexorably entangled their self-worth in their opinions...and it's driving me crazy.

I'm a voracious consumer of music--it's easily the most important passion I have and is something that I partake in daily whether by listening, writing, or playing it on guitar and piano. My love of music has its genesis in my early childhood but it didn't fully take root until the mid to late '90s when I began to explore it more deeply. Growing up, my mother always had the radio on and there was no shortage of records and cassette tapes arranged next to the stereo. In the mid-'90s my parents got me my first CD player and, having nothing to listen to on it, my father took me to the Wiz on Avenue U to pick up a few albums. Among them were Billy Joel's "The River of Dreams," Seal's self-titled 1994 release, and the Batman Forever soundtrack. I remember loving the first album, being indifferent about the second, and having a mixed reaction to the third.

From 1997 through 2001 (incidentally the breadth of my time in high school), I began to refine my taste in music and drastically expanded my collection from radio classics to then-current alternative rock, nu-metal, and rap. Some of my favorite albums still today came out during that time and I remember discussing them extensively with my friends--both musically inclined and casual listeners in their own rights. We had our favorite bands with preferred albums and tracks among them; what we didn't have was the petty, puerile arguments that dominate discourse in 2016--not just about music but about everything.

I was so stoked when Korn released their new album in October and then again when Metallica's first release in eight years dropped last month. For as excited as I was about hearing the music though I was equally and oppositely dreading the inevitable explosion of ersatz experts on my favorite guitar site and on Facebook proffering their insipid musings about both. The torrential shitstorm of commentary that ensued though far exceeded the conjecture I was anticipating.

See, the problem is that it's s no longer enough simply to have an opinion on something. It used to be that people could engage in discussion about things without it turning into an argument with egos on the line. Sure there was always the odd argumentative type who would turn anything into a debate but nowadays it feels like everyone does that. Facebook, Twitter, and the like abound with faux perspicacious peripatetics spewing their uninformed diatribes, obscenely overcomplicating things that should be way simpler and that exist almost solely for our entertainment and enjoyment.

Take the Metallica release for example. At its most basic level, here's what happened: a band released an album comprised of a dozen songs. Here's what should have ensued: people made a decision to buy or refrain from buying the album based upon their feelings about the band; the ones who did make the purchase then decided whether they liked the album or not.

That's it! No rocket science involved--no smarmy, pathological pedantry. IS that what happened? Not hardly!

Aside from the requisite trolls who came to comment about how much they can't stand Metallica or how awful the band is (something that I still can't comprehend--do these people go into restaurants or stores that sell food and products that they dislike or have no use for just to pass judgement upon those places despite having exactly zero use for or interest in their offerings?), you had actual FANS of the band parsing through the album--dissecting it to the point of idiocy. I saw comments about the following:

Metallica trying too hard to sound like "the old" Metallica.

Metallica needing to sound more like "the old" Metallica.

The album sounding too much like the last album (Death Magnetic).

How washed up the band is/how terrible the band's live performances are.

The songs are too long.

How terrible Lars is.

I'm not saying there isn't any sort of veridical value in these statements nor am I trying to say that they aren't valid viewpoints; my gripe instead is that these are even issues at all for people in the first place. Look--I get wanting a band to sound like they used to. There's a lot of emotion and memory tied up in that era of personal discovery when it comes to bands but people often fail to consider the human and creative aspects of making music; writing fast, heavy, angry songs as a teenager works when you're that age but it might not necessarily still apply when you're middle-aged. Metallica, in particular, consists of some pretty old dudes and Lars in particular is fifty two years old! After playing this style of music literally for decades I'd be shocked if he didn't lose a step physically in terms of his playing; ditto for James and Kirk as well.

My problem with the Metallica album along with everything else is people's seemingly innate need to deride shit--to manufacture this sham sense of superiority in an effort to elevate themselves. It's become:

"Oh? You like the new album? Yeah, it's okay I guess. I mean it's not as good as Master or Kill Em All. Actually, I could barely sit through most of the songs. I'm done with Metallica. They're garbage."

The same thing happens with television shows. People no longer get behind a show and stay there. Instead, they live and die with every episode: one night it's the greatest show on television and the next it's full-on, "I'm DONE with this show." The Walking Dead is one of the biggest victims of this type of behavior and it stems mostly from a separate issue of folks demanding instant gratification and having non-existent attention spans. Two of the most incredible episodes of the series had comparatively little gore and violence and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are among the show's lowest rated. They weren't artsy, highbrow pieces nor were they dialogue-heavy slogs; instead, they took what makes The Walking Dead great aside from the gore, violence, and special effects--the atmosphere, the inner/emotional turmoil (both for the characters themselves and the viewers), and the ability to evoke a very real sense of terror and dread--and they maximized them to great effect.

Think about it: would a show like LOST have a snowball's chance in hell of making it through six full seasons if it started airing today? I doubt it! In 2004, millions of people watched the first few episodes and had the same simultaneous response: "What the hell is going on!?" Back then (it feels like 112 years ago instead of the decade and change that it actually was), that was enough to get people interested in the show and to maintain that interest for years on end. They didn't decide from episode to episode whether this was the greatest show on television or the worst: they recognized that the writers were telling a story and they wanted to see where that journey would take them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, towards the end of the show's run, people began to grow disenfranchised with the aforementioned story. It took too many twists and demanded too much from them to keep their fandom and hold their interest; the genesis of the modern mindset was already beginning to be seen. Lost was judged suddenly on a per-episode basis with more and more people jumping ship--citing "this season (5 or 6 in particular) sucked--it was wAaAaaAy better in season 1 or 2."

People are clearly entitled to their opinions but my problem is two-fold: if you're going to pass judgement on something then at least have a reason for that critique OR, if you can't qualify that stance, at least don't try to act like you're basing it upon some unspeakable enlightenment that the rest of us mere mortals are incapable of processing or at the very least aren't privy to. I don't understand why things (bands, albums, songs, television shows, movies) can no longer be viewed in isolation--assessed based solely upon their individual merits. At their core, why can't the Metallica songs be good or bad--ones that you like or don't like? Why do television shows and movies have to be judged on the whole based upon isolated instances of mediocrity?

Again, my problem isn't the negative opinions that people have about things--it's how shallow and uninformed those statements ultimately wind up being. If you ask someone who says, "Eh. Metallica's sucked since The Black Album" WHY Metallica has sucked since The Black Album then you'd like to think there would be a well-thought out reason; more often than not though all you get is fluff, rhetoric, or circular reasoning. If you're going to start a debate about something or take a differing stance then you should at least be able to articulate YOUR OWN STANCE ESPECIALLY if you're shitting all over someone else's!

My plea though is just for folks to take a step back (or one down off of their soapboxes) and just enjoy shit for whatever it is. Either you like it or you don't so why not just leave it at that? Just because there are schisms of opinions doesn't mean either side is wrong or somehow less valid or worthy than the other. It's okay to take a dissenting stance and not feel the need to put down the other side simply to make yourself feel worthy or righteous. I just can't wrap my head around the schizophrenic way in which people approach their recreational activities! How enervating must it be to listen to a twelve song album and, with each track go, "LOVE IT. BEST BAND EVER. UGH. HATE IT. SO OVER THESE GUYS. THEY'RE THE WORST. OMG LOVE THIS ONE. THESE GUYS STILL HAVE IT! THIS IS TOTAL GARBAGE."?

I miss the days when opinions were just that: responses to a yes or no type of question. Did you like the movie? Yeah--thought it was great/Nah, it wasn't my cup of tea. What do you think of the new album? It's awesome/It's terrible. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for having a meaningful discussion about something but the problem is that most people no longer engage in actual discourse. It's become: I think this, I'm right, I don't care what you think because you're wrong. People don't take the time to listen to other people's viewpoints and, if they do, they rarely resist the urge to convince them why their opinion is the wrong one!

I'm just amazed by the capriciousness that defines people's perspectives and how alarmingly incapable they are of backing up whatever claims they make. "This was the worst _____ ever...because." Is it really that hard to go that extra step and to explain why you feel that way? There'd be so much less bickering and unnecessary arguing if only that seemingly trivial act were to occur with greater frequency.

Then again, what do I know?

Everyone's a critic.