Nobody likes a critic, and lately that’s felt more true than ever. You can hardly turn around without someone, somewhere, getting furious on social media about what critics are up to.
The celebrities have been mad for the past couple of months. There was hip hop star Lizzo, decrying “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES.” (She later walked it back). There was Ariana Grande, hoping that “everybody that works at all them blogs” would one day “realize how unfulfilled they are and purposeless what they’re doing is” and then “feel lit inside.” There was SNL’s Michael Che, of course (isn’t there always Michael Che?), facetiously accusing a critic of performing fellatio on dogs. And there was Olivia Munn accusing fashion bloggers the Fug Girls of mean girl-esque body shaming.
And the fans are mad too, especially when critics write negative reviews of the big franchise movies like Endgame or Detective Pikachu. Why, why won’t critics just let people enjoy things? Then they’d really be lit inside.
(Please don’t track down and harass the man whose tweets are screencapped here. I mean, don’t do that in general, but especially don’t do that in this case because he has already apologized.)
As a critic, I’m obviously biased in favor of criticism. So I’m not going to use this space to convince you that criticism is important (although Todd VanDerWerff has a great argument on that front), or that it’s good and important to let people not enjoy things (although Esther Rosenfield has a great argument on that front). Instead, I want to try to figure out why all this antipathy is getting directed at critics right now.
Critics have been around for as long as we’ve had artists, and they’ve been the objects of disdain for just as long. Which makes sense, because no one enjoys getting criticized, and no one enjoys having someone tell them that the thing they love is bad. But it’s hard for me to remember any cultural moment quite like this one, with giant high-profile celebrities shouting down critics every week and fans accusing critics of stopping their fun just by writing reviews.
Has criticism suddenly gotten more harsh than it ever used to be? It doesn’t seem to have: Old-school critics are complaining that criticism has gotten more insipid than it ever was before. “Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism,” Christian Lorentzen wrote at Harpers in April. “Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush.” And Lorentzen’s complaint in and of itself is an old argument, because with criticism has always come people complaining that it isn’t critical enough.
Judging from the in-fighting among critics, criticism is neither especially meaner or especially nicer right now than it was 10 years ago. It’s not criticism that has changed. Instead, it’s the reception to criticism that has changed. And as far as I can tell, that’s because of a major shift in the way we talk about popular things.
It used to be cool to hate stuff. Then came poptimism.
We recently emerged from an era of extreme snark, one where it was considered very cool not to let people enjoy things, as a way to accumulate massive social capital by proving that you would never be so gauche as to have human emotions or take pleasure from something stupid. As this Twitter thread points out, at the height of the Twilight phenomenon in 2009, it was so cool to not let people enjoy things that the comedian Skyler Stone achieved a modicum of viral fame by tricking Twilight fans into thinking they were going to see an early screening of New Moon; instead of showing them the film, Stone yelled at them about how stupid they were to like something as dumb as Twilight.
“This is a vampire intervention, since you clearly have no clue what a vampire is,” Stone shouted at puzzled fans as they cheered politely, waiting for the man to stop screaming so they could watch their movie. “A vampire does not look like he belongs on a WB show!” (Counterpoint.)
Circa 2009, enjoying things was very, very not okay.
But over the past 10 years, a counterargument has emerged. An argument that says, “Hey, why not just let people like stuff?” And also, “Maybe sometimes popular stuff can be good.”
That’s the spirit with which Adam Ellis created the comic “Let people enjoy things” in 2016. Since going viral, the comic has become a kind of emblem for the era. It features a familiar scene: one person just trying to relax and take in something that is maybe objectively dumb — in this case, a football game — and some cooler-than-thou asshole showing up to make him feel terrible for it.
“Ohhh hey, you watchin’ some sportsball?” the asshole croons.
And then the poor guy who’s just trying to watch football clamps the asshole’s mouth shut with two fingers. “Shh,” he whispers. “Let people enjoy things.”
“It’s supposed to be about people who trash popular stuff to seem interesting or cool,” Ellis explained to Vox over email. “It’s criticizing people who seem to build their personality around hating stuff and complaining about things they don’t like just because it’s popular.”
Ellis put the comic together for the 2016 Super Bowl, he says, and almost immediately forgot about it. (“I was making an average of five comics a week, so once I put something out there I didn’t think about it too much,” he explains.) But the bottom half of the comic rapidly made its way to Tumblr, where it became a reaction meme, and from there it’s taken on a life of its own.
The argument Ellis was responding to with his comic — between trashing popular things and lifting up popular things — has been around in criticism for a while. Most recently, it’s taken the form of the rockism versus poptimism debate, most clearly articulated in Kelefa Sanneh’s massively influential 2004 article, “The Rap Against Rockism.”
Sanneh was critiquing the then en vogue notion that rock music is objectively better and more artistically worthwhile than pop. He called that idea “rockism.”
“Over the past decades, these [rockist] tendencies have congealed into an ugly sort of common sense. Rock bands record classic albums, while pop stars create ‘guilty pleasure’ singles,” Sanneh wrote. “It’s supposed to be self-evident: U2’s entire oeuvre deserves respectful consideration, while a spookily seductive song by an R&B singer named Tweet can only be, in the smug words of a recent VH1 special, ‘awesomely bad.’”
In response to rockism arose the new ideology of poptimism. Poptimism says that pop music is not objectively, self-evidently worthless. Poptimism says that it takes craft and artistry to create great pop, and that this craft and artistry is worthy of respect. Poptimism says that the glitzy spectacle of pop is no less deep and no less true than the so-called authenticity of rock.
Over time, poptimism grew beyond the purview of music criticism to become a way of interacting with pop culture more broadly. Comic book movies might be commercial, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be well made, right? And why should people feel ashamed of enjoying a piece of entertainment that’s made to be enjoyed? Poptimism created the joyous lack of elitism that meant that a movie like Black Panther could be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Overall, poptimism and its partner philosophy of not being a jerk to people who like popular things are healthy developments for the culture. People should be allowed to enjoy their harmless entertainment without jerks making fun of them! It is bad to unthinkingly dismiss entire genres as artistically bankrupt, just because those genres are popular! These are all good and reasonable correctives to a particularly exhausting brand of coolness that we should all be glad is dead or dying.
But lately, these correctives have begun to evolve into a new phase. People have started to use weird, cockeyed interpretations of poptimism to argue that, since we no longer trash popular art as a default and go out of our way to make the people who like it feel bad, we can’t make any criticism of pop culture whatsoever, even thoughtful criticism that comes from a knowledge of the genre.
And that’s where we get Marvel fans spamming the writers of negative reviews with “shhh let people enjoy things,” because haven’t critics heard that we don’t thoughtfully critique popular things anymore? That’s where we get celebrities declaring all critics to be bitter wannabe haters, because haven’t they heard that doing any kind of analysis is off-limits now?
I asked Ellis how he feels about his comic being used to undermine the work of critics.
“I support critics who write negative reviews, so it’s a little frustrating when people use my comic in an effort to shut down legitimate criticism, especially since that’s not what the original comic is about,” he said. “But at the same time, once I put art on the internet, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. People can remix and repurpose it, and I don’t have control over that. Nor should I, really. Parody and remixes are a good thing, I think. I don’t like how my comic is being used right now, but I can’t control it. It’s a weird problem to have and I try not to dwell on it too much.”
Ironically, Ellis’s response to how his comic is weaponized online models the way many critics hope that all artists — including stars like Lizzo and Ariana Grande — will respond to criticism of their art, and that fans will respond to criticism of their faves. From a critic’s point of view, the ideal attitude is that once art exists in the world, it stops belonging to the artist. Instead, it belongs to the rest of us, to enjoy or analyze or pick apart or reinterpret as we see fit.
Critics believe that this kind of reappropriation is only worthwhile if it allows for the possibility of negative opinions. If we’re only allowed to be blissfully joyous about culture, the thinking goes, then none of our joy actually counts. We need to be able to call attention to the negative in order to recognize the positive. By noticing and then analyzing the negative, our entire understanding of a work of art becomes clearer and stronger.
So while most professional critics would agree that going out of your way to mock the fans of a thing is both unproductive and cruel — and so is dismissing entire genres as being by their nature less-than — refusing to accept that any critique whatsoever might be legitimate is limiting. It stunts the discourse.
But then again, what do I know? I’m just a critic. I still haven’t been lit inside.