The internet is often assumed to be a venue for cheap snark and hating, a place where people go to vent about the crappy day they just had or the stupid TV show they’re watching. In my experience, it is the opposite: the default stance of the internet is a brand of dopey enthusiasm purveyed by websites like Buzzfeed. Everything is “amazing” or “the best thing you’ll see today,” negativity is perceived as “cheap” and “easy,” and any legitimate criticism of popular things you like can be shaken off, Taylor Swift style, with a “haters gonna hate” mantra.
I don’t have a problem with positivity, even though a lot of my online posting may indicate otherwise. I just think the current climate has skewed too hard towards being positive and “nice” instead of portraying realistic human emotions, which include disliking and being annoyed by things. In addition to Buzzfeed, popular music review sites like Pitchfork, who used to be infamous for their scathing criticism of bands, barely even publish truly negative reviews anymore, unless they’re running down the tattered remains of the Pixies. While this positivity seems wonderful on the surface, it ultimately cheapens our collective relationship with art.
In poker, there is a concept called “balancing your range.” The idea is that, in order to win, you have to play unpredictably. If you only bet big when you have a good hand, your opponents will catch on and stop calling your bets. Likewise, if you bluff every hand, they’ll start calling all your bluffs. But if you mix up your play enough, your bluffs will be respected and your good hands will get paid off.
I sometimes apply this idea to the way people talk about music. If someone thinks everything is good and is all positive all the time, their opinions start to mean less to me, because “good” is a relative concept that can’t exist without “bad” — if everything is good, then really nothing is. This shows the intrinsic value of hate: the music you hate provides a context that strengthens your relationship with the music you love.
One band I really started to hate in the last couple years is Arcade Fire. And since they’re a very popular band that most people I know like a lot, I thought about what made me hate them so much. The main reason I settled on was how pretentious the band is: every album cycle with them now is treated like an event, and they present themselves as an Important Band with Important Ideas. Then I listen to a song like “Reflektor” and it’s just a bunch of nonsense about how we’re “staring at a screen” and how technology is super scary. They consistently have the lamest possible take on any given subject, yet present it as if they just discovered gravity. If you look up “pseudo-intellectual garbage” in the dictionary, there should be a picture of all 19 members of Arcade Fire there.
In hating Arcade Fire like that, I learned something about myself: I don’t like music that is pretentious, and I don’t like it when artists tell me how to think. This knowledge could then be applied to a band I like, such as Broadcast, who I’m constantly gushing about. Broadcast were a band that very quietly released a lot of great music, almost never drawing attention to themselves. And their music embraced a subtlety and ambiguity that has made my appreciation for it only grow over several years of being a fan. They were an extremely intelligent band, but I never felt like they were trying to convince me of their intelligence in any way — it was just naturally present in their music.
These were traits in Broadcast’s music that I always loved, but never had really thought about or articulated before I hated Arcade Fire. In a weird way, my negative feelings towards Arcade Fire eventually manifested themselves as positive feelings for Broadcast and other bands I enjoy, sort of like a musical circle of life. I think this is how hating music should be viewed: as a natural part of our music-fan ecosystem, a normal and human reaction that should be accepted and even encouraged instead of being labeled as “negative” or being used as a reason to shun someone.
Unfortunately, any sort of criticism now is perceived as unsavory, and is often ascribed personal motives: “you just hate this because it’s popular,” “you’re bitter,” or whatever. There is also a strong “defend your turf” phenomenon, where everyone is super-defensive about the pop culture they consume and will attack anyone who slights it. All of this misses the bigger picture, which is that disagreement is good: it makes art interesting and helps define our taste compared to others. If everyone liked the exact same music, liking it would cease to mean anything in the first place.
This “negative = bad, positive = good” mindset can be surprisingly toxic, because it results in a climate where everyone just takes what is given to them, and people don’t think critically about the art they’re consuming or where it comes from. That not only leads to art getting dumber, but it also turns appreciation of it into a dull “this is alright” feeling characterized by a 7.5 on Pitchfork. People who truly love music should also hate a good chunk of it, and they shouldn’t be afraid to say so.