Embrace the Hate

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.

The “Female” Problem

Whenever music comes up as a subject, I inevitably end up mentioning that I mostly listen to female singers (as if I just listen to all females who sing indiscriminately), which is often met with something like: “Oh, really? Well then, you should check out [woman folky-pop singer that is actually nothing like the music I listen to]!” It’s always a bizarre conversation, because you’d never hear this: “I mostly listen to male vocalists.” “Oh, really? Well then, you should check out this band called U2. They have a great male singer.” This is indicative of a problem with how women in music are discussed: bands with men are just bands, but bands with women are defined by their gender.

As someone who listens to predominantly women, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “female as genre” issue and how to reconcile it with my listening habits and preferences. It’s really obvious that “female” isn’t a genre: women perform all kinds of music –some good and some bad — just the same as men do, and even though my collection is mostly women singers, there’s a ton of variety in there. I get really annoyed when two bands with women singers get compared when they have absolutely nothing in common except a non-dude singer.

At the same time, the fact that I enjoy women singers so much more than men (on average) says something, and sometimes I wonder if it makes me complicit in the “female as genre” thing. I think a lot of my earlier posts on this topic did feed into that, because I couldn’t explain why I liked women singers so much and ended up thinking more about the lyrics and rooting it in some trendy misandry, like “men are boring, “who cares about what dudes have to say,” etc. That all may be true, but it didn’t really get into the heart of the matter, which is the music.

The explanation I didn’t consider is possibly the most obvious one: I like the way women sound more than men. Instead of being about politics or some weird psychological complex, maybe women are simply more suited to the kind of music I like listening to. The song that caused this light bulb to go on was “Loomer.”

“Loomer” is my favorite song on Loveless, and is probably the closest of any song to achieving what I would consider the perfect sound. Its defining characteristic is the low, heavy, almost metallic guitars which contrast with singer Bilinda Butcher’s higher pitched, dreamy vocal, creating an effect where it feels like Butcher is floating above the music, just avoiding getting crushed by the guitars. A lot of the music I like falls into the “loud guitars and higher-pitched vocals” zone typified by “Loomer,” and I think it has to do with that contrast. Something about it just appeals to me for reasons I can’t fully explain, much like most matters of preference/taste in music.

Given that what I love about “Loomer” is the contrast between the guitars and Butcher’s vocals, a sensible (yet maybe controversial) conclusion can be reached: if a man with a typical lower male voice sang this song, it wouldn’t be as “good,” or at least would feel different enough that it would no longer fit my “perfect sound” mold. Depending on your taste, the opposite could be true. Another song on Loveless is “Sometimes,” which has similar guitars and Kevin Shields providing vocals instead of Butcher. On “Sometimes,” Shields’ lower voice blends in more with the guitars, making for a more monochromatic song, which couldn’t have been achieved with Butcher’s vocals. Even though I like “Loomer” more because I prefer the voice/guitar contrast, I wouldn’t change anything about “Sometimes” and recognize that the right singer was picked for each song given what the band was trying to do.

What I realized about looking at the music this way is that what makes me prefer Butcher’s vocals isn’t necessarily that she’s a woman, but that she has a higher voice, which sounds different and evokes different emotions than a lower voice would. It’s possible that I don’t really love “female vocalists” as much as I prefer various characteristics that are naturally more common in women singers than men. In this sense, gender isn’t really a factor in the music itself, because the human voice is just an instrument, like any other. Butcher doesn’t sing on “Loomer” because she’s a woman: she sings because her voice was the right instrument for that song.

This isn’t to say that gender can or should be ignored entirely — men and women have different experiences that likely inform their art in some way, and some music has undeniably feminine or masculine themes that should be a part of the conversation around it. I just think I tended to overrate how big of an impact gender had on music I liked — that just because the common denominator of so much music I loved was “woman singer,” that didn’t mean I liked all of it because they were women. And when I praised those artists on here or elsewhere, my focus should have been on the music, not on the fact that it was women making it.