The Good Listener: When Should I Keep Criticism To Myself?
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the bag of caramel-filled chocolates we're neglecting to share with our colleagues is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when hardcore fans hate their favorite artist's new project.
William F. writes via Facebook: "What do you do if you're a diehard fan of a musician and his new release turns out to be... not very good? How do you deal with the other fans who are falling all over themselves to outdo one another in praising the artist? Especially when the latest work, well, kinda sucks? I have been listening to live tracks on YouTube to Morrissey's forthcoming album World Peace Is None of Your Business. The tracks he is playing are just boring, but I'm afraid to open my mouth with other fans so as not to turn it into a fight."
Before getting to the meat of my advice — note: my advice contains no actual meat and is thus Morrissey-safe — I feel duty-bound to offer the tiny reassurance that live tracks on YouTube are a terrible way to experience a new album. You're getting shaky recordings of what could well be shaky performances of songs you've never heard before, from a record you may or may not grow to like once you hear it when it comes in two months. I can't encourage you enough to avoid catastrophizing your feelings about the album at this stage of the game.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you ultimately come to loathe World Peace Is None of Your Business. I think it's important for you to interrogate the difference between "feelings to which you're entitled" and "feelings you feel obligated to express," and to examine where and when your disappointment becomes an itch that must be scratched publicly. Any time you put an opinion into the world, it never hurts to weigh the degree to which you're willing to fight to defend it; to weigh the extent to which doing so is worth it. If you truly fear a fight, you're under no obligation to start one, you know? When asked point-blank for an opinion, you can say, "Eh, this new stuff isn't clicking with me quite yet" and leave at that.
I understand that this becomes especially tricky for people who've integrated themselves into online fan communities, where fervency can feel competitive and even muted dissent can feel antagonistic. And I don't mean to suggest that, as a diehard fan, your options are only to say nice things or remain silent. You have every right to whatever opinion you wish, whether you're a diehard or a dissenter, and you certainly needn't lie in the interest of going along to get along.
But, because you're specifically looking to avoid confrontation in this specific situation, I encourage you to play conscientious objector, remain courteous toward opinions with which you disagree, allow time for your mind to change, and focus your contributions to the conversation on areas in which you feel comfortable. The world isn't starved for people willing to criticize Morrissey, you know?