the complications of examining other people’s privilege (which maybe you’re conferring upon them in the first place)
We can agree that Creed is terrible, I think. We can also agree that this is not the point. The point is deciding, as a critic, that you don’t have any obligation to the terrible/popular/terrible-because-it-is-popular stuff, and setting up your own obnoxious young-white-man’s discourse in which you for some reason are qualified to expound upon the culture, and you get (in many cases) paid to do so, and you are (in some cases) praised for this, even though you are actually totally and willingly ignorant of and unwilling to engage with the culture itself, rather than the small and misleading subset of the culture represented at your many enjoyable young-white-person gatherings and publications.
I feel strange responding to this, because I agree with it, fundamentally — I think it’s a basic, I think it’s something most good critics are completely aware of and responsive to, and it’s being expressed here by someone whose commentary I really enjoy. Still, there are two habits wound into this conversation that I can’t help remarking on. One’s just a thought. The other is something that used to be a “pet” peeve but at this point is more like a herd of livestock I’m tending.
The passing-thought one is about the need to differentiate clearly between a niche and an elite. This conversation started with bmichael's annoyance — valid annoyance — that someone at the A/V Club wrote something casually dismissive of Creed, calling them “wrongfully popular.” Yes, this is a bizarre phrase on the face of it: they're popular because people like them; if you think those people are “wrong” about liking them you are sorta being a jerk; obviously. But what Sady winds up describing, above, is something that's being called out as a clique — either a niche or an elite — and since I'm pretty sure she's calling out some perceived condescension among them, some combination of privilege and superiority (which note is being connected here with the word “white”), I'm going to guess she's thinking of it as something of an elite.
Which is fair and possibly correct, but it’s worth thinking through where that perception of privilege comes from — this perception that a “small and misleading subset” of the culture can really be seen as haughty and unwilling to engage with the things that actually dominate the culture. Because power-wise, this is sort of backwards. And something I’ve noticed, over the past many years of talking about culture on the internet, is that this privilege that’s being deplored actually tends to come from the people who are deploring it. They are conferring the very privilege they rail against. This doesn’t negate the complaint, or anything, but it’s an interesting wrinkle: sometimes the difference between a niche and an elite isn’t real power, it’s the fact that you respect the thing, you think the thing is important enough to consider it elite instead of dismissing it as a niche.
I feel like I saw this often, across the past decade: people, for instance, who deplored the fact that certain pockets of online music talk centered on indie, and wanted them to be more responsive to mainstream pop, or hip-hop, or country, or whatever. Who perceived condescension in the lack of response to those things. Well, you might ask them: how much attention do you pay to the preponderance of media that are actually all about pop, or hip-hop, or country? And the answer, quite frequently, would be “not much,” along with the claim that they wanted to see real criticism of mainstream music, in the places they tended to look, the places they were inclined to respect. This is a completely valid demand, and it’s a demand whose side I’m basically on. But let’s not forget what it is. In many cases, it’s educated young people with a particular way of talking and thinking who privilege the media that shares those ways of talking and thinking, and therefore wants those media to broaden. They still care most about those alleged “young-white-person” gatherings and publications and what gets talked about in those circles and whether anyone there is condescending to Creed, and that is part of the source of the privilege — their preference for the language of those places over the many more places where Creed are taken perfectly seriously already.
It’s that “young-white-person” thing that brings me to the second point, the major peeve, one I’m not even sure I can be articulate about because it bugs me on such a deep level. Young white people. Young white men. This is an especially funny repetition in this case because we’re talking about Creed, and who do you think is buying all those Creed records — black women? This was the first thing I ever posted about on this blog, so you can probably guess how much it gets me: what Sady means is not “white.” What she likely means is something along the lines of “bourgeois.” (I hate to unload this peeve on Sady, but I also think she’s someone who can be aware and critical enough about this sort of thing to understand where I’m coming from.) I’m past the point where I can concisely explain why this habit irks me so much — you can probably sort out for yourself many of the ways in which constantly using “white” to mean “bourgeois” or “middle-class” or “educated” is sort of a backhanded insult to all of us who aren’t white — but I suspect, at this point, that it’s just tipped over into a general weariness with being a non-white person who’s spent too much time watching white people in the internet accuse one another of being white, or too white, or just generally playing a game of white-baiting in which the rest of us humans begin to feel like weird symbolic projections of the various neuroses of being white and feeling weird about it. (Plus also I am a critic, and write for a publication Sady might well consider a portion of her “young-white-people” world, and I’d much rather be called “bourgeois” than either erased or made “white” just to facilitate white people picking on one another over feeling boring.)
These two things — the accidental conferral of privilege upon the things that you just happen to privilege, and the endless eye-rolling of educated middle-class kids against other educated middle-class kids as too bourgeois and unresponsive to others — they strike me as going together, really. I wish I could say something more profitable about it than just pointing out a few gaps in the logic, but I suppose that’d run even longer than this post. For the time being, I’d like to be clear that I’m not sure how much I’m disagreeing with anything said here, or really “calling out” Sady or bmichael on anything — just noting, just observing.