Lorde’s Views on Journalism Aren’t Just Wrong, They’re Dangerous

Over the weekend, Lorde published a short post on her Tumblr, condemning Complex for the perceived sin of putting Iggy Azalea on their cover and then running a negative review of her album. “It happens to me all the time,” she wrote, “Pitchfork and that ilk being like ‘Can we interview you?’ after totally taking the piss out of me in a review. Have a stance on an artist and stick to it. Don’t act like you respect them then throw them under the bus.” Complex editor Insanul Ahmed responded here, and the Internet has been arguing about it since.

I don’t know that there’s a great deal to add to what Complex had to say in regard to this particular case, because they’re pretty much 100% right, and I say that as someone who is no fan at all of their publication:

If Complex — or the media at large — operated the way Lorde wished, it would do away with journalistic integrity all together. Lorde — as well as Iggy — seem to confuse press as “respect” and criticism as being thrown “under the bus.”

I think Lorde’s smart enough to realize — if she took the time to think about this a bit more — that criticism doesn’t necessarily equal “disrespect,” and that she’s essentially proposing that the press act as de facto publicists, where publications have immutable “stances” on artists, cheerleading for the ones they like and shitting on the ones they don’t. In which case, shit, you might as well just have publicists send out press releases straight to fans and be done with it.

More generally, though, Lorde’s post is representative of a more pervasive view: that criticism is an inherently negative thing. This is something I see more and more these days, especially on the Internet, and one that’s worth examining in more detail, because the idea of critics as “haters,” motivated by some sort of personal vendetta or petty jealousy — as opposed to the desire to examine an artist’s work on its merits and/or evaluate its cultural significance — is simplistic and silly and needs to be put to bed. And more than that, it’s dangerous.

The first thing to say is that this is largely an Internet phenomenon. The democratization of opinion that the web has enabled has largely had positive results, but it does have at least one negative side-effect: the lines between the press and the public are far blurrier than they ever used to be. In the past, journalists were journalists and laymen were laymen; the former published in newspapers and magazines, and the latter got to see their names in print if they wrote a letter to the editor. These days, the ubiquity of the web means that anyone and everyone has a ready-made outlet for their opinion: you start a blog, you start publishing, and hey, you’re a critic. The result is a very porous border between the world of professional criticism and opinions in general.

I say “criticism” there because there’s one other important distinction that was a lot clearer in the past than it is now: the fact that reporting and criticism are two entirely different things. This is something that people seem to appreciate far less these days than they used to do back in the days where the news was at the front of the paper and the criticism was at the back. I’ve lost count of the amount of times someone has left a comment saying “Well, so much for impartiality in journalism!” on an opinion piece here on Flavorwire, which apart from being generally obnoxious shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between someone saying, “Hey, here is a thing that happened,” and “Hey, here is my opinion on a thing that happened.”

The other point here is the Internet and online discourse has a general tendency to be polarizing, as anyone who’s ever spent any time on a forum/comment section/listserv/etc. will be able to attest. It’s no accident, I think, that the two people Complex identifies as co-signing Lorde’s opinion — Iggy Azalea, unsurprisingly, and Grimes — are also members of the generation who grew up with the Internet. Again, when you see the amount of shit people throw at Grimes, for instance, online, you can understand why she might be skeptical of any negative opinion — and, indeed, the great lie of Web 2.0 was the idea that everyone has a valid opinion that’s worth expressing.

A visit to the YouTube comment section should be enough to disabuse anyone of such utopian ideals, but even aside from the worst of the worst, one unexpected result of Internet democratization of opinion has been a creeping shift in perception toward a view that dictates that the evaluation of someone who’s been studying their subject for years or decades has no more or less validity than a dude who decided to publish something on Tumblr in his lunch break.

This, in turn, is indicative of a more pervasive problem, which is the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, regardless of its premises or coherency. It’s not. You either know what the fuck you’re talking about or you don’t.

This isn’t really such a problem in the world of music, of course — at the end of the day, you either like a song or you don’t, and either way, the world isn’t going to stop turning. But it’s a definite problem in other areas. You’re on a slippery slope if you’re ready to dismiss any opinion that dissents from your own on the basis of its perceived motivation rather than its merit. This is a tactic much beloved of demagogues throughout history, and also of various modern day equivalents.

If you accept the idea that anyone criticizing you is a hater who’s out to get you, you end up with a view that’s like Lorde’s: the idea that any sort of criticism equals disrespect, and that “haters” can and should be dismissed out of hand. It doesn’t, and they shouldn’t. There are no doubt genuine haters on the Internet, but equating any dissenting opinion on your work with those people is facile and juvenile. Journalism is just as important these days as it has ever been in the past, and if Lorde or any other artist is going to perpetuate a fundamental misunderstanding of how it works, they should expect a deservedly negative reaction.