In the five years’ plus that I have been creating JAZZ LIVES and sharing videos on YouTube, I have winced at the ubiquity of unkind words, publicly expressed, online.
I don’t refer to heated political or ideological discourse, but “criticism” aimed at the performances of particular artists I celebrate. A few examples, taken from life: X’s improvisations “don’t work. Sorry!” Y (a living player) “isn’t fit to shine the shoes of Z” (a senior improviser). A “shouldn’t sing like that”; B “is rushing”; C “doesn’t know what he’s doing on the tune”; D “has a whiny voice”; E “is out of tune”; F “should lose some weight.”
Why insult artists who bravely stand up in public?
I do understand subjective reactions, how deeply valid they seem. I am not shocked that a reader might (let us say) think that anyone who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong. That is a prerogative, in just the same way I like my tea prepared a certain way. But do such “critical judgments” require that artists who are clearly working hard at presenting candid, feeling art (for I give them that as a basic premise) should be insulted because a viewer prefers something else? If you think Lester is peerless, does it follow that you have to insult Ben Webster? And since the language of this century has become so coarse, I wish someone would tell me what is gained by someone online writing “[Artist's name] sucks.”
You might tell me that Ben Webster is past feeling hurt by what people say, and perhaps you are right. But I have used the examples above rather than put in the names of the real people who have been shot at from ambush.
Writing abusively about a fellow person is different from giving a motel a bad review on Yelp because your room was poor.
I prefer other responses that do less harm. To quote Chaucer, if you don’t like the story, you turn over the leaf; you choose another page. Or, if the internet is a huge city with a million restaurants, you walk to the next block if the taqueria here displeases you. But some of my “correspondents” apparently need to smash the plate glass window of the place they are rejecting. Their expression of “taste” isn’t complete as praise; it has to destroy everything else.
I am not suggesting a moratorium on negative judgments. I do not propose that we say that your nephew, after his second violin lesson, sounds as good as Joe Venuti. (I hope he does, but you will agree it is unlikely.)
But should the relative anonymity of the web, the aliases people use regularly, encourage unkindness? The people you see on my videos, on other people’s videos, those you hear on CDs and downloads, are living persons with feelings. As a rule, online viewers are getting to watch P or Q sing or play for free. Why, then, be ungracious or snide? Certainly there are other “better” performers to see, to hear — easily accessible.
I also know that such criticisms are often “witty,” and some prefer their “humor” that is sharp-edged. In very small doses this might be entertaining, but it often sounds like mean schoolchildren, and it certainly stops being amusing when the blade sticks in your tender vitals. To me, much of this “acerbic” wit is really anger, not well-disguised and not terribly attractive. And I think it takes great courage, conviction, and generosity of spirit to sing or play in public, to allow oneself to be video-recorded; a small group of people, preferring anonymity, firing darts in public from their computers or phones, seem less courageous and generous.
Being “smart” from behind a pseudonym allows the Masked Critic to pretend to greater knowledge of an art form then musician being criticize. But “pretend” is crucial here. These varieties of unkind behavior are nothing more than weapons that the deeply insecure use to make themselves feel superior to people who are getting more attention. Such acts that masquerade as “free speech” and “expressing an opinion,” if unkind, afford a short-term, mean-spirited pleasure, and the consequences of such unkindness might be much more lasting and wounding than the initial impulse. Opinions are lovely. Everyone has a plenitude of them. Must they all be shared, if their intent, however disguised, is destructive?
I admit, I have watched videos online and thought, “My goodness, that band is awful!” but I had to ask myself, “Is the band really awful or are they simply not playing the way you like?” And with that question in the air, I have held back from making a public statement of what is essentially a subjective, personal response. What would it serve if I typed it in and then hit Publish? Would the band, astonished and enlightened, start playing in a way that pleased me? Should it?
Should we use our considerable energies and finite time to focus on imperfections, or should we celebrate what we see, in all its flawed human glory? Spread love, not hate.
In some New Orleans restaurants, the sign BE NICE OR LEAVE is prominently displayed. Those words are too tough for me, but I offer another version: KINDNESS BEGETS KINDNESS. If you are generous to others, they will return that embrace. And we all need kindness.
May your happiness increase!