I have no problem understanding taste. I admire Charlie Shavers; you prefer Shorty Baker. I think that the 1938 Basie band and the 1940 Ellington band were high points in civilization; you choose, instead, Lunceford and Miller. Fine, and we need not snarl at each other on the street. I can even understand the anonymous YouTube lone disliker — out of a sea of thumbs up, there’s one person who thinks, “That’s not so good.” And I know that criticism is not new to this century, as Nicolas Slominsky has shown: for one example, I have read that the audience at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night was savage and satirical in its disapproval of performers who weren’t up to what the audience thought was the standard.
I have worked hard to acquire some equanimity when faced with negative responses to videos and posts I have created for JAZZ LIVES. When people comment negatively in either sphere, I can simply make the comment go away, leaving a faint bad smell until I open the window. However, some of the comments are so acrid that they make me get up from the computer and do something else for a few minutes. Typically, someone doesn’t approve of the angle from which I am videoing (assuming, I guess, that I am using several people and a multi-camera perspective) — especially if one of the performers is an attractive woman whom the male commenter doesn’t see enough of. In that case, if the spirit moves me, I gently explain the limitations of a single-camera setup or of my desire to not get walloped by someone’s swingout, or other factors that the commenter may not have understood. And in many cases, my calm approach gets a calm apologetic response, which is gratifying.
In other situations, the prose is darker. I shoot videos in places where — you’ll be horrified — people drink alcohol, eat food, and converse . . . as opposed to videoing in the Sistine Chapel. Thus, many viewers write in to me in a near-rage: “I’d like to shoot the people who were talking while this great band was playing!” I do understand, but the impulse — even rhetorical — is frightening in this century, and again I try to write a calm explanatory note. (Years of being a college professor have left their mark on me in a gentle moral didacticism.) I have also said that yelling at people in a video shot five years ago will have little effect on making them quieter.
If the commenter, in either case, continues to fume in response, I will often suggest that he should ask for a refund. Rimshot. And no one has written in to ask for one, for obvious reasons.
I understand that there are situations were sharp criticism in public from a nameless “reviewer” is not only appropriate but helpful. If I go to a restaurant and something makes me ill, in writing about my experience I might be warning others away so that they did not have to spend hours in the bathroom. If my painter, lawyer, doctor, or other professional does a poor job, there might be good reason to say so in public. (I would hope, though, that the first line of response would be to contact the restaurant or the professional, as a courtesy.)
But a video that someone disapproves of has no power to do harm, and one can always shut it off, muttering, “Wow, that’s awful,” to oneself.
All of this distresses me, not because people are not “entitled to their own opinion,” but because it seems ungenerous to criticize a product or a production that is offered open-handedly and for free. And the criticism is often voiced in a coarse unfeeling way. Of course, this tendency is amplified by the anonymity of the commenters, who are not asked to offer their credentials in evaluating artistic performance. The man — and the commenters are all men — who says that X is a rottten trumpeter is never asked to demonstrate his own ability on the horn by playing C JAM BLUES, even in Bb.
But anonymity gives courage. Thus, this comment on a YouTube video of mine this morning. The subject, a singer I respect greatly, someone with classical training and jazz experience, accompanied by a pianist: “Listening to that whiney voice instead of the sense of the song…horrible nonsense..he’s good but who can tell w that phony warbling…yikes”
That approach and that language seems abusive. I imagine that few artists read the YouTube comments, but why should someone doing their best be skewered by a nameless “reviewer”? Would the commenter have the courage to go up to an artist in a club and say, “Your whiney voice is horrible nonsense and phony warbling?” I would guess not, for fear of getting whacked with an RCA ribbon mike. And stand. And I would dearly like to be on the jury to vote for the musician’s acquittal and then award damages in a lawsuit.
I wonder if there is some motivation I am overlooking. Does it make the commenter feel superior? “I am an experienced music critic, and everyone is entitled to my opinion, as a public service? Or does it come out of a silent insecurity? “X makes CDs and is famous. Why doesn’t anyone want to give me a gig like that? I hate X!”
What I suspect, and hope I am wrong, is that it is yet another manifestation of general pervasive mean-spiritedness, that there are hate-filled people in the world who have not got enough to occupy themselves, so they rack up disapproval right and left. That makes me sad. Someone once said, “If you’re not being loving, why are you taking up space on the planet?” True enough.
Something to end this sad essay on a hopeful note: music that no one can disapprove of:
May your happiness increase!