Huffing Wronguns: Why Real-Music Dads Are Destroying Music Criticism

Last week, Jennifer Lucy Allan wrote a loving, honest live review of Steely Dan - and got a load of abuse for it. Would the same thing have happened if she were a man?

Recently the debate about negative music reviews – are they a valid use of editorial space? Is it ever okay to stick the boot in? – has been revived, helped along by Quietus editor Luke Turner’s article for Crack magazine and subsequent pieces in The Wire, Resident Advisor and others. A complex bundle of reasons is contributing to this shift, including the flailing economy of the music industry, with some publications and music journalists towing the line in order to not offend advertisers and brands. There’s another more troubling reason this is becoming a hot topic however, and that’s the stick that writers get online – especially women – when they express a strong opinion. Watching the insults hurtle in, in real time, in response to a review is hardly going to be conducive to sticking your neck out, and the knife in.

The grim comments on a female-penned Quietus Black Sky Thinking on the difficulties and prejudices faced by women in recording studios are a case-in-point. It’s not exclusive to music journalism, of course – much has been written on the abusive, misogynist culture that exists online in recent times. People do not like being yelled at, even if it is just from a comments box. Even if we have thick enough skin for these comments to bounce off, nobody’s natural reaction is to run towards something that will hurt them. A trickle-down from that unpleasant tone of online culture is damaging criticism by setting up a scenario where the nature of publishing negative reviews brings in this real-time element to the way writers must deal with the disgruntled of suburbia. Writing negative reviews now starts with stage fright, is followed by fear, then is followed by some people yelling at you across various platforms for days. I experienced this for myself last week when, after The Quietus published my critical review of Steely Dan at the O2, the notifications ding-ding of patronising scoffing from the Real-Music Dads of social media began to flood in.

There is a particular type of comment that a female journalist receives when spearing bands whose main audience is middle aged men, and lord, have I come to love the way these whoppers write. It’s a mode of expression I’ll call ‘be as patronising as possible in 140 characters’, and can be identified by a number of key features.

Collect a point for every time one of the following happens. One: inverted commas are used to imply that what you wrote wasn’t even a piece of "writing". Two: they name you (after @-ing you) in a way that implies you are a badly behaved child (this week it was "Ms. Allan"). Three: the reply includes a paternal head-shaking pity-diss ("sad, really" said one Twitter interlocutor when I refused to engage) because obviously, they know better.

It is likely you will also get told it was an awful review (it wasn’t, but cheers Eliot, Chris, Ben and the others) from the lazier members of the Dads’ army. I’ll add that anyone who uses a combination of multiple exclamation marks and a question mark I consider a total amateur. If however, someone demands to know how you ever got a writing job, I consider that a jackpot and give myself the rest of the night off to soak up the heat of this impotent male frustration being channeled through a keyboard. In the process of writing this piece I actually received quite a long direct message on Facebook from a complainy ’Dan fan (thankyou for your feedback Scott, I screengrabbed it and deleted you).

One day of my timeline pinging with disgruntled blokes yapping about my professional output – sorry, I mean my "professional" output – is enough for me to seriously consider whether I am in the mood for dealing with that shit even if I know I can get behind the piece. It makes me tie very tightly the laces of my shoe pies.

As a writer online, you effectively put yourself on stage as soon as an article goes live, and you stay there until something else takes its place. You really don’t get a curtain call until everyone’s chucked their piece of rotten fruit and is satisfied. Replying only refills the soggy trough. The structure of the internet appears to amplify and encourage negative reactions in particular scenarios, by virtue of power relationships, rights to speak, and the general fact that middle aged men with poor taste, bad opinions and few outlets for expression seem to have more time than most of us for rattling out something unnecessary on a keyboard. They – I’m going to give you fellas the benefit of the doubt here – probably don’t realise that their reaction is different, more readily snarling and patronising, because it’s a woman trespassing into what is considered their zone of culture.

In these contexts it is tempting to pull back on anything that might challenge the consensus and thus draw attention to yourself. It’s the difference between choosing to be in the chorus line of a covers band rather than the person improvising a percussion set with an anvil and a foghorn. In the case of the latter, some people will love it, but lots will heckle. After you slope off stage you’ll wonder why you baited the bastards when you could have done a crowd-pleasing acoustic version of a disco classic everyone knows and loves.

This real-time aspect to publishing causes a psychological chain reaction that results in a watering down of what we really think. Nobody really wants to risk getting pelted with rotten fruit when they could phone it in and pass across the stage untroubled. It is tempting to get up and do something that everyone likes, for mild applause and something that is quickly forgotten. A few thumbs up, some retweets, get paid, get on with your day, and get writing some more completely forgettable, ambient turds of criticism.

But it is a joy to read a fiery and opinionated piece of music writing whether you agree with it or not. Enjoying it has nothing to do with the writer having the same opinion as you, and these blokes on my Twitter feed don’t seem to comprehend that. Criticism, as has been said before, is still required, both to applaud and to hold culture to account, and I’ll not be watering down my reactions to avoid a spat. Well-used words can turn into flames that lick the culture into shape. Writers: do your research, trust your opinions and bring down the house. Expect to get booed, but grow a thick skin, and enjoy it. I’m issuing a call: for more fire, more burns, more fun.

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