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Musical snobbery and the Internet critic: Isn’t it time to leave the Jurassic Park to the dinosaurs?

Being struck down with the cold has very few advantages, especially if you have to spend your days glued to the sofa with an ever-increasing mountain of tissues around you. Due to this not very pleasing fact (and the blessing, or curse, that is an iPad), I spent more time than usual on different music forums and social networks over the weekend. And then it struck me:

The musical snob (and hobby critic) is still very much alive!

Whilst most people now probably think about older classical musicians having a go at rappers, I am afraid that it doesn’t seem to be linked to musical style, or the professional circuit, at all. It rather seems a mindset than being fueled by musical preference:

There IS the classical musician who thinks all pop music is rubbish of course. However, there are also the pop musicians who turn up their noses at classical musicians. The professionally trained musicians who call others amateurs (and don’t mean that in a loving way), or the self-taught musicians who laugh at formally trained musicians for “being overtrained and stiff”. Even the music educators who seem to forget that not every musician is born perfect and criticise them in a rather hurtful way (there is a difference between constructive criticism, even saying one doesn’t like something, and just being plain mean or rude). Or the professional musicians who live in their own bubble and seem to think that everyone not having the same “status” is inferior.

It really is a universal phenomenon, and more of a personality trait than being linked to (musical) background.

What is the reason for this behaviour? Is the online slag-off-fest some way of “bonding”? Or an attempt to look better and more knowledgable than everyone else? Does it maybe even stem from insecurity, or is it really just arrogance?

What makes us write off whole musical styles (usually ones we don’t even know enough about)? It is legitimate not to like something and say this openly. However, should it lead to sweeping generalisations?

Also, where do we draw a line between criticising and being destructive? How do we justify judging people, especially when most of the time, we never did anything remotely similar ourselves, or put ourselves in the same position, and have no understanding of how hard it is to e.g. sing “perfectly”, or how much guts it actually requires to perform in front of an audience?

Everyone who ever stepped out on a stage and gave their best will probably know how crushing it is to hear or read throwaway remarks afterwards. If criticism is constructive, it can still hit us hard, but we will have strategies to deal with it. If it is destructive, personal and plain nasty, it is much more difficult: You can choose to ignore it as best you can, but it still hurts.

As someone who used to perform a lot, but also writes for magazines occasionally and uses social networking platforms, I sometimes find it very difficult to strike a balance between being honest from a professional point of view, and putting myself in the shoes of the one being criticised. There is a camp of people who say that if you put yourself out there, you have to live with the criticism. This is undoubtedly true, and as a performer, I agree with it – it’s part of the game, and constructive criticism helps you to grow. So this blog is in no way a call for stopping criticism, or painting everything bubblegum-pink.

Maybe the idea is to occasionally think about the power of words, in the good and negative sense, and word criticism in a way that is helpful and not personal? It is still tricky, because even well-meant comments can be hurtful – it is not easy to always get it right, especially if we don’t know the person we are criticising and therefore feel quite detached, and as if we can say everything we like: “That person won’t read it anyway, so who cares?” True, but the next question would be: Who are you writing for, and what’s the purpose? That’s a serious question by the way…

The same applies to being intolerant towards other musical styles and branding them as inferior (or, in my job, criticising other teaching methods). We will usually have very strong feelings about what we personally deem right or wrong, like or don’t like. Sometimes, these things are quantifiable, or we can even provide scientific proof. If this results in dialogue, it can only be a good thing, hopefully leading to progress, or new creative projects. For this, we need to stay open-minded though, and that’s a hard thing to do if our main goal is to prove our superiority, or to make ourselves feel better by putting others down.

And whilst I occasionally have a quick “trigger finger” as well (who hasn’t?), reading so many destructive comments about all sorts of things in such a short timeframe made me aware that they actually reflect much more on the one writing, than the one being written about.
Some can of course afford not to care, but maybe it is about time to at least occasionally remember a good old rule when it comes to the virtual world:

If you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all.

What do you think, and what are your personal experiences with this subject? Please feel free to leave a comment…

© Petra Raspel 2012

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