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What's the critic's role in a comment-board world?

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Hicks_l

Hicks_lI was going to post about this last week, but I ran out of time and lost my nerve, for reasons that will soon become obvious. Still, the idea stuck with me, and as the issue doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, I guess it’s time to tackle it head-on. This is going to be long, but I can’t stop myself.

[Imagine this next bit said in the movie trailer guy’s voice.]

In a world where no piece of professional media can exist without an accompanying Internet message board, the barrage of commentary, courtesy of You™, may be doing irreparable damage to an intellectual tradition that stretches back thousands of years: that of the cultural critic. The word “critic” itself comes from the Greek kritikós (one who discerns), and implies a certain level of scholarship, perspective, education, aesthetic/historical understanding, and calm, considered, reasoned thinking. It’s a concept that seems to be directly at odds with the public’s ability to put 10 or 15 poorly-spelled words into a little box and click “post.” And yet every day, at publications big and small, the public is doing just that… and being celebrated for it.

So I ask: In light of this trend towards all-user-generated-content-all-the-time, can those of us who get paid to have opinions maintain our dignity, our sanity… and our jobs?

After the jump, I attempt to inspire a rational discussion which will no doubt disintegrate into people yelling at me on the comment board. Won’t you come along?

addCredit(“Taylor Hicks: Kevin Winter/Getty Images”)

I’m not saying I’m blameless. In fact, as few as five years ago, I was guilty as anyone of trolling about various forums and comment boards, making snarky/derisive comments about the topics at hand. Hell — I had a boring day job, and that’s what you do with boredom in the Interweb age. I imagine that, had I lived 50 years ago, I would have spent a lot of that time throwing rocks at trees, but that’s a different essay.

And then I came to EW. And boy, has my view changed. In my three years at this magazine, I’ve been told that I should have been aborted before writing a particularly snarky Lost TV Watch. My writing style has been compared (unfavorably) to that of Paris Hilton. My recent review of a Rascal Flatts show led to something like 500 comments, the majority of them calling me an alcoholic man-hater, and a few days ago a commenter made a vivid statement involving me, sodomy, and sausages. And it’s not just your good buddy Whittlz getting slammed: Other co-workers have been equally and regularly chastised on our EW.com boards, everyone from the youngest intern to the smartest Mark Harris/Owen Gleiberman type. Last week saw Dalton Ross, the biggest Survivor fan (and one of the funniest writers) in the history of ever, actually forced to defend his love for that show against commenters who said his criticism of the currently sub-par season makes him unqualified to write the weekly recaps.

Yet what really got my juices flowing was the response to a friend of mine’s review of a Taylor Hicks (pictured) concert in Newsday earlier this month. If you read J. Edward Keyes’s text here, you’ll see that he actually enjoyed the concert a great deal, calling the Soul Patroller “canny” and “giddy,” while allowing that beneath his enthusiasm, his vocals were just “passable.” It’s a solid, well-written piece of criticism, touching on the Idol fan phenomenon and betraying what seems like a genuine fondness for Hicks himself, which, P.S., totally ruins my friend’s hipster music-blogger cred.

And then, just below his review, I found the inevitable comment board… and I was shocked, not just at the negativity (which I’ve just come to expect lately), but also the total lack of reading comprehension skills on display. Fans thought my friend was mocking Taylor, calling him “rude” and using plenty of capital letters to display their distaste for his “so-called” review. But it was comments from a gentleman writing under the name “Dave Matthews” that stopped me in my tracks: “Wonder why you never get promoted?” he wrote. “Because if you cannot find something good to say about a concert in your area that made money for everyone, who needs ya?” Huh? I mean, ignoring for a second the unnecessary personal attack, there is the implication that a critic’s job is not, in fact, to criticize. “Matthews” then went on to post his example of a “winning” review, which you can read here.

Okay, PopWatchers? Hi. Can we all please agree that the article he reprinted is NOT A REVIEW?? I’m not sure that’s even a thesis that should be up for debate. The article is, empirically, NOT A REVIEW. Period. It’s essentially a press release. But that’s what got me scared, and got me thinking: Is that sort of writing what you people want from us? Does it make you more comfortable if we stick to nothing but positivity and bunnies? Or is message board hostility simply a reaction to the fact that thanks to the Internet and American Idol and CNN’s I-Reporting team and blogs and Twitter and MySpace and whatever the hell else, You™ suddenly have a voice that’s commensurate in visibility and value to that of our nation’s most important cultural critics… and thus you don’t need them anymore?

Gosh. I guess I don’t know if that’s possible. Would life in an unexamined world really be worth living? I mean, I can’t imagine existing without the work of writers like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs and Frank Rich (when he was writing the New York Times’ theater reviews, not now; God, I’m not even going to ask what the conservatives among you think of Frank Rich now) and Pauline Kael and Robert Christgau and Michiko Kakutani and others like them. I don’t think we’d know as much about our society, or ourselves. I want to understand where we came from, and where we’re going — which is what the best criticism tells us. It provides perspective, an opportunity for discussion, a seed from which ideas can grow. It moves us forward.

Now: Am I a Frank Rich or a Pauline Kael? HELL to the no. But I consider myself a proud part of that tradition. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life educating myself, cultivating opinions, learning about the journey of art through the ages. I take in almost-inconceivable amounts of music, movies, books, television, and media so that I can report on pop culture with an eye on its place in history. I also take time to craft that reporting, to shape my opinions. I take time to present them in a compelling way. I worry over commas, I fret over em-dashes. I use spell-check. I’m inspired by all those amazing voices that came before me, and, as with any craft, I aspire to be excellent at mine. And I believe that, if used properly and responsibly, it is a craft that has great value. I do not know that our society would be a better place if everyone was allowed to perform surgery or build skyscrapers or drive big-rig trucks just because technology came along that made those activities available to the masses at the click of a button. I don’t see what makes cultural criticism any different. Just because you can type into the little box and press “post” doesn’t mean you should.

I’m opening the floor to you now, PopWatchers. Because that’s what we do in these here modern times, it seems. I write something, you respond. Personally, I’m scared of a day when my giant corporate overlords decide my skills are no longer necessary, and they can make more money by just posting a giant scribble board with a sentence at the top of it like “RASCAL FLATTS SUX” or “CLAY AIKEN RULZ” and letting people go to town. Imagine the page hits! Imagine the click-through ad revenue! But… would you really want to be a part of that society?

I wouldn’t. And it’s not just cause I’d be out of a paycheck.

Discuss.