Two NPR interns were recently bludgeoned by the internet after expressing controversial music opinions on NPR's "All Songs Considered" blog. First, Emily White claimed to have only purchased 15 albums in her entire life, instead choosing to fill her iTunes library with music ripped from CDs or gifted through mixtapes; then Austin Cooper gave Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions... a retroactively negative review. In both cases, the internet went bananas and the comments started pouring in.
Both of these blog posts presented radical opinions that pissed off hundreds of commenters, a huge accomplishment when you consider that the internet produces a huge number of radical opinions on a daily basis. Turns out all you have to do to get people's attention is insult a classic record or say you don't pay for your music. What made these opinions special? More importantly, how can this debacle shape the way we deal with music criticism?
No One Intern Should Have All That Power...Or Should They?
The obvious reason for this kind of nuclear-level backlash is twofold: it has to do with who these people are, and where they're expressing their opinions. NPR is a popular site. Say something controversial on it, and people will respond. Plenty of writers have lambasted Public Enemy or bragged about getting all of their music from Mediafire links, but their blogs don't have the kind of traffic NPR has.
And both White and Cooper are interns. The word "intern" implies youth and subservience; by definition, an intern is an underling, in training to be something they are not yet. Even though being able to post on a high-traffic blog puts an intern in a position of power, readers see "intern" and think "amateur," which leads to "inferior" and "unworthy."
Trolls Will Be Trolls
Never mind that White's "I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With" does recognize the danger of refusing to pay for music ("I've come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love"), and never mind that Cooper's essay is tinged with ignorance on purpose — the "You've Never Heard?" series is meant to let "unimaginably young" interns review classics they've never encountered, so naiveté is implicit. Both essays contain bold moments, like when White details her ideal (and somewhat unrealistic) music service and wonders "Is that too much to ask?", or when Cooper calls Public Enemy's beats "cartoonish." But both writers seem to understand their limitations — as consumers, as listeners— and include them in their arguments along with their bold declarations.
But for a certain kind of internet commenter, overall nuance isn't important. Better to focus on one sentence and rip it to shreds, right? Comments were reproachful ("simply shameful," "you should be ashamed"), pitying ("I actually feel bad for this kid"), snotty ("Swwwwing and a miss"), and occasionally absurd ("life is not a bowl of internships"). Many comments were removed because they "did not meet the NPR.org Community Discussion Rules." L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum, who wrote "Haterade," an essay on internet commenters for The Believer, sums up the problem with this kind of vitriol: "These days, being attacked isn’t just the result of saying something badly, it’s the result of saying anything at all." What happens when nasty comments run rampant? They spread "a rancor that can eclipse not only the original article but also the comments of readers who take a more constructive, civil approach."
Questlove Schools Everyone
If there is anything we can learn from these NPR intern debacles, it's that the constructive, civil approach should prevail over pettiness. Thankfully, civil approaches have garnered page views, too. David Lowery wrote a long, logical and engaging counter-essay to White's post, which included a couple condescending instances of blaming "your generation" but brought up many worthy questions, like why people choose to pay for iPods but not albums. Meanwhile, Questlove wrote a wonderful response to Cooper, respectfully urging him to listen harder (edited for style):
"Take Springsteen's 'Nebraska,' for instance: an acclaimed record that was hard for an inner city hip-hop fan to swallow without a backstory. So I spent an entire weekend reading every story about this album so that I could have a better grasp on what the times were like, and that helped me understand (and eventually agree) why this is Springsteen's magnum opus...I do expect this generation (born some 20 years after me) with its advantages in technology to put real effort into the information it processes."
Questlove's comment is an unintentional manifesto: a call for people to use the internet responsibly and humanely. The technology that allows people to avoid paying for music, publish music reviews for all to read, and anonymously insult one another is also the technology that can spawn new ways of listening to music, teach us new things about old music, and allow us to share thoughtful criticism. In an age when it is always possible to learn more, shortsighted insults are worthless. Well, at least they are in comparison to research and revision and rethinking and all of those "re" words that commenters find so abhorrent because they force self-reflection, which is hard to do when you're anonymous and have itchy hands poised on the keyboard, waiting to strike.
So What's "Your Job"?
Read Questlove's last word on the matter: "There is no question Nation is one of THE greatest recordings ever. Your job is to find out why." He could be saying "your job" to mean "an intern's job," but really, "your job" is everyone's job. The job is to find that point at which you start feeling uncomfortable — when you think Chuck D's flow is a "caricature" when you know people think it's "legendary," when you haven't paid money for music in years even though you think that isn't quite right, when music is supposed to engage you but it doesn't, when someone says something about music that you find outrageous — that's when you need to push further, to "put real effort" into the information you're processing.
It isn't a crime to be offended by someone else's opinion. When it comes to music, one of the most subjective topics in the universe, someone else's opinion is always going to offend; the NPR intern debacle just proves that an offensive opinion can be the best opportunity to improve criticism.
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