Five Reasons Artists Shouldn't Respond to Critics, or Don't Bite the 'Fork That Feeds
Don't let this sad picture fool you: Fear Fun is hilarious.
Former Fleet Foxer J. Tillman turned Los Angeles mystic/comedian Father John Misty took Pitchfork to task on Monday afternoon, taking to Twitter to express his beef with the website's review of his latest LP, Fear Fun (previous records were released under his given name). His mammoth rant against indie rock's most popular publication had a few high-quality burns but could also be seen as a showcase for his chipped shoulder.
Whether it's a small-time bar band or an arena diva, here are five reasons why publicly addressing your critics, or biting the 'Fork that feeds, only makes you look bad.
1. The artist-critic dialogue isn't what it once was.
Gone are the days of famed New York art critic Clement Greenberg writing nuanced essays in the '60s about the burgeoning pop art movement, the artists responding with new work or total non-sequitor, and everybody involved feeling as though they knew their role in the discourse. Internet criticism is bountiful and moves lightning-fast; an artist picking apart one site's commentary only grants that site more attention and more (lucrative) hits. And unlike rappers, indie rock bands don't have much precedent to aid a "fuck the haters" response anthem.
2. Twitter's not the place for high-minded discourse.
Twitter is great for posting food pics, forging surrealist commentary, or flaming-up weird beef in a flash. It is not the place to take your critics to task. Why respond to a lengthy essay with an arsenal of meager 140-character mortars? Someone should have told M.I.A.: Her petulant Twitter rant against an unflattering New York Times profile in 2010 included the Super Bowl middle-finger-slinger tweeting the author's phone number.
3. If you've truly been wronged, your art/other people will make the argument for you.
The only reason I even found out about Tillman's rant was because it was re-tweeted by a number of music critics I follow, some former Pitchfork staffers and other gleeful Pitchfork teasers. From what I saw, nobody thought Tillman got boned. It goes both ways, too: Popular pop essayist Chuck Klosterman got hit hard by the rock-crit circle for the backhanded story about tUnE-yArDs he wrote for Grantland earlier this year. If somebody biffs a high-profile review, they're gonna hear about it from their own community.
Plus, nothing spells revenge like a heroic comeback. L.A. art-rock trio Liars were initially praised for their role as tweaked-out brutalists in New York's early-2000s dance punk scene, but their 2004 album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned drastically upped their usual ratio of atonal racket. Spin, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork panned the hell out of it, and the Liars guys could have easily made the argument that they were being shunned for brazenly defying expectations.
Instead, they flew to Berlin and recorded their best record to date, Drum's Not Dead, which kept the experimentation intact but focused it into developed, long-form jams, all threaded by a light narrative about a guy named Drum. The concluding sentence of the album's Pitchfork review called it "a total fucking triumph."
4. Unless you're really funny, you will only look like a bad sport.
Music sites are not sacred cows, and I've got nothing against any act who takes on the Pitchfork monolith. Tillman got some pretty great shots in, especially one about how he'll "never get an invite to the site's annual Gathering of the Sweaty Alts convention." But he also got bizarrely fixated on the reviewer's use of "syncopation" (Is it so hard to swallow that a reviewer thought the song meters didn't have enough rhythmic nuance?) and directly told Pitchfork founder Ryan Schrieber that his site is "sensationalized."
Tillman was honorably trying to convey that he is not beholden to the hype machine, that he is "in but not of" the highly mediated indie rock conversation. Too bad it just doesn't just work that way for an artist of his stature. One might be able to argue he is above the sphere if he is a run-of-the-mill songwriter or an extraterrestrial noisenik. The only people who can definitively claim to operate outside of dreaded "hipster group-think" are those convinced that a pitchfork is nothing more than a three-pronged farming tool.
5. Who cares, anyway?
Just last week, my own band had its latest album reviewed by a well-regarded vinyl-only review blog. The reviewer praised a couple tracks, but he ultimately thought the record was a disappointment. My bandmates and I were puzzled by some of the bands to which he compared us and were generally bummed we didn't get some high praise from a reviewer who apparently liked our past records. When the review came up on my Tumblr feed, did I mount an affront with the fervent aid of my social media pew?
Nope. In fact, I re-Tumbl'd that shit. My band got a 250-word fair shake from a reviewer we respected, and we were happy enough that he bothered to pluck our record from his surely daunting submission pile.
Of course, J. Tillman has been a professional musician for years and is far beyond feeling the naïve splendor of simply knowing someone out there is actually paying attention to your work. Not to mention the valid argument that the little number atop a Pitchfork review has a direct correlation to sales figures, especially for an act led by a former Fleet Fox. But music publications don't do retractions, unless you count the atonement that might come when they include one's initially maligned album on a "Best of the 2010s" retrospective.
If that happens, one can start raking in the deluxe reissue bucks, vindicated with honor, granted the last laugh once and for all.
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