As 2011 was breathing its last gasps, a Dutch magazine editor named Eva Hoeke was packing up the contents of her desk in disgrace. Hoeke, the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine in The Netherlands called Jackie, made headlines after her publication described Rihanna with a ridiculous racist slur (“niggabitch”) as part of an equally ridiculous fashion feature designed to help mothers dress their daughters like pop stars (“No…to the pornheels, and yes to the tiger print”). When the piece triggered an outcry, Hoeke issued a weak apology. She insisted there was “no racist motive” behind the slur, and that the piece was a bad joke. Rihanna didn’t see any humour in the proceedings and condemned the magazine; the public followed suit.
Bafflingly, the magazine’s publisher defended the use of the phrase, claiming that it was a valid “interpretation” of a style of fashion, and that Hoeke’s credibility had simply been undermined when she “started to wiggle in all directions.” That he could feel justified in using such language, without trying to understand why the phrase is inherently problematic, is an indication of the depths to which our standards in cultural reportage have plummeted.
Around the same time that Hoeke resigned from her post as editor-in-chief of Jackie, a review of a Fucked Up concert ran in The Globe and Mail. The tone of the review seemed positive overall, but the piece opened with a grotesque, lingering description of frontman Damian Abraham’s physique. Abraham is a big, bearded bear of a guy. He’s talked about his body in interviews, and his size is part of what makes him a mesmerizing frontman. But there’s a key difference between noting that Abraham is a large dude and making crass comments about his “man-breasts,” including a description of the singer as “Bluto with a B-cup.” Not only is that tactless, fat-phobic and misogynistic, it’s also caustic writing that doesn’t serve a critical purpose.
I’m not equating the two examples per se—obviously, one’s from a glossy fashion rag and the other is from a conservative national newspaper—but they’re both representative of a prevailing trend in entertainment/arts coverage that blurs the line between tabloid dross and actual journalism. In addition to an alarming carelessness around language, barbed quips and personal digs trump thoughtful, provocative discussions about artists and their work.
There are a number of factors at play, but the proliferation of voices and outlets (both in print and online) and the mad rush to scoop rivals is part of what’s led to the status quo. To be clear, this practice is different from simple click-baiting, publishing a sensational, search engine–optimized headline or story that, like TMZ or Perez Hilton, is intended for a gossip-hungry audience and is designed to drive traffic (a sample from Popdust.com: “Kanye West and Ron Artest: Kindred Spirits?”).
As frustrating as click-baiting can be, it seems less disingenuous than the kind of cheap-shot criticism in which writers focus on surface details, things you can comment on in the most democratically accessible way, while failing to engage with the music and performance in a thoughtful and productive manner. If there’s one shift I’d like to see in 2012, it’s this: fewer tabloid-style digs and higher standards. It’s time the people setting the tone stopped behaving like teenage dudes who don’t know any better.
I get that this may seem like a tempest in a teapot; after all, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, right? But this cavalier attitude toward words and their meanings by the very people who should be safeguarding language doesn’t just result in inaccurate information, it deteriorates our cultural ideas of what’s okay and what’s not okay. In one statement, Hoeke claimed that she and her colleagues were simply inured to any racist undertones because their grasp of what’s appropriate had been altered by the slang they hear in the media. You know, like when kids shoot each other because they’ve played too many videogames, or like the way sexual harassment is a given because we’re so darn inundated with images of objectified women! Of everything in the Jackie vs. Rihanna fiasco, this is the part that rings the most true. Not because it’s a valid defence of using pejorative language, but because the tenor of our collective conversation has sunk to such an execrable level. Let’s try to pull it out of the gutter.