Hype/backlash cycles are nothing new. However, the black-and-white nature of so much online music discussion, with its pat, 140-character insights and anonymously hateful YouTube comments, effectively breeds conditions where artists can only exist in one of those two modes.
The history of pop music is one defined by rigid rivalries: Beatles vs. Stones, mods vs. rockers, rockers vs. disco, punks vs. hippies, East Coast vs. West Coast, Oasis vs. Blur, anyone over the age of 20 vs. emo, all intelligent life forms vs. the Black Eyed Peas. But as the internet has exponentially increased our access and exposure to different kinds of music, and eroded the accompanying orthodoxies, these sorts of battle lines have become ever more hazy. This has created a scenario where Michael McDonald is now as cool as Ian Curtis, indie-rock is as likely to include R&B digi-beats and African rhythms as discordant guitars, and former metalheads can make millions spinning dubstep.
Music fandom may be less tribal—and thus less defined by codified sets of fashion and values—than it once was, but it is no less beholden to binary logic. The warring factions that once formed the pop landscape have essentially dissolved into two mass, anonymous groups. In one corner, you have the boosters—everything from Twitter accounts devoted to reposting all positive Bieber-related news to the infinite websites and blogs that offer unabashed, uncritical support of new indie bands. It’s a mode of discourse that strictly adheres to the “If you don’t have something nice to say…” school of thought, where every band is “killing it” at every show being discussed right now in your social-media feeds. In the other corner are the haters, who, when faced with such rampant enthusiasm, respond the only way they know how: with a heartfelt and wholly derisive “meh.”
Hype/backlash cycles are nothing new. However, the black-and-white nature of so much online music discussion, with its pat, 140-character insights and anonymously hateful YouTube comments, effectively breeds conditions where artists can only exist in one of those two modes. Carly Rae Jepsen is either the breakout pop star of 2012 on the strength of the year’s most indelible single or, in the wake of her debut album’s less-than-earth-shattering sales, already washed up; Grizzly Bear are either the most vital American indie rock band of the moment or a total snooze.
Where music fandom once resembled the spirited (if occasionally violent) jousting between supporters of competing sports teams, today it’s more reflective of the contemporary political landscape, where, from Ford Nation to the United (Red and Blue) States of America, the operative buzzword is “divisive,” and the rhetoric volleyed about is at once both self-congratulatory and increasingly nasty.
But just as the extent of Toronto’s financial problems cannot be easily reduced to a catchphrase like “gravy train,” and just as America’s economic recovery can’t possibly align neatly with a single U.S. presidential term, our experiences with music are often more nuanced and complicated than these polarized terms of debate allow. The truth is, few artists are actively awesome all the time, and few are completely awful beyond redemption. The most important part of developing your personal taste in music is arguably the realization that your heroes are not infallible—that, in fact, they’re capable of both masterpieces and mediocrity.
Take Neil Young, who released his 35th album, Psychedelic Pill, this week. He’s a national treasure, a certified rock god…and, not coincidentally, someone who’s released as many clunkers as classics. But his legend wouldn’t be as rich if he didn’t throw his fans curveballs like 1981’s infamous synth-pop odyssey, Trans, or 2003’s eco–concept album, Greendale. Though neither will go down as Young’s most beloved album, they effectively reinforce the ideals of fearlessness and non-compromise that have defined his career and character. (When, on Psychedelic Pill’s proudly absurd, 27-minute opener, “Driftin’ Back,” Neil sings, “Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut,” his tangential track record suggests he might actually follow through on the threat.)
As both the greatest and worst thing ever invented, the internet (like politicians) feeds off its constituents’ basest emotions: over-eager fanaticism and knee-jerk hatred. In the process, it distorts the experience of being a music fan by encouraging immediate evaluation through snap thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgments—even a Facebook fan page’s seemingly passive “Like” button announces your allegiances in no uncertain terms. However, in an era where no one pays for music anymore, success is ultimately defined by longevity, and no long career is free of missteps. Haters gonna hate, sure. Recognizing your favourite artists’ flaws, though, doesn’t make you less of a fan, but rather a more engaged, emotionally invested one.