April 23, 2014

RAINIS | Who Critiques the Critics? Nobody, Apparently

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By JAMES RAINIS

Nobody reads the Arts Section. It’s an insular little world, where its (predominantly white, male and nerdy) writers can argue about television minutiae, proselytize lengthily on the character of Donald Rumsfeld, hype up rappers for no reason except for this one verse where they absolutely “kill it,” write album reviews with scores within one standard deviation of Pitchfork’s and, on occasion, discuss issues of art and literature with all the expertise of that one kid in your English class who shows up bleary-eyed from having done the readings early in the morning before schlepping over to this 9:05 he regrets ever signing up for. Aside from this one time where I accidentally incurred the wrath of that liberal arts college around the way, the reactions I typically get from my articles usually fall into three categories: “That’s nice,” “U r a doosh” (found both on the Internet — though maybe not on The Sun’s somewhat dysfunctional website — and in real life) and, most popularly, “Oh, I just saw it. I didn’t read it.” To paraphrase graphic novelist Alan Moore — who was himself paraphrasing the Roman poet Juvenal, proving that all creativity is just regurgitation — who critiques the critics? Nobody, apparently.

To a certain extent, this is liberating. Unless I insult Ithaca College, I literally am not accountable for anything I write. Anything. I have divulged embarrassing moments from childhood and nobody save my editors have called me out for it. At the risk of revealing my teenage affinity for black, I discussed my love of Taking Back Sunday, all before this weird emo revival thing made it cool again to wear shirts and other regalia purchased from Hot Topic. Once, I humiliated myself with a column in which I allowed a bunch of architects to bury me in a sewer grate, in the name of something resembling art but most likely for a video series they’re compiling about how easy it is to manipulate wannabe journalists (I hypothesize they’re collaborating with Macaulay Culkin and his pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band, The Pizza Underground). Hell, in today’s paper I sacrifice all my indie credibility by reviewing, of all things, a Neon Trees album. Somewhere, Stephen Malkmus is shedding a single tear while receiving a haircut.

I’ve learned that attempting to make sense of the entertainment we surround ourselves with is one of the most uniquely challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had.

Why do I do this? Obviously not for, as Fred Durst might call it, “the nookie.” Talking about your favorite music and television shows with a cute girl has proven to produce more eye rolls than the trailer for that new Zach Braff movie (seriously, is it just Garden State 2: Are The Shins Cool Again, Yet?). It’s not to boost my Klout Score — while my other colleagues in the Arts Section have managed to make a multitude of connections thanks to their inquisitive participation with the collective conversations of the Internet, I have, in my eternal quest to become our resident curmudgeon, ignored social media altogether. This is coming back to bite me in the ass, as every entry-level job for well-schooled/poorly-educated college students demands that you be a “social media rock star,” which I imagine involves growing a red Mohawk and carrying a V-neck guitar that transforms into a MacBook Pro when you scan those weird square barcode things corporate America tried and failed to make people care about sometime back in 2012.

To be honest, I tripped into writing for The Sun. After my first day of classes at Cornell, I went to a concert at the now defunct Castaways — New Jersey gutter-punks Titus Andronicus were headlining, but opener Free Energy melted more faces with their glam retro-rock chug — and met a former Arts Editor who told me that he got free tickets to write a review. That was all I needed to hear.

Over the past three (almost four) years, though, this writing gig has shifted from a mere con to score free tickets and vinyl (to the relief of The Sun’s Business Department, I am no longer allowed to do this) to probably the most worthwhile educational experience of my college career. Listening to albums and going to concerts are still the most enjoyable and consistently inconsistent aspects of my life, but over this time I’ve learned that attempting to make sense of the entertainment we surround ourselves with is one of the most uniquely challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had.

I’ve learned a lot about myself. For instance, I’m preoccupied with authenticity. Perhaps it’s an especially prevalent case of imposter syndrome, but I’m constantly examining things to find out whether they’re coming from a genuine place. It’s something I feel people of the Twitter generation crave: We want those retweets, those little brushes with fame that feel, (douche-mode activated) dare I say it, real. Sure, in the grand scheme of things the fact that Rick Ross was a corrections officer rather than a drug-peddling kingpin does not matter, but to people who feel like they’ve been deceived all their lives, it’s literally all we have.

Our generation is kind of pathetic, by the way.

If the public is willing to bear with you — or, in my case, they straight up ignore you — a newspaper column can be an excellent place to navigate your own insecurities and fears about the world, regardless of how much of a handle you have on them. Take everybody’s favorite afro-possessor and rhythm professor, Questlove: His guest pieces for New York Magazine and its affiliates are extremely thoughtful, but they’re also somewhat a mess. In his latest piece for Vulture, entitled “When The People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America,” he attempts to tie philosophical musings from English Reformer John Bradford, physics genius Albert Einstein and gangster rapper-turned-terrible children’s movie auteur Ice Cube into something coherent. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t succeed. Instead, as Quest often tries to do, he attempts to tackle the large racial spectres that haunt America, and though there’s hardly some tangible takeaway — Headline: “Questlove Ends Racism, For Real This Time!” — you get to occupy an interesting person’s mind for a while as they try to plot out how they feel about really complicated things, and that’s pretty freaking cool.­­­

Hopefully in my time here I’ve managed to become someone whose trains of thoughts are occasionally worth following. I’ve stressed over the most obscure of topics for the benefit of absolutely nobody, but in criticism you aren’t trying to sway everyone to think the same way as you — otherwise I’d be a propagandist, and, though my employment options are looking awfully thin at this point, I don’t think I’ll let myself sink that low. As a critic, you are merely trying to let someone peer into your thought process. Critics attempt to parse the strange things we put into our ears, eyes and minds into something cogent. Though I’ve rarely attained that end, I’ve sure as hell have gotten a lot out of it, and I guess that’s as great a takeaway as I’ll get in this little ignored newspaper section of ours.

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