The Rules of Haterade
by Benjamin Marlin
"Criticism", by definition, sounds like it should be negative. The word brings to mind bitter keyboard jockeys who couldn't make it in the arts and, consequently, pledged to burn it all down. (If you're David Lee Roth, it also brings to mind a bunch of guys who look like Elvis Costello.)
Of course, criticism isn't all negative, and at least a few of us don't look like Elvis Costello. Ideally, criticism consists of honest reactions to art that's sometimes great and sometimes lousy.
There's a lure to negativity, though. It can be fun to write about how much a piece of art sucks. There's joy in snark, at least for me. It can be cathartic. And sometimes the art truly does deserve it. Heck, it seems to be begging for it.
In the hands of a great critic, haterade can be delicious. In addition to being a brilliant and fair-minded critic, the late Roger Ebert was a master of the takedown. For proof, see his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, a collection of his most hilariously vicious reviews.
Like Gatorade, though, haterade can be of dubious, even microscopic nutritional value. A piece of negative criticism may be entertaining, but that doesn't mean it's worth foisting on the world. Sometimes we were just in a lousy mood when we wrote the review. Sometimes I truly am angry that Clive Davis won't listen to my killer demo tape. None of that should be taken out on an unsuspecting artist.
With that in mind, here are some guidelines for writing responsible negative criticism. As you fill your critical beer bottle with gasoline, stuff it with a flaming critical rag, and search for a target, you'll do well to follow these Rules of Haterade.
Don't Punch Down
Some artists just aren't that good - at least, not yet. If they're trying hard, but they just can't do any better, don't go on the attack. Instead, encourage what the artist does well. Shine a light on their missteps, but use them as a lead-in to suggestions for how they can do better work next time.
Some of these artists will eventually succeed, and there's a good chance that they'll mention your mean review in their bestselling autobiography. Technically you'll have been an inspiration to them, but not the kind anybody likes.
Criticize Laziness, Not Ambition
When a talented artist shoots for the moon but whacks their head on the studio ceiling, that's not a critic's cue to attack. Art will never progress unless great artists have room to fail. When we laugh at an artist's attempt to try something new, we risk stifling artistic progress.
Conversely, there are instances when talented artists phone it in. They show up hung over, do what needs doing in order to run out their contract, and then tell everyone it's their best album since that one we all loved twenty years ago. In that instance, negativity is absolutely warranted. Chuck your metaphorical Molotov cocktail and force them to try harder next time.
Let It Sink In
Professional critics are under pressure to absorb and review, absorb and review. Often, there's no time to experience a piece of art multiple times, or to let it marinate in one's mind. That's unfortunate, and it's not conducive to good criticism.
My mind, at least, stubbornly resists anything new. As a result, I can list dozens of my favorite albums that I outright disliked on first listen. If I had spit out an immediate review, I'd have been dead wrong about all of them - not merely objectively, but regarding my own subjective reaction.
When possible, take time to think about new art. View it (or listen to it) from different angles. Let it sink in. Fill your brain before you open your mouth.
Keep Posterity in Mind
Since the dawn of time, innovative art has faced wave after wave of ignorant, knee-jerk criticism. These reactions are human. But they're unfortunate, and mostly avoidable.
Don't be the critic who pissed on the Lascaux cave paintings (forms of critical expression were limited back then); or the art snob who gazed up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and said, "too busy"; or the correspondent for The Paris Gazette who upended several horse-drawn carriages after the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Those critics were short-sighted and overly conservative. They didn't account for things they might not have understood. They didn't allocate a single cognitive inch to the possibility that someone might have been blazing a trail in a new and potentially better direction. We can, and should, be better than that.
Foster Better Art
Despite the name, the point of criticism is not to criticize - it's to encourage the making of great art. Take no glee in the existence of bad art, no matter how easy a target it is. The bad stuff is never the point.
You can shine a spotlight on crappy art. It's out there, and we'll be encountering it for the rest of our lives. But instead of gleefully trashing it, try to examine its weaknesses and discuss how it might have been better. Make your review a blueprint for a stronger effort the next time around - for art that better respects its audience and more effectively enhances our life experience.