I don’t like lobster. I know it’s an absolute delicacy across the Western world, and I know I should be impressed if someone serves it to me for dinner. But I hate it for two reasons: it takes an hour of surgical labor to remove the thumb-sized sliver of meat available, and of course something is going to taste good if you slather it in melted butter. However, every time I mention my distaste for the oversized water-cricket, I’m greeted with shock and something a bit like disdain. “You don’t like lobster?!” they pronounce after dropping their scotch glass and New Yorker. After listing why I don’t enjoy cracking open an exoskeleton to eat half a bologna roll-up, I immediately get the response “Well, you must not have had real lobster.”
What shocks me about my experience with refusing to eat Zoidberg is that I am treated as if I do not merely disagree, but, in fact, must be mistaken or outright wrong. It’s impossible I hold a different point of view; I just haven’t had “real” lobster. However, this closed viewpoint is not specific to lobster or even food. In fact, I find it most frequently in pop culture conversations. “You didn’t like Arrested Development?!” or “you never read Jonathan Franzen?!” are two statements I should not be hearing in shock. A more accurate cry would be “You haven’t enjoyed one of my favorite things ever even though I probably haven’t done likewise with yours?!” It is a version of peer pressure best summed up as pop culture-shaming.
Certain works of art are deified by their followers to the extent they become above criticism. This is most evident in music. Take a look at any list of “The Greatest Albums of All Time” and the faces are all too familiar: Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds. Dark Side of the Moon, Nevermind, OK Computer. Our culture has quite self-consciously defined them as the great members of the music canon. As Jim DeRogatis points out in his foreword to Kill Your Idols:A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders The Classics, lists of the “greatest” anything of all time are attempts to trap all that is great into the past (typically the past of the critics in question). Does anyone really believe Sgt. Pepper’s will ever be knocked off the top spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Albums list, now in its third form? And while every Beatles fan reading this may even openly agree with that honor, chances are you haven’t listened to Sgt. Pepper’s in years, but a CD you bought when you were 14 (The White Stripes’ Elephant for me) is still being hummed in your head. Hell, I can’t think of a time I read through one of these lists and didn’t skip over every album I hadn’t already heard.
And sure, like Mr. DeRogatis, we can sit here and blame the Baby Boomer media autocracy, but Generation Y is in the middle of the exact same process that Generation X just finished wrapping up. Find someone over 35 and criticize Seinfeld or U2 or someone under 35 and criticize Breaking Bad or Harry Potter. You’ll find your opinions are “wrong” or you merely misunderstood the work (silly and naive you). This thinking creates a tyranny of criticism where some works are the greats and others must only be liked by the stupid. But media criticism is much like an Arab revolt: once the old guards are tried for their crimes and thrown out, a new dictatorship takes hold.
I do not believe any work of art is ever above criticism. Am I upset Community will probably be canceled and I probably have a mere two decades before I watch Louis CK die (probably in a surreal and single-camera format with a snappy jazz soundtrack)? Absolutely. But I do not believe I am steadfastly correct in liking the things I do and you are wrong if you think they are terrible. Community’s frequent pop culture jokes means it will be nearly unwatchable in just a few years and Louis CK becomes so convinced he’s Ingmar Bergman he gets lost in his own ambition. When talking about something as subjective as art, it is important to remember the truest sign of intelligence: understanding two opposing ideas at the same time. Take a look at your favorite band, director, actor, or writer and realize they are nowhere near as perfect as you see them (and no one likely realizes that more than the artists themselves). It is meaningful and fantastic to love the personal work of another person and it’s what sustains this thing we call a “culture.” However, you have not been to the mountaintop because you’re too “smart” for Glee or you “get” Animal Collective and I’m not a slovenly, inexperienced troll for liking the former (I like harmonies) and hating the latter (I like melodies).
This is not to say that media criticism is useless because all art is subjective. I faithfully read any number of critics and enjoy it most when I disagree with them. Perspectives on art are necessary because no piece is truly perfect or truly awful. A good critic recognizes the good and bad within a film or album and attempts to weigh out the difference between the two. The Godfather was fantastically written and shot and Al Pacino acted the hell out of Michael Corleone, but it also failed at making every story within in it compelling (which is a reasonable request from a three-hour movie), often wasting time on side-stories that we could do without. May The Godfather be one of the better films of all time? Absolutely. But it is certainly not flawless or free of errors. And while it may seem obvious that taste rules all, we are quickly creating a landscape of homogenous opinions, when the truth is actually closer to the words of Abraham Lincoln: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
So no, I don’t like Passion Pit. I’ve never taken a reading suggestion from a “30 Under 30” list. I am yet to see a single episode of Breaking Bad, The Wire, or Curb Your Enthusiasm and I’m okay with that. I also love Billy Joel, faithfully watch America’s Got Talent and think Colbert is both funnier and smarter than Stewart. While I will happily have a discussion debating any of those points, I’m not lower than you for my opinion. When I first started taking atheism seriously in high school, I arrogantly made it my mission to argue with any proud theists I came across only to realize later I was both making myself into a jackass and running a fool’s errand. In religion, I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. But should something as subjective as art really follow that same path of blind dogma and unrealistic love?