Coco Solid asks “Who critiques who gets to critique and why does it matter?”
Coco Solid is a writer, artist and musician. Her debut novel is How to Loiter in a Turf War (Penguin Random House). She is speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival on August 27 and 28.
OPINION: I genuinely wonder if the establishment critic, pop culture aficionado and “tastemaker reporting for duty” is going to last much longer. We think of this role as someone stylish and discerning, a true authority in their field.
Surely they earned their stripes deep in the mines of modernity, publications aren’t giving column inches to randoms are they? Don’t answer that actually.
We’ve just always done it, one person is allowed to be the alpha two cents haver, the random selector of the final say. That person would prescribe what creativity was worthy for the collective, what art we should deem note or preservation-worthy. But communities now enjoy a more lateral and open source critique via social media.
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On my scruffy and sincere TikTok algorithm I watch the digital age violently outgrow this old paradigm every day.
It’s the demystified norm for creators now to offer subscription access and more specialized sharing with supporters. These are strange and uncertain times, proven by the fact that even a weirdo like me can have a Patreon newsletter that a few (gorgeous/depraved) people sign up to.
Have you noticed lately that the cult of celebrity isn’t hitting the same? Maybe relatability is finally outrunning showbiz masking, or the inequities the “famous” uphold are drowning out their escapist charm. But we see audiences want more trust, democracy and connection.
The aspiration economy has burned us all out (which is not hard to do in a pandemic let’s be real) so our divestment shouldn’t be a surprise. Downvotes, community-led conversations, forums and meet ups aren’t new, but now we need less numbers and clout to consider our perspectives valuable. We are returning to this more organic spin on “influence” too. In a manufactured age people enjoy a slow-burn, hard-earned, artisan story.
We now know some of the best revolutions and movements were simply a few people in a room. In this era however, we rightfully interrogate who gets to write and remember that history too.
Many critics with no meaningful connection to certain communities are still being given this blanket license to appraise their work from afar. The one-expert-fits-all idea seems dated and colonial, so the tension as it stubbornly persists on its importance is wearing thin for many. Does the “make or break” model that approves or withholds approval still apply? Who criticizes who gets to criticize and why does it matter?
I can’t help but think of how MSG was demonized in the West by one New York doctor who invented “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” in a 1968 letter to the editor. The rest is racist culinary history that unfairly robbed me of umami for years. I also remember how hard I laughed when I found out Dr. Phil was not a licensed doctor. Questionable quacks from all walks of life can have very serious reach.
Any Nicki Minaj “Barb” (fan) worth their pink salt knows more democratic critique models can teeter on what we now call parasocial and I admit this collective buy-in doesn’t necessarily end well half the time. Some communities can literally react to pop culture like entitled shareholders.
The Duffer Brothers were wrongly accused of retroactively re-editing earlier Stranger Things seasons by their fans. While Beyoncé and Lizzo have both removed slurs from their recent recordings following audience backlash. This can betray ideas about how precious and pure canon is. But arguably, is canon all that great? Can hacking and correcting it really compare to the historical harm that has been shown to marginalized people that canon has strategically forgotten?
While reading and researching the glaringly titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper (which only came out in 2015 no less) I see the disturbing ways artists such as Janis Joplin were written about by rock historians of her time. . More hauntingly, we are now learning late of brilliant artists who only because of their race, gender, sexuality and ability weren’t documented by canon at all.
In comedy there is the adage that good satire “punches up” meaning someone who doesn’t experience the very real impacts of social mockery shouldn’t make fun of a community that does. It’s considered unexciting and offers nothing unique or subversive.
I feel good criticism is similar and much like comedy, you can also tell when someone is speaking from experience and familiarity with what they are lambasting. Do I want to hear an indigenous queer voice review a work from their straight settler colonial opposite? Yes, because that voice is not the dominant, biased and resourceful perspective historically. If the roles were reversed (which they usually are) I stand a much lower chance of learning something radically new.
Editors, curators, canon-shapers from all dimensions must now seek to find a qualified customized voice for every brief. No more indulging the tired “voice of a generation” trope or pretending life isn’t a hot-take marketplace. Give audiences, consumers and artists themselves a little extra energy by finding the right people to speak on the work of others.