The Year of "You're an Idiot"

The Year of "You're an Idiot"

Shawn Reynaldo

I can’t do it. I can’t write another “Spotify is bad” article.

Yes, just like everyone else, my social media feeds were full of those terrible Spotify Wrapped graphics last week, and I once again shook my head in disapproval, lamenting the fact that artists and fans would willingly provide free marketing for a multi-billion-dollar company whose exploitative business model has been so thoroughly documented over the years. Apparently, not even the news that Spotify CEO Daniel Ek had recently invested €100 million into an AI-based defense start-up was enough to dampen many people’s willingness to share their Wrapped stats.

The idea of Spotify’s profits literally being used to fund the war machine is something that sounds too ridiculous to be true, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening. And yes, the usual suspects have all tweeted their disapproval, and a #BoycottSpotify hashtag briefly did the rounds, but what’s been the concrete end result? A brief uptick in the streaming discourse and basically zero real change.

The latter isn’t really surprising, but as I looked through the most recent streaming debates that have unfurled online, I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of a cynical (and rather depressing) streaming narrative. It takes many forms, but was perhaps most colorfully laid out in this tweet from UK outfit Sleaford Mods:

“Spotify is grim, but everything is grim, and I like using it, so shut up and stop bumming me out” isn’t the most progressive take, but it’s one that many people seem to share these days. In many ways, what’s being said here is essentially a variant of the idea that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and while that meme-ready concept was likely originally coined to encourage people to focus on systemic problems (as opposed to shaming individuals for their actions), it’s wild how many people have twisted the philosophy into a blanket rationalization for whatever they do.

That kind of consumer hypocrisy isn’t exactly new—and, if we’re being honest, it’s something that just about everyone is guilty of in one way or another—but what really struck me about that Sleaford Mods tweet was its obvious disdain for anyone who dared to disagree with its position. If someone is criticizing Spotify, they’re just an “edgy wanker” or a “diluted tosser with no tunes.” In the mind of the tweet’s author—who was almost surely vocalist Jason Williamson—he’s expressed “the truth,” and anyone who disagrees is basically an idiot.

This dynamic is something that’s present in seemingly every aspect of cultural discourse these days. Granted, people have been shitposting and attacking each other online ever since the internet was first invented, but where it was once limited to random chat rooms and comment sections, the rise of social media has made online evisceration into a kind of sport. Being an asshole on the internet is more than just a pastime nowadays; it’s practically a viable identity, and one that’s regularly rewarded with likes, retweets and clout, especially if said asshole’s quips are delivered with a catty flair or something resembling wit.

The problem isn’t necessarily that people are being mean on the internet. It’s more that their behavior (and how it gets amplified) often supersedes the actual exchange of ideas, and in an era when online discussions—especially on social media—are often driving societal narratives, the discourse ends up looking less like a substantive conversation and more like a glorified round of schoolyard-level name calling, even within supposedly “progressive” and “enlightened” music circles.

How can the streaming situation be resolved (or even improved) when one side is assailed as music-killing profiteers and the other is shrugged off as overly idealistic crybabies? Even as someone whose values usually fall in line with the supposed crybabies, I can acknowledge that the argumentative framing around streaming that usually happens online—which pits good against evil, smart against stupid and corruption against virtue—is both overly simplistic and largely nonproductive. I’m certainly not advocating for bothsidesism, but there is some wisdom in not treating all contentious discussions as team sports, let alone black-and-white moral disputes that require a battle to the death.

Look at what’s happened with the conversation around NFTs, blockchain technology and Web3 this year. No one can deny that this stuff is growing at a seemingly exponential rate, and has the potential to upend entire swaths of the music industry, yet the debate often ignores the technology while painting all crypto enthusiasts as morally bankrupt tech bros (with terrible taste) whose greed-fueled grifting is dragging us all toward environmental collapse. On the other hand, Web3 proponents themselves frequently speak with a sort of religious fervor, largely disregarding even well-considered critique as the uniformed dribblings of “haters” and luddites with no real imagination. Depending on who you ask, crypto is either a speculative scam or a revolutionary new paradigm; there’s no middle ground.

This is not debate, and it barely qualifies as discussion. It’s mostly a trading of insults, and following these exchanges—in which each side rattles off overly reductive, well-worn arguments that attempt to make their opponents look like morons—often feels like reading a terribly hackneyed script. Nothing is ever advanced, and nobody ever wins. It’s theater, and unless you’re a proponent of putting more confirmation bias into the world, the only real benefit is for the participants, who can signal to their own (likely limited) bubbles that they’re smart and have superior values than whoever they’re jousting with (or flat-out trolling) online. We’re used to this routine when politics and big-picture social issues are involved, but somehow we’ve reached a point where even the most banal of music conversations are often filled with a similar level of vitriol.

We now live in a time when journalists who cover pop music legitimately have to worry about being doxxed if their reviews are deemed by fans to not be positive enough. “Underground” music enthusiasts generally don’t go that far, but they aren’t exactly kind, either. Just a few weeks ago, Objekt shared all nine hours of a recent all-night set at NYC nightclub Nowadays, and posted a lengthy, heartfelt note explaining why it was a special experience. Coming from someone who’s been relatively stoic throughout his career, it was surprisingly open and vulnerable—which is what many music fans claim to want from artists—and while I’m not the biggest fan of DJs making acceptance-speech-style social media posts about their work, it was still a bit shocking to see Objekt’s gesture being greeted with a rash of “jokes” skewering him as an out-of-touch, overly self-important schmuck.

Even genre conversations tend to get nasty these days. Trance, for instance, has long been one of electronic music’s most historically loved (and despised) genres, and not everyone is thrilled about its resurgence in “underground” circles during the past few years. That’s fair enough, but pretty much every day, some “real” techno figure (usually some dude in his 40s or older) is showered with praise for his “real talk” about how trance is shit and how anyone who likes or plays it is a trendy poseur moron. And how do trance fans respond? Usually by dismissing their critics as clueless, out-of-date “business techno” dinosaurs who don’t understand or even a have a place in contemporary club culture. I’m obviously speaking in broad strokes here, but who exactly is this sort of back-and-forth serving? Twitter addicts whose life revolves around scoring cheap points with their followers might be enthralled (and will likely be rewarded by the algorithm for their participation), but aside from whatever fleeting entertainment the rest of us might get from rubbernecking the drama, these kinds of “arguments”—and there are many of them—are needlessly reductive and painfully asinine.

(Side note: Back in 2019, I posted a Twitter thread highlighting many of the ridiculous—and often conflicting—narratives dominating electronic music at the time. Two and a half years later, the list probably needs an update, but it’s kind of incredible how much of it is still relevant to today’s discourse.)

If “tear it all down” was the unofficial battle cry of 2020, “that person is a fucking idiot” seems to be 2021’s go-to slogan, and it’s exhausting. That’s not new—the internet has been exhausting for years now, and none of what I’ve written is meant as a finger-wagging, “kids these days” Boomer diatribe. I’m not a pearl clutcher, and jokes (many of them mean) have long functioned as a sort of online currency, but it’s still deflating to think how the coarsening of discourse that’s affected seemingly every aspect of daily life has also crept into even the most niche corners of music and culture.

When every disagreement is a battle, every person with a differing opinion is seen as an enemy and every idea advanced is immediately greeted with a rote list of reasons why it’s (supposedly) total bullshit, the bonds that hold a community—even a virtual or metaphorical one based around a shared love of electronic music—start to disintegrate pretty quickly. Nobody wants to constantly be at war, especially with people who supposedly share (at least some of) their passions and interests.

Does this mean that people (or companies) shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, or that heated debates should cease? Of course not. Asking hard questions is important—I try to do it regularly here in the newsletter—and it’s essential to keeping a culture from becoming stagnant. (It’s not a coincidence that the “keep politics out of music” crowd is so frequently opposed to anything that resembles substantive change.) Righteous anger against injustice is obviously justified, but when anger and ridicule become the default settings for even the most trivial conversations, those conversations aren’t likely to accomplish much.

There has to be a more productive way to communicate, whether people are hashing out disagreements or digesting the myriad social, political, economic and technological issues affecting both music and the industry that surrounds it. Ignoring (or at least putting less stock in) social media seems like an obvious place to start, but simply tuning out its extraneous noise won’t in and of itself breed more connection. If everyone is sitting in their separate silos and not sharing their thoughts, opinions and ideas with anyone outside of their immediate circle, it’s hard to imagine many serious problems being solved or much new consensus being built.

More face-to-face conversations would be great, but given the increasingly digital nature of our lives—not to mention the increasingly global orientation of electronic music, along with the fact that there’s still a pandemic going on—that’s not likely to happen. Interacting with people we’ve never actually met is bound to become a more frequent occurrence, not less, and if we want those interactions to be constructive, we’ll need to constantly remind ourselves that we’re communicating with real people, even if all we can see is an internet handle and a random icon.

Disagreements are always going to happen, and sometimes people are going to say or propose things that sound annoying, terribly misguided or even jaw-droppingly stupid, but unless they’ve done something truly appalling, they probably don’t deserve to be humiliated, especially if what they’re talking about involves something as relatively unimportant as electronic music. As trite as it admittedly sounds to implore people to simply “be nice” and respect others, perhaps it’s necessary when so much of online discourse is failing to meet even that extremely low bar.

Optimism isn’t my strong suit, but I’m hoping that 2022’s rally cry, whatever it winds up being, will be a little more positive. (Cue some crypto guy sending me an email saying that it’s going to be “WAGMI,” and if that happens, I’m going to do my best to remain calm… maybe some intense breathing exercises are what we all really need.)

Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn or drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.

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