YouTube Content, Internet Criticism, and What It All Means
Internet comments are cancer. Anyone who has spent even a second on the internet already knows this. Whether it be attacks against an Old Navy ad that featured a mixed race couple, or this lovely Reddit comment from a few days ago, internet comments are breeding grounds for ignorance, hatred, and dangerous misinformation vomited out anonymously by fragile, deluded people. However, YouTube really takes the cake for featuring the most “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”-inducing vile on the internet. You can’t scroll through a video about cats playing with one another without rants about politicians, ridiculous accusations of sexism or racism, or near-incomprehensible paragraphs that could have been written on the walls of the padded cell of a mad man.
Such wretchedness becomes magnified a thousand times when it comes to reviews of entertainment, which is far from exclusive to YouTube. Remember the whole “shut down Rotten Tomatoes over Suicide Squad” affair? Just to clarify: If a review presents misinformation or relies on unwarranted personal attacks, then said review should be called out. However, many commenters believe their opinion to be unequivocally right and they can’t possibly understand how anyone can think otherwise. This is where music and music reviews, perhaps the most subjective of any form of entertainment, come in. YouTube commenters can’t differentiate between subjective opinion and fact, and voice their outrage in the form of dislikes. As a result, many negative, and even some positive or average, music reviews can have more dislikes than likes. However, one recent, heavily-downvoted music review really caught my eye.
This is Mark Grondin, popularly known as Spectrum Pulse. As of October 28th, he has over 22,000 subscribers and has released over 650 reviews of all the newest rap, country, rock, and pop out there, all with his trademark eloquence and iconic hand movements. Much like any other music reviewer, he is no stranger to downvotes; his new Lady Gaga review is 33% downvotes despite giving it an average 6/10. However, the review that grabbed my attention was his review of the new Shawn Mendes record, ILLUMINATE, which he gave a 3/10. As of this writing it has about 300 likes and 900 dislikes, and the comment section is full of the self-described Shawn Mendes Army attacking him. Several things about the response, and other such brigades of negative reviews, got me thinking about reviews and fandoms in general. Here are the things that the ILLUMINATE backlash revealed to me about YouTube content, internet criticism, and what it all means.
Marketing is everything.
Marketing is nothing new in music. Focus groups and boardroom meetings figuring out how to appeal to the kids of today have always existed in pop music, since the point of pop music is to appeal to the most people at once. Such image-crafting culimanated in the Pussycat Dolls, who started out as a burlesque dance group before being transformed into reality TV stars. They weren’t just a girl group — they were a commercial brand. One of their first big entrances into the mainstream was appearing semi-nude in Playboy, after all.
Mendes is not merely being marketed as a pretty boy for teenage girls to fawn over. Just looking at the album cover of ILLUMINATE, with Mendes sitting alone with an acoustic guitar, you can ascertain that his handlers want him to be seen as a sensitive guy who is in touch with his feelings, able to comfort fangirls in their darkest times on an emotional and physical level and who pours his heart and soul into every lyric and note. Furthermore, “Treat You Better” was released as the first single from ILLUMINATE, a title that immediately suggests the creation of a caring, considerate, empathetic persona.
Due to his fan’s pre-conceived image of Mendes as incredibly emotional and sincere, one of the common threads running through the Mendes hate comments was that Mark was being “rude” and that he should care for Mendes’s feelings. They seemed to think that a negative review of ILLUMINATE would lead to Mendes bursting into tears at someone critiquing all of his hard work and raw talent, making them even more eager to defend him from those they saw as being mean to him. He “poured his heart and soul” into it, they say. He is “incredibly humble,” they say.
I can’t truly speak to him being talented or humble, but let’s just look at the facts. Every song on ILLUMINATE has more than three writers, and there are six credited producers, none of whom are Mendes. His debut had double the number of producers and just as many writers. This is not some grand solo effort like Conor Oberst’s RUMINATIONS, where he actually wrote, played, and produced it all himself; the studio and hired songwriters had plenty of their “heart and soul” poured into ILLUMINATE, perhaps even more so than Mendes did. Does any of this mean Mendes isn’t incredibly humble or talented? Not necessarily, but his handlers have done a great job convincing his fans that ILLUMINATE is Mendes’s emotional baby, when it fact it is the child of many others as well.
People feel closer to artists and creators than ever before.
Rooster Teeth, one of YouTube’s biggest content creators, recently released a crowd-funded movie called LAZER TEAM. One of my favorite movie reviewers, Brad Jones of Stoned Gremlin Productions, gave the movie an incredibly negative review, with the acknowledgement that he had never seen any of Rooster Teeth’s material before. One of his biggest complaints was how “unlikeable” and “douchey” he found characters to be. While there was some minor backlash from Rooster Teeth’s fans, there were some surprisingly mature comments, like the two I am going to talk about below.
The first comment directly admitted, “I probably enjoyed it because it was Rooster Teeth. The best way to describe my enjoyment is probably comparing it to watching a mate at an open mic night. They may not be Eddie Izzard or Bill Hicks, but you enjoy it anyway because you’re rooting for them.” He sees Rooster Teeth not as distant artists or creators simply making a product for him to consume, but as friends he knows well and has a lot invested in. Fans who have been watching Rooster Teeth fora while start seeing the people involved in the feature as individuals who they became invested in, and are probably overjoyed that they were able to make a theatrical feature, something that was seen as a pipe dream by many members of Rooster Teeth and its fans. When you have a friend who wants to perform at open mic night, you support him through it, even if he has some odd comedic timing and missteps.
The second comment follows a similar path, and states, “Secondly, as a heavy RT-content consumer, I ‘know’ these people. Not in real life, of course, but I know the characters they portray, both in the fictional content, but in the material where they are ‘playing’ themselves, not just the fictional stuff like the RT Shorts, but podcasts, where they’re putting on a public face.” In this day and age it’s possible to interact with your favorite artists and see them as more than just the people making art for you through social media, fan meet-ups, and podcasts. Go on Twitter and you’ll find Sara Bareilles and Corey Taylor interacting with fans and responding to questions on a daily basis. Whereas Brad saw douchebags in LAZER TEAM, fans saw kind, funny, benevolent people putting on an act, and Brad had no idea what these people were like outside of what he saw in this movie.
Going back to Mendes, one of Spectrum Pulse’s biggest complaints about ILLUMINATE is that it makes Mendes look like a complete self-serving tool who half-heartedly attempts to be romantic and “nice.” Fans of Mendes who have been with him since his Vine days see him as a friend and feel like they know him, less likely to be annoyed with how he presents himself since they know the “real him,” and more likely to be angry at those who attack Mendes on a matter of character and personality. They see him as a friend, and we are more likely to stand by our friends when they make a mistake or when others attack them, even if said attacks are not wrong.
They’re excited to see Seether, for the record
People have no idea how popular something is.
My family is well aware of my love for music, and for a while my dad would just go on iTunes and buy new albums in the rock or metal category, stuff like Shinedown, Rise Against, and Bullet for My Valentine. Out of those albums, the one that I thought was the worst was Seether’s HOLDING ONTO STRINGS BETTER LEFT TO FRAY. Even at a time when my standards were at an all time low (again, Bullet for My Valentine), I thought it was an unbelievably boring album that could have been made by anyone and that no one cared about.
Boy, was I wrong. HOLDING ONTO STRINGS sold over 60,000 copies in its first week and entered the Billboard 200 at number 200. Its lead single, “Country Song,” was the most-played rock song of 2011, and Seether themselves have never released a single that didn’t chart at least in the top 13 on Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts. Simply listening to something gives you no way of knowing the popularity of it. I simply didn’t watch enough WWE to know how big Seether actually are.
Unless you’re a music reviewer whose job it is to know stuff like this, chances are you aren’t going to actively seek out this information. However, there are times when people seem really oblivious to how popularly or critically praised something is. I saw a YouTube comment claim that Clipse’s HELL HATH NO FURY was “underrated,” even though it’s praised as one of the best albums of the entire 2000s by several major music publications. When Anthony Fantano himself reviewed Skillet’s UNLEASHED, some commenters seemed appalled that he referred to an album that peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 as “mainstream.” People will put “am I the only one who likes this album/movie?” beneath a negative review, completely oblivious to the dozens of others writing the same exact comment. No, your opinion is not unique and special. You are not the only one who liked MAN OF STEEL, or AVATAR, or SIGNS. Quit acting like the victim who is all alone in liking a movie that made millions of dollars.
Does popularity equal quality? Does unpopularity equal lack of quality? Not at all, but keep this in mind: Shawn Mendes’s first two albums, HANDWRITTEN and ILLUMINATE, went to number one on Billboard 200. He played a show at Madison Square Garden. He was listed by TIME magazine as one of the world’s most influential teens in 2014 and 2015. He is huge, but the Mendes army acted like Spectrum Pulse’s one negative review would destroy Mendes’s career. Mendes is not some underdog; he is a world touring superstar. He is not your secret little indie artist that no one you talk to knows about; if that was the case, then Spectrum Pulse’s review could “destroy” a career. But that is not Mendes at all.
People believe they have to agree with reviews and reviews have to agree with them.
“I was up above it / Now I’m down in it.” The words of Trent Reznor echoed in my mind when I decided to engage with a rabid internet commenter. The battleground was underneath Anthony Fantano’s 4/10 review of Twenty-One Pilots’s BLURRYFACE, consisting of about 50 % dislikes. The commenter in question was rather frustrated with such a rating, and wrote one of the most baffling yet illuminating comments ever in responding to someone asking why Twenty One Pilots fans were angry: “Because he made eight and a half minutes of actually nothing? I’ve listened to this review at least twenty times now, and everything he says is still bogus.”
My response was as follows: “…20 times? Why are you wasting your time listening to a review of an album you have already decided you like? You shouldn’t let this guy determine your taste.” My opposing commenter clearly loves BLURRYFACE, but he wastes his time listening to someone speak negatively about BLURRYFACE. Why? Furthermore, even after watching Fantano 20 times, he somehow has gotten nothing out of it besides the fact that Fantano dislikes it.
Fantano has thrashed albums that I personally enjoy before. Every music critic I follow has. Hell, even my editor and my peers at Crossfader have. And you know what? I still follow them and listen to what they have to say, because they show me a well-supported perspective I may have never thought of. I don’t listen to or read their negative reviews of something I enjoy 20 times, though, and my opinion on an album isn’t going to wildly swing because I saw a divergent opinion. In the end, your opinion is your opinion, and while the opinions of others will inevitably influence you, you shouldn’t let someone else’s opinion represents yours as well.
Now I can imagine what somewhat might say in response to all of this. “But if someone sees the negative score, they might not listen to the album and thus deny themselves one of the best things they will ever hear in their lifetime!” But c’mon, if the person in question is interested in an album, looks up one review of it, sees a negative score, and then decides not to listen to it, that person is an idiot. People shouldn’t just look at a review score. Things that Fantano mentions that make him dislike an album are the exact reasons you may like the album. The reasons for a numerical score are infinitely more important than the score itself.
Every good critic is very upfront about the fact that this is all their opinion. Does that mean you shouldn’t listen to them? Of course not. In an age where anyone can post their opinion on Amazon, IMDB, or Yelp, a lot of the reviews expressed on the Internet are either overwhelmingly positive or negative, with no critical thought put into them (look no further than the new GHOSTBUSTERS for proof of this). Worthwhile reviewers are more articulate at explaining their opinion than many others, and can help you put your finger on what makes an album work or not work for you, even if their opinion is ultimately different then yours. If you enjoy Korn’s A SERENITY OF SUFFERING or Dance Gavin Dance’s MOTHERSHIP, it doesn’t affect me and I hope to listen to others explain why they enjoyed such albums. Some opinions have way more reasoning and thought put into them then others, but in the end music is all a matter of opinion, something the Internet, the Mendes Army, and everyone reading Crossfader should strive to remember.