Sunday, December 22, 2013

(You And I) We Can Conquer #Trollgaze

You may be way ahead of me on this one, but I've only recently been thinking through the implications of the online surveillance society, where everything we click on is recorded and analyzed, and the economy that's created when all these clicks are resold and monetized. What we do with our leisure time, most of us, is now making money for someone, most likely a giant corporation - even if we're not paying for anything. The RIAA was very active in warning us that music downloading and streaming would kill record sales - they haven't been as quick to point out that the industry no longer needs those sales to make profits.

As we've known since the early days of deceptive banner ads, a click doesn't care why you clicked, it only cares that you clicked. A page view or video watch from boredom is the same as one from obsession; telling your friends how much you love a song equals telling them how much you hate it; a dislike is as good as a like. And that's what's led to the preeminence of possibly the most important internet-generated phenomenon of all, the troll.

To be sure, old media has long understood that stirring up emotions, negative or positive, stimulates consumption. And there have always been people who would do pretty much anything to get attention. But the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in artists who seek to generate page views, comments, posts and links as an end in itself, employing the usual risqué images and language but also intentionally inept dance routines, intentionally flat singing and affect, and intentionally offensive material. The most successful trolls position themselves so that both their defenders and detractors will draw an audience: the way intersectionality works these days, trolling is easiest for well-off white women claiming their use of racist tropes is really resistance to sexism, or well-off black men claiming their use of sexist tropes is really resistance to racism.

[Insert Clickbait Subhead Here]

It's hard enough for us ordinary people to avoid getting caught up by these calculated provocations; for those trying to make a living either making art or writing about it, it's nearly unavoidable. Music critic Maura Johnston - who coined the term "trollgaze" to refer to media crafted specifically for Internet virality - has incisively lamented the way writers who want to promote fresh and exciting work find themselves instead constructing listicles of sartorial mishaps or best bad bands or worst good bands or why I'm right and you're wrong and vice versa. And naturally that feeds the whole phenomenon.

That's not to say artists shouldn't court controversy and push buttons: they often will, and we're better off for it. Even when the resulting art is not so great: While I find Rihanna's work difficult politically and disappointing artistically, she's no troll; Lady Gaga too seeks to shock but with an (admittedly trite, admittedly Madonna Lite) underlying motive of challenging society's strictures. (Unfortunately for my argument, Kanye West can't be simplified as readily: The same way Tolstoy's main characters unified a Chehkovian true-to-life sketch and a Dostoyevskian representation of a Big Idea in the same person, West is a troll and a serious artist at the same time, and it's not always easy to tease them apart. As a rule of thumb, though, his records sometimes contain authentic work, while the interviews, public appearances and videos are pure trolling.)

tl;dr: PDFTT

I'm going to be much more intentional about what I click on, link to, and write about. Though the old saying "If you ignore him, he'll go away" doesn't apply in many situations, it does work on trolls. There's a smug pleasure in hate-watching people making fools of themselves but that's a pleasure I can no longer afford.

A couple of years ago, Kathleen Hanna said that we should all stop talking about a fauxfensive (or is it nontroversial?) West Coast hip hop outfit, and my thought was "True, but by telling us that you are talking about them." I'm not saying that we should keep mum instead of pointing out egregiously kyriarchal or just poorly executed songs, videos and performances, but it's more critical than before to promote work that moves, challenges, inspires, excites and amuses rather than cataloging how much junk is out there.

In that spirit, my favorite 2013 albums. (DBW)

No comments: