Snark with Spark

a critique of critique of critique.

Jody Rosen had two extremely fun and funny critical takedowns of other critics last week in Slate. The first burned down the bucolic barn of New York Times editorial-page ruralist Verlyn Klinkenborg. The second went all out at John Mayer haters.

Jody_Rosen_09Jody Rosen. Photographer: Joe Mabel.

Were they snarky? Yes. Were they ruining conversation? Probably not. For there was plenty of argument behind Rosen’s fairly vicious quipping. He had a point to make in each case, and he made it with a series of swift, magnificent uppercuts rather than any hits below the belt.

Listen to Rosen on Klinkenborg:

…bewilderment is his shtick. Klinkenborg’s columns are literary minstrel routines, starring the writer as an idiot savant—a bumpkin-seer who perceives the marvelous in the pedestrian and pivots to “epiphanies” that elude those of us who haven’t spent years watching sunlight dapple the snouts of woodchucks.

And Rosen on Mayer and Jonah Weiner’s “playa hating” of him:

Jonah, let’s cut to the chase: John Mayer is a douchebag. Or, rather, he’s a meta-douchebag—a guy who’s smart enough, self-aware enough, to know that he’s a douchebag, and to meditate on douchebaggery and its discontents in his music.

…It strikes me that Mayer and his ilk get an especially tough time from critics. Sensitive white boy singer-songwriters with easy-listening proclivities and Berklee College of Music-honed chops—they’re not exactly rock critic bait. Even in these poptimistic times, it’s still socially acceptable to reflexively dismiss the Mayers of the world. So I’ll say one more nice thing about him: the guy can write some tunes.

What’s wonderful about these critical put-downs is that after the initial sting, there’s plenty to ponder. Having pastoral tendencies, I have always read Klinkenborg uncritically, dreaming of life on ye old idyllic Hudson Valley farm; but I will never do that the same way again, even if I will still not “playa hate” Klinkenborg as much as Rosen does. And though I still, much to my own dismay, cannot remove my authentic core of rockist purity (I jest for those of you who have followed the great poptimist vs. rockist debates), I will give that Mayer another, more ironic listen.

The key to Rosen’s snark is that it has spark: it illuminates. It may open up wounds, but it also opens up conversation, deeper thinking, and more careful inquiry.

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