In the last week, Kevin Dettmar has posted on his blog an essay he published in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year. He focuses on YouTube and the immediacy of finding music we want to hear, then questions what, exactly, it is that we want to hear. After noting the mass hatred of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” which has led to its mass appeal, Dettmar raises his core concern.
Let’s start by acknowledging that hating is and always has been a part of the process of aesthetic appreciation: Often I can teach my students more, and more quickly, about good writing by showing them a weak piece than a strong piece. But hating has to be balanced with loving. After all, there’s nothing new about celebrating the awful; Susan Sontag gave the practice critical respectability in her famous 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” grounding her observations in those of Oscar Wilde. In her closing paragraph, Sontag declares that the “ultimate Camp statement” is, “it’s good because it’s awful”; clearly that’s the spirit in which my students, and tens of millions of others, are gleefully (Glee-fully! Get it?!) consuming “Friday.”
But when Sontag, and Wilde before her, praised camp sensibility, it was to complicate and even subvert reigning standards of taste—not to eliminate judgments of taste altogether. I worry that we’ve become so anxious about making affirmative aesthetic judgments that all we’re willing to do now is to pile onto the safe, soft targets of mass opprobrium. Even Beavis and Butt-head render two verdicts, if only two: For them, something either “rocks” or “sucks.” I worry that we’ll be much the poorer if giggling at Stuff That Sux—or putting a book like Sh*t My Dad Says(based on the Twitter stream of the same name) at No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list—is the best we can do.