Why shy from kicking ‘em when they’re down?
For at least a handful of us here at Der Shot, Pitchforkmedia.com scribe turned Village Voice-handpicked golden boy Nick Sylvester has for some time represented the apex of critical fallacy. The rock crit wunderkind, who specializes in spinning out paragraphs of trying-too-hard slang appropriation and tooth-gnashing reminders of his tastelessness-masquerading-as-eclecticism pop saavy, ending every sentence with an audible pat-on-the-back of self-congratulation, stepped up to main stage this week. The coveted cover story! After clawing his way up from the backwaters of Voice blogging into drafting staggeringly lame essays on social phenomena that, though completely divorced from actual experience, provided our budding picaro ample opportunity to perfect the art of being clever while never verging on being funny, here was the spotlight moment. He took it, and promptly atomized his inexplicable career.
It’s not just that his piece, purporting to examine the shockwaves sent through the coastal dating scenes by some pickup guide, was a crummy index of hackneyed epigrams ripped from the lips of some lothario Romcom best-buddy (“Bro, chicks totally love jerks!”)—it also, apparently, wasn’t quite true . In light of the revelation of misattributed quotes and beaucoups of just-plain falsity, the article got the old vaudeville stage-left cane yank from the Voice website, Sylvester got suspended, issuing a shamefaced, eyes-on-the-carpet apology before leaving to stand in the corner, and the literally tens of people who give a shit about these sort of things got absolutely abuzz.
Now, I’m sure Mr. Sylvester’s puff piece-grade Shattered Glass transgressions stand in deep violation of journalistic ethics, and I sincerely hope he lands in his parent’s basement at the end of all this (or, worse yet, at popmatters.com)—but from a critic’s perspective, it seems a pity to see him nailed on some measly, quantifiable lie, when this would-be all-pop pundit’s resume is built on much graver shammed reactions, made-to-order google “expertise,” and other, non-tactile sins—my problem with Nick Sylvester is a hard one to elucidate, because it comes from the gut: I’ve always been just sure he doesn’t believe the half the clowning claptrap he writes.
Ex.: Cyann & Ben's debut full-length doesn’t “achieve epic heights through…cinematic, open-air production and full arrangements… [putting] forth once again the notion that the most convincing art is of a noble simplicity and a quiet grandeur.” It doesn’t, and I outright refuse to believe Sylvester’s sincerity in saying that it does. Nor does Death from Above 1979’s output demand that I “get out of the corner and just fucking dance.” This is the sort of thing that music writers with two left feet always shit out when it’s 4 AM and they want to put a review in the can; pretty standard issue crap writing those, but then it’s hard to capture the full bluff—glib enough to garner 10 featured quotes in the most recent "Pazz & Jop" poll, prone to grandstanding schtick that makes the critic the subject of every review—in one paragraph’s space. This nugget on musician Ariel Pink from a recent post on Sylvester's Voice-hosted blog, "Riff Raff" says it best: "he's something along the lines of a real-life Weekend at Bernie's where Pink is Jonathan Silverman and Bernie Lomax is decades of now-listless chord changes and spent turns of phrase and once bleeding-edge keyboard and drum sounds. I don't know where this leaves Weekend at Bernie's 2, but I'm pretty sure it probably has something to do with grime." Ugh.
It’s not really so strange that this inexplicably cocky dude, who never appears to have waved a bullshit detector over a single word that he’s written, would meet such an ignoble fate (I don’t say “end”—I’m sure we’ll be haunted by his talking, balding head on VH1’s “I Love the 00’s” all too soon)? But it suggests another question: how can we stop critics who are so obviously pulling it out of their asses before it goes this far?
We’re all of us guilty at one time or another: mishandling adjectives, transmuting boredom into idle hyperbole, or getting too smitten with some adorable, original observation to bother asking ourselves if we believe a word of it. It’s a tough thing to police: the forming of an opinion doesn’t tend to leave behind incriminating evidence, and it’d take a telepathic kangaroo court to distinguish sincere stupidity/ bad taste from a flat-out put-on. The best we can do is make verboten some of the most obvious whoppers: Anyone who claims to have actually been “on the edge of their seat” during whatever through-the-motions thriller comes down the tube should get a punch in the neck—at least we wouldn’t have to endure any more Peter Travers pull quotes. And we can try to show all the integrity we can when dealing with the art in our lives. The old saw goes “There’s no such thing as a wrong opinion.” Maybe, maybe not. But an opinion can still, very definitely, lie. And if we make ours lie enough, we should at least have the decency to put ourselves through the private hell that Nick Sylvester’s right now in.