Viva Brother’s split and Samantha Brick’s Daily Mail article provoked torrents of abuse. Why? Can’t we separate a person’s worth from the quality of their work
It’s a commonplace in consideration of art: separate the work from the person. Larkin’s poetry is not diminished by the racist, sexist content of his personal letters; Jerry Lee Lewis might have married a 13-year-old, but he’s still one of the founding fathers of rock’n'roll; Lou Reed’s entire public persona might be an insult to those who believe in politeness and common decency, but he still made those Velvet Underground records.
What, though, if consensus holds your work is rubbish? Should that reflect back on you as a person?
Social media reaction to two events this week suggested the world believes that, yes, if we don’t like what you do, we are perfectly entitled to pour on the vitriol. The more recent of the two events was a piece â€“ a terrible, terrible piece â€“ by Samantha Brick in the Daily Mail, in which she complained women did not like her because she was too beautiful. The accompanying pictures revealed a perfectly attractive woman, but not one at whom people would be likely to stop and stare in awe. The second was the announcement on Sunday, via Twitter, that the self-styled “gritpop” band Viva Brother had split.
“It was their own fault that everyone hated them,” said one tweeter of Viva Brother. “The world’s a much better place now that Viva Brother have split,” said another. There were plenty more: “Viva Brother have split up, faith in humanity restored”; “You pile of wank”; “So glad those cunts Viva Brother weren’t pulling some sort of shit April fools joke with their split up”; “Rot in hell Viva Brother”.
Brick had it much worse. She didn’t even have a rump of fans coming on to Twitter to support her. Instead, she was told repeatedly she was ugly (she’s not) and deluded (I don’t know). The entire world seemed to form the view that she was fully deserving of hatred, based on the fact that she had written a terrible article, the latest in a long line of ill-judged pieces for the Mail. And she had celebrities â€“ the kind of people who might understand the difference between public and private personas â€“ queueing up to join the mob. The odious Frankie Boyle phrased it thus: “Samantha Brick looks like what you see when you masturbate through a brain haemorrhage.”
What these events suggest is the opposite of conventional wisdom about the web. It’s assumed the web has killed consensus opinion: by allowing everyone a voice, it has promoted a variety of tastes. Hence the predictions that never again will we have those globe-straddling rock superstars that everyone seems to quite like, because in world where anything can be found, there’s no need to settle for second best.
In fact, it seems we do still crave consensus, but we’ve found it at the other end of the spectrum. These days what we seek to agree about is awfulness. We still want to feel part of the crowd, but with the opportunities to feel part of a unified celebration so few and far between we settle instead for being part of a mob.
And you’re kidding yourself if you believe the viciousness a mob can kick up is not felt, keenly, by those targetted. I was at a gig on Monday night and heard someone call my name along the bar. It was Viva Brother’s Lee Newell â€“ whom I have interviewed twice â€“ who wanted to thank me for sticking up for his band on Twitter. It’s not as if I had mourned their passing with tears streaming down my cheeks. I had said: “On the Viva Brother thing â€“ nice lads, and while not to my taste, they didn’t merit the outpouring of hatred their existence provoked.” He’d clearly been taken aback by the world’s response to their split, just as when I interviewed him for the second time he was clearly disturbed that the narrative about a group who’d just recorded their first album was already: “Why does everyone hate Viva Brother so much?”
Now, if you tell the world you’re a perfect model of pulchritude, as Samantha Brick did, or that you’re the greatest rock’n'roll band in the world, as Viva Brother did, you’re offering up hostages to fortune. You’re inviting the response: “No, you’re not.” Especially if your claims â€“ as in both cases â€“ are untrue, and especially if â€“ as in both cases â€“ there is evidence to suggest a gap between ego and actual attaintment. But you’re not offering up an invitation to contempt and abuse. When people walk past one of those fried chicken places with the motto “You’ve tried the rest, now try the best”, they don’t feel the need to storm inside and scream at the manager: “This fried chicken is a disgrace! It is not the best fried chicken! I hope you die!” So perhaps the same restraint might sometimes be in order in other spheres.
Years ago, when I edited FourFourTwo magazine, I ran a piece about the most hated players in the Premier League, each entry concluding with a chant that had been heard about them. A few days later, Robbie Savage phoned the office, furious and threatening legal action over what we’d said about him, specifically the chant â€“ “You’re inbred and you know you are.” His parents, he said, were distraught. It didn’t take me all that long to decide that the article, while not actionable, had been morally wrong. I’d been cruel solely because I had the opportunity to be cruel. We hadn’t criticised Robbie Savage’s style of play â€“ the only thing he really deserved to be judged on â€“ we’d just done the 20th-century equivalent of tweeting: “LOL wanker!”
It hurt Robbie Savage when one magazine did it. Imagine how much it must hurt when thousands of people do it. So, maybe next time you stumble across a band you think are really terrible, why not just ignore them? At most, decide why you don’t like them. Don’t bother with the waves of hatred. It’ll be better for your blood pressure, and better for their mental health. Ultimately, all they will have done is make a not-very-good record, and that’s hardly a crime.
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