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The Critical Tyranny Of 'You're Doing It Wrong'

A yellow sticky note with "Right" and "Wrong" boxes. With "Wrong" checked, obviously. i i
iStockphoto.com
A yellow sticky note with "Right" and "Wrong" boxes. With "Wrong" checked, obviously.
iStockphoto.com

Are you one of the fans who have ponied up dough for a meet-and-greet with a favorite band or pop star, as is becoming an increasing trend these days? Have you ever purchased an elusive record or song on the Internet, rather than scouring used record stores and flea markets until you hit pay dirt? Did you once decide to skip a concert, confident in the knowledge that if something truly unexpected happened, you'd be able to catch it later on YouTube?

If so, then Caroline Sullivan would like you to know something: You're Doing It Wrong.

That's the position she took in Wednesday's Guardian, where she laments the proliferation of VIP concert packages that offer increased access to artists. Sure, she offers the standard raised eyebrow over things like the notorious Bon Jovi deal wherein $1875 will get you, among other things, a keepsake chair and the opportunity to tour the backstage area and take photos of the band['s equipment].

But it's not really the expense to which Sullivan objects (hey, folks are willing to pay for it, right?) so much as the guarantee. "Meetings need to be earned through effort," she says. "Paying is the cheat's way." When a VIP meet-and-greet is that easy, it demystifies the experience, in her opinion. The threat of failure is part of the thrill. That's why you're doing it wrong.

Even without paying Cheryl Cole upwards of $500, it generally doesn't take too much effort to find examples of You're Doing It Wrong all over the Internet. There was Sam Biddle's recent decree on how television spoilers shall be handled from now on. This summer saw Steve Almond explaining how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were failing to live up to standards that they never quite set for themselves in the first place. That came around the same time that Jim Pagels demanded that we all stop marathoning TV shows. And it constitutes a critical mass of any discussion about the merits of physical books (especially amongst those who rhapsodize about their smell) versus e-books.

The reason You're Doing It Wrong is troublesome lies in its tyrannical underpinning, dictating the way popular culture must be consumed, often for no reason beyond a belief that the writer is the only one enjoying an experience properly (or even at all). Note how Sullivan implies that anyone who takes advantage of a VIP package isn't actually thrilled by meeting a star, not the way that someone sneaking past the guards to say hello would be.

You're Doing It Wrong is what you get when your advice is not positioned as a suggestion that readers might consider trying, but instead as a unilateral demand that they're told to adopt without hesitation. There's no acknowledgement that different consumers might have different needs and responses. It's a denial of of others' experiences and an insistence that a method of consumption that is unpalatable to the author is unacceptable for all.

One important distinction: You're Doing It Wrong is different from The Way You're Doing It Has Consequences. When book-sniffers worry that the medium and experience they love is being threatened with extinction by the advent of e-readers, that's perfectly valid. (That's also one of the ways that the simple act of cultural criticism doesn't quite fall under the category of You're Doing It Wrong.) But that's rarely how it's framed. Instead, the issue often is, or it devolves into, the question of whether you can really be said to have read a book if you used a Kindle. In those cases, it's not about the preciousness of the author's experience but the invalidating of the reader's.

(Way back in the dark ages, the A.V. Club tackled this question, with respect to burned/ripped albums. The heart of the issue was captured in a single sentence: "Well, what do you want to be, Ken, a critic or a collector?")

Similarly, if Sullivan's argument against lavish meet-and-greet packages stemmed from a concern that, for instance, pop stars might start to become discouraged from signing autographs and posing for photos with fans unless money was changing hands, then she'd be on firmer ground. But that's not her concern as she states it. She's against the practice for everyone because she doesn't like it — doesn't find it satisfying — herself.

Look, I'm not going to argue too strongly against the pleasures that Sullivan talks about. I once bought a copy of a record I already owned — the first Bangles EP, thank you very much — because finding and paying $10 for it immediately after I decided to hunt it down hadn't been as satisfying as it was when I accidentally stumbled on it and made it mine (yes, again) for a buck years later. And she would almost certainly recognize me as a kindred spirit if I were to ever tell her my story about meeting Aimee Mann and the Kinks as a 19-year-old.

Where we differ is that I don't suspect that anyone who opts for a shortcut for such things — indeed, anyone who thought that maybe the way I went about them was making it overly complicated — was Doing It Wrong. There might be better ways to go about consuming culture than the way I'm doing it or you're doing it or that other guy is doing it, it's true. But when, as a critic, you venture out into the territory of declaring one standard correct consumption method, you might as well be talking to yourself.

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