“They were right when they said we should never meet our heroes.” - “Breathing Underwater” by Metric, citing an oft-quoted ancient modern proverb
I must say, well in advance, that there is no underlying thesis or ultimate point to which this is all going to build to. This is pure spitballing and thinking out loud. The recent rash of YouTube and/or gaming personalities seemingly going batshit—one after the other! first PewDiePie, then Colin Moriarty to a smaller though no less consequential extent, and finally JonTron—has offered plenty to think about, and Gita’s piece about how various JonTron fans were processing his surrounding controversy has been a jump-off point for pondering a very particular something: the weird relationship between one’s feelings towards a creator versus their feelings towards what they create.
Now, I do not follow any of these three or their associated projects (i.e. Kinda Funny) regularly, and in fact virtually never PewDiePie or Colin Moriarty. In their cases, lack of much awareness about them and their work has made the controversies surrounding them easy enough to stomach. I can say that both of them ought to get better at telling a damn joke and deal with criticism and blowback like fucking adults in the future, and not feel so...down is the best word for it, I guess. Their losses are not my disappointment.
JonTron, however? Mister Spouting White Supremacy Dogma himself? The worst of these offenders, without question? Yeah...figures that he’s the single case out of three where I feel any sort of ambivalence, doesn’t it. Not THAT ambivalent, mind you, but still a slightly more awkward position.
All due to one simple and arguably stupid fact: Based on the very little bit I’ve watched from him—things like his breakdown of Christian game malarky via The Zoo Race—I like his videos. Reconciling that enjoyment of his output with revulsion over his racial worldview (plus seeing well before this point that he’s one of those dudes who brands people as SJWs as an insult) is slightly difficult, it turns out.
It’s the exact scenario that a well-used mantra like “Love the art, not the artist” was invented to solve. One that poses a simple solution for the sake of dealing with the pair of conflicting feelings that often come from exposure to artists, as well as other types of “admirable” or “important” people.
- I like what they make or what they do!
- But I dislike something or everything about who they are or what they believe!
- Can I enjoy their work in good conscience?
The assumption underlying “Love the art, not the artist” is that the answer to that dilemma is an emphatic, unqualified yes. Both feelings can be wholly untangled from each other. What somebody makes can be totally inseparable from who they are, and it can be done in a way that is absolutely most certainly not cognitive dissonance, no sirree, not a chance!
To its credit, that is entirely possible sometimes. John Lennon was a complete asshole, for example, but that realization never significantly dampened my enjoyment of The Beatles’ music, not even the mainly Lennon songs. Kanye West is...what is he not, really?!...but he’s still got beats and tunes that I regardless enjoy, and I’ve got no shame in that.
However, far more often, separating art from artist takes significant effort, if not ending up being straight-up impossible. For every Beatle or West, there’s a Rush, who wrote some of their most well-renowned work with Ayn Rand and Objectivism as a direct influence, or a System of a Down song that’s essentially a Charles Manson name drop. There’s the rank casual misogyny that permeates much of rock, rap, dance music, practically music at large, with an extra dose of homophobia from rap and even legendary political-minded groups whose circle of associates has housed shocking bigotry. How listeners deal with the opposing sentiments of liking music, yet finding its content or creators objectionable—plus, wouldn’t content be a reflection of who the creator is, in at least some sense?—is a complex question, and will inevitably vary depending on who is asked.
However, it is crucial to point out that such complications don’t exclusively manifest themselves in a negative way. The legend of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, after all, depends on strongly relating Kurt’s personality and personal struggles to his band’s music, to the point where it’s become almost impossible to consider one without the other. The kicker, though, is that everyone else as listeners, fans, and critics entirely did all of that themselves, with no help from Nirvana. Hell, maybe even despite Nirvana, because this degree of idolizing seems like precisely the kind of thing that would have made Kurt Cobain extremely uncomfortable.
That right there (both for good and ill) is what I think might be the closest parallel to the place of game-centric YouTube channels—also YouTube and games media at large—in the “Art and the Artist” conundrum. In part because of how the expectations of their audiences have developed over the last decade, but also sometimes specifically by their own design, they almost exclusively exist in this space where it is extremely difficult to separate who they are as people from their work.
And people are messy fucking creatures, sometimes in ways that are repulsive or angering. Hence, the oft-quoted “never meet your heroes,” with its underlying point that if someone wants to maintain a sense of untainted admiration for them and what they do, their best bet is to always remain ignorant of the potentially unsavory sides of who they are.
That can’t really happen in YouTube or gaming, however! Personality is the currency of lets players, streamers, and food reviewers, where who’s playing/eating often takes priority over which games (or foods) they play, and even if seeing food or gameplay IS the viewers’ main priority, they can always watch someone else eating the same game or playing the same food if they don’t like who’s doing the thing.
For example, I hope to never find out that maybe Daym Drops, one of YouTube’s most prominent food reviewers, is actually a douchenozzle. His personality and charisma are his biggest draws. Thus, I would most likely not be able to stomach his food reviews were there such a negative perception of him always in the back of my mind.
On the flip side, the impact of reviews and criticism depends largely on the context of what the critic’s opinions and preferences are. Additionally, because video game criticism is evolving in a direction where what games represent and say increasingly become as important as quality of mechanics—and as real-world issues surrounding the games industry and gaming community also move ever closer to the forefront of discussion—critics’ and reviewers’ worldviews have become far more relevant as well.
In normal, more level-headed circumstances, such considerations are helpful Rosetta stones that provide much-needed context about where critics are coming from. Awareness of someone’s value system is a valuable tool for fully parsing out a critic’s musings, which becomes ever more important if you disagree with their assessment or how they state it.
For example, it’s helpful reading a Heather Alexandra review of a Tom Clancy game with the awareness that when she last reviewed a Clancy game, its sociopolitical underpinnings and her perspective on them massively colored her opinions on the game, so it stands to reason that maybe that will be the case once again. By a similar token, it’s best to watch and read Jim Sterling with the knowledge that he is a rather outspoken critic with a tendency to be loud and clear with contempt and disdain, and that a whole litany of fundamental beliefs underpins his criticism.
I won’t always agree with what they say, but understanding where the critics are coming from provides a frame of reference for comprehending them. This is undoubtedly a good thing; even in disagreement, it’s possible to pick up on other perspectives and opposing viewpoints that I may never have considered. They could even change my mind!
But if things get more extreme—getting to the level of the PewDiePie, Colin Moriarty, and JonTron situations—it can absolutely torch my views on somebody and their output, and it will often happen in the most painful of ways. The ultimate example, for me: Totalbiscuit, of whom I was a pretty big fan around 2012 to 2014. He had always been brash, which though not always my cup of tea, was still something I could accept. His WTF is... series was notably the deciding factor behind getting Luftrausers, too, so he’s always going to have that in his favor.
Then GamerGate happened. For a while, it mostly made me heavily conflicted where he was concerned, especially in the early days when I was completely unaware and confused about what the hell the deal with GamerGate even was. Before then, I was already aware of his stances on various issues that somewhat unsettled me, as well as his constant incantations about the irrelevancy of the “traditional” games media, which annoyed the shit out of me. GamerGate seemed to bring that side out more frequently, being one of the prominent gators, but I still did my best to take it all in good faith, just as I had been doing before that point. For reference, there was still enough affinity for him to make a very obvious yet poorly executed TB reference in a video of my own during that timeframe.
Which all eventually culminated into the Totalbiscuit bitter scorched-earth screed ‘round the world, centered on Leigh Alexander. It feels best to forego detailing all of the surreal proceedings of the day—look it up for yourself if you really want a reminder—but it was such revealing and irreversibly scarring experience, to Mr. Darcy my-good-opinion-once-lost degrees of magnitude. After that period of time, “Cynical Brit” just took on a whole other meaning in my mind. I’m still subscribed on YouTube and still follow on Twitter, but I’ve very rarely watched his stuff ever since, and he acts more like a window into the other side than as a viewpoint I intend to take seriously.
Between those two poles is a gray area where inner conflict thrives. Where somebody is on some bullshit, but it’s not enough to make me totally renounce them or stop appreciating their work, yet is nonetheless enough to affect my opinion of them. It sometimes gets in the way of enjoying what they do, but quite frankly, sometimes it does that little or not at all, but would subsequently make me question whether it is alright to enjoy that.
To the most minor degree, as mentioned above, my feelings on JonTron lie right on the border of this conflictedness and total rejection; ironically, I think I might actually be inmore of a hard-line “fuck him” mood were I more invested as a fan, because the unhinged ranting is squarely at odds with his persona in video, and thus would have burned even more.
More majorly, the gaming-related parts of Rooster Teeth exist squarely in ambivalence, after the whole spat from their gaming podcast The Patch concerning Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann and his review of Fallout 4. Kotaku itself—love it as I do—even falls within this, occasionally of its own boneheaded accord, but largely due to its place in the Gizmodo (formerly Gawker) family of websites and its exceptionally sordid collective history.
I think that’s enough navel-gazing from me for a single day. If anyone else wants to pick up the slack with their own musings on the art and the artist, fire away.