Last August I did a live web chat on ESPN, much of which centered on the 2013 Uni Watch Power Rankings, which had just come out. One of the chat participants asked me the following question:
How is it that less than four months ago the Baltimore Orioles won a nationwide fan vote for BEST uniforms in baseball, yet you have them ranked in the low 30s [in the overall 122-team rankings] with eight other MLB teams ahead of them and the Cardinals as number one, even though [the Orioles] beat them out according to the fans?
Another participant submitted more of a statement than a question:
Maybe it is just me, although I suspect a lot of people may also agree with me, but I think your entire list should be reversed. I wouldn’t pick the Jaguars unis as my favorite, but they certainly do not qualify as the worst. And the Seahawks? That low, really? Where is the credit for originality and boldness? Instead the Cardinals and Bears with their outdated bland unis get the top spots? A bird on a bat. Not impressing me much. We are in a time of bold colors, and I don’t think this list represents society’s current tastes. [Emphasis added]
I received lots of email expressing similar thoughts about the Power Rankings: “Every poll always picks the Blackhawks as one of the top NHL uniforms, so how can you rank them so low?” and “I guess you didn’t get the memo about the Panthers’ black uniform being voted as the best uniform in NFL history” and “Taking a poll of the readers would have been a more scientific approach,” that sort of thing. I get plenty of similar emails all year long (although they spike when something like the Power Rankings comes out).
As I’m sure you’re aware, internet polls are demographically skewed in all sorts of ways and are therefore not accurate measures of “the fans” (to say nothing of “society’s current tastes”). But for the sake of this discussion, let’s pretend that such polls are accurate measures, and that they conclusively show my opinions on uniforms to be out of step with popular sentiment.
Here’s my question: Does that matter?
I feel strongly that it doesn’t. Why? Because it’s not my job or concern — or any cultural critic’s job or concern — to match up with popular sentiment. Do I care about other people’s tastes? Sure, because I’m always interested in what people like and dislike. But that doesn’t mean I care about matching those tastes.
It’s worth noting here that being a uniform design critic is a very, very narrow discipline, because uniform design covers such a narrow range of styles (despite what Nike and Under Armour want you to think). There’s no such thing as surrealist uniforms, or abstract expressionist uniforms, or mumblecore uniforms, or punk uniforms, or any of the other stylistic variants that can be found in most other creative fields. But there’s still enough room for a variety of tastes and preferences, and part of my job as cultural critic is expressing my preferences.
This leads us to another question: Why do cultural critics exist, anyway? I’d say it’s for two primary reasons: First, there’s always a certain part of the populace that has an appetite for thoughtful commentary about the things that shape our world. Second — and more relevant to the discussion at hand — most of us instinctively understand that popularity doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality. If it did, McDonald’s would be renowned for the serving the greatest food on the planet and Britney Spears would be hailed as a musical genius. Critics help us distinguish quality from quantity, substance from style, wheat from chaff, the needle from the haystack.
Sometimes, of course, critical and popular tastes coincide, such as with a movie like Silence of the Lambs or a band like the Rolling Stones. Usually, though, a movie critic’s year-end “10 Best” list doesn’t much match up with the top box office hits, and a music critic’s top albums rarely match up with the Billboard charts. As a result, critics often face accusations of being “out of touch” with popular opinion. (Or at least that’s the case with critics who cover popular culture. The situation’s a little more complicated with critics who cover things like fine art or modern dance, because the whole notion of “popular opinion” doesn’t really apply to those disciplines. But I digress.)
I’m pretty sure most critics would argue, as I have, that it’s not their job to be reflect popular sentiment. I don’t mean to speak for the entire critical community, but I think most of us — and I say this having worked a rock critic and a food critic as well as a uniform critic, and having also occasionally written about books and movies — conceive of our jobs as being some combination of the following: celebrating the good; denigrating the bad; helping people make informed decisions on how to spend their money and time; providing revelation by connecting dots from the intensely personal to the broadly cultural; providing food for thought; articulating and sharing our passion for the disciplines we cover; and creating conditions that will help promote the most tasteful outcome.
I can already hear some of the outcry in response to that last paragraph. Allow me to give voice to what some of you are no doubt thinking (and what I myself have often thought about) in the form of a virtual discussion:
So you’re in favor of “the good,” opposed to “the bad,” and trying to create “a tasteful outcome.” But who decides what good, bad, and tasteful are? Or, more specifically, why should you get to be the one who decides? Who made you king (or kingmaker)?
My position in the uni-verse is a bit unusual, because I pretty much invented the notion of treating uniform design as (a) critical discipline and (b) a legitimate sports journalism beat, and I’m still the only full-time uniform journalist. So I’ve always enjoyed a certain primacy-by-default as a uniform critic. (Yes, that’s a very privileged and somewhat artificial status to have, as I’m well aware.)
Okay, but what about when you were a rock critic and a food critic? And what about all those other critics out there? Why do they get to set the standards of quality for the rest of us?
I got my other gigs as a critic by pestering editors to let me write for them and by demonstrating some fluency in the fields I wanted to cover. I expect the same is true of most critics. I suppose you might also ask how those editors got to be in a position to hire us as critics, and I think the answer is essentially the same: by showing some expertise in their given fields. In other words, the critical community is a meritocracy (although, like all meritocracies, it has its share of internal politics, nepotism, petty vendettas, small-scale corruption, etc.).
Meritocracy, shmeritocracy. What you’re really saying is that a small cabal of snobs have appointed themselves as the arbiters of cultural taste. Why should they get to do that?
I think what you’re really asking, whether you realize it or not, is “What is a critic?” And the answer, I’d say, is that a critic is an articulate expert. In other words, it’s someone who knows a lot about a given subject and is good at communicating what he knows.
For whatever reason, the people who are able to do that tend to have tastes that differ a bit from mainstream popular tastes.
But taste is subjective by definition! Why should anyone, even an “articulate expert,” get to decide what qualifies as good taste?
Taste is indeed subjective. But no critic can “overrule” or “veto” popular taste. (If they could, the Billboard charts and box office rankings would look very different.) Critics can only make an articulated case for why something is good or bad and hope to find an audience that will hear them out.
Some critics, like Pauline Kael (film), Robert Christgau (music), and Ruth Riechl (food) have been enormously influential — with other critics, with the public, and within the industries they’ve covered — and so their tastes have had a trickle-down effect. But most critics aren’t that powerful. A critic’s power or influence ultimately comes from the strength of his or her connection with his or her audience.
So in the end, it comes down to popular taste after all — the taste of the audience! You made it sound like the general public doesn’t matter, but now you just admitted that it does!
Of course it does. If I’m shouting in a vacuum and nobody hears me, what’s the point? But that doesn’t mean a critic should cater to the public.
Let’s take me as an example: I don’t like the Blackhawks’ red jersey, for reasons I’ve spelled out in some detail. I’m aware that this makes me an outlier, because most people absolutely love that jersey. But what can I do? I can’t just change what I think. My opinion is my opinion.
Now, if I were an outlier on every single uni-related issue, I probably wouldn’t have an ESPN gig, a strong blog readership, and so on. So my tastes must be in step with at least some portion of the populace. But I’m not trying to achieve that. I simply think what I think, and the rest falls into place (or doesn’t, as the case might be).
I don’t see why this makes you so special. I liked American Hustle and think everyone should see it. I don’t like Mumford and Sons and think nobody should buy their record or see their live show. And I think the Blackhawks’ red jersey is awesome. There, I just did your job!
You’re confusing the role of a reviewer with that of a critic. It’s true that anyone can be a reviewer — and almost everyone is a reviewer at some point. If you tell your co-worker that the new Thai restaurant near the office is pretty good, then you’ve just given a review.
But a critic does more than just give a thumbs-up or -down. A critic provides explanations and context for his or her opinions, and draws connections between the given discipline (music, literature, food, or whatever) and the larger world around us. A critic provides information, sure, but also provides insight. Or at least that’s the goal.
That sounds really pretentious.
It can be, if the critic isn’t careful. That’s why critics are easy targets for spoof and parody, like in the famous Mel Brooks animated short The Critic.
See, look what you just did right there! You called it “famous,” which is your subtle little way of saying, “If you haven’t heard of it, you must be ignorant.” Critics are always pulling elitist shit like that, trying to prove how smart they are compared to the rest of us.
I’m sorry — I didn’t mean for it to sound that way, although I see your point. I was just, you know, doing what critics do: I was drawing on cultural history to make a larger point.
You make critics sound like these brave renegades, some sort of vanguard. But here’s the dirty little truth you’re conveniently omitting: For generations now, the vast majority of critics — and the editors who hire them — have been overeducated white men. You’re no renegades. You’re the Establishment!
Fair point — the game is, and has always been, somewhat demographically rigged. That’s why it’s important to have a diversity of voices within any critical community (including the uni-verse). Things are getting better on that front, but there’s still a long way to go.
Sure, add more voices. In fact, let’s add a few million voices — the voices of the entire public. Then we’ll have no need for critics. Taste will be established by majority rule!
But we already have that — again, just look at the Billboard charts or the box office figures. In fact, people now have more ways than ever to express their tastes. They can start blogs, post on Twitter, vote on American Idol, and so on.
This reminds me of something that happened back in the 1970s, when I was growing up: the advent of the People’s Choice Awards. Even though I was just a kid at the time, I remember thinking, “What’s the point? Don’t we already know who the ‘people’s choice’ winners are, just by looking at sales figures? Who needs an award for that?” The situation nowadays, with all the internet-driven ways people can express themselves, is like a giant, society-wide version of the People’s Choice Awards.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Critics don’t negate or override any of that. They just provide a different perspective — one based on, again, a certain level of knowledge and articulation.
Okay, but what if I don’t agree with that perspective?
Then you’re free to ignore it. In fact, you probably do ignore it. Do you actually read a lot of critics’ work? Odds are you probably don’t. And that’s fine.
Yeah, but critics have this platform — a platform provided by newspapers, magazines, ESPN, or whatever. That amplifies their voice. Why should they get that advantage?
First of all, in case you hadn’t noticed, newspapers and magazines are going down the toilet, so that platform isn’t as powerful as it once was. One reason for that is that everyone’s now free to build their own platforms! Start a blog, tweet a few dozen times a day, etc. — you can amplify your own voice, or find a voice in tune with your sensibilities.
More to the point: On the one hand you’re complaining that critics represent this fringe mentality that’s out of step with the mainstream, and on the other hand you’re complaining that they have this big, mainstream-media megaphone! Come on, man — you can’t have it both ways.
Bottom line: Your big issue here seems to be that critics get to “decide” what qualifies as “good taste.” But we don’t get to decide anything. We simply argue for a point of view.
I get the sense that you’re just getting started here.
Kinda, yeah. There are lots of additional points I want to make about —
Can you just skip those, or at least save them for another time? Most of your audience stopped reading this thing a while ago, and the others would like to proceed to the Ticker already. The whole thing is starting to feel like a big exercise in thumb-suckery.
Fair enough. But here’s one final point worth considering: Remember, although we get very passionate about uniforms around here, Uni Watch is still a niche project. If you ask most sports fans what they think about uniforms, most of them will say, “Who gives a shit?” In other words, if you truly think I should be reflecting popular sentiment, then what you’re really saying is that I never should have started writing about uniforms in the first place, and that I should shut down this site right now because most people don’t care.
Just something to keep in mind when arguing about whether mainstream tastes should always get to dictate everything.
What the tuck? My recent ESPN column about tucked and untucked jerseys prompted reader Aaron Telecky to send in something pretty amazing: In 1987, Iowa wore tucked-in jerseys that simulated the untucked look. Check it out (click to enlarge):
I’ve never seen that before! Did any other schools wear this style?
PermaRec update: A message in a bottle (shown at right), a pile of century-old mail found beneath a porch, and a WWII love letter than never made it to its intended recipient — they’re all featured in the latest installment of Permanent Record.
Bracket reminder: As we’ve done in past years, we’re once again running a Uni Watch NCAA bracket pool. For details, look here.
Tick-tock: Today’s Ticker was compiled and written by Mike Chamernik, except for ’Skins Watch, which was handled by Paul.
’Skins Watch: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has rejected a trademark application for “Washington Redskins Potatoes” because the term “Redskins” is derogatory. That doesn’t bode well for the team, which is currently facing a trademark lawsuit based on that same legal argument (from William Yurasko). … Other media outlets have started to notice what was first reported here at Uni Watch, namely that Indians fans are “de-Chiefing” their jerseys and caps (thanks, Phil).
Baseball News: The Orioles wore green caps yesterday because Monday’s and Tuesday’s games were rained out (from Tyler Kepner). … Jeff Moulden found a 2007 photo of a baseball team that used the early-2000s Blue Jays logo on the cap and sleeves but had the 1980s White Sox logo on the jerseys. … The Chicago Whales, also known as the Federals — the Federal League team that was the first occupant of Wrigley Field — are getting some recognition at the park (thanks, Garrett). … The Cubs launched a website to celebrate 100 years of Wrigley Field. The site has a section (“2014 Experience”) that shows the throwbacks the Cubs will wear this year (from Phil). … Don Baylor had an odd jersey for his 1988 press conference when he re-signed with the A’s. “Check out the weird, serifed lettering, and what on earth is wrong with the ‘A’?” asks John English. “This was the second year with the script ‘Athletics’ unis, so it’s not something where they hadn’t decided on the lettering style yet.” … If you bought a Mets ticket plan this year, here’s what will show up at your doorstep. … Nail lacquer manufacturer OPI will debut some MLB-inspired products before Opening Day. Basically, it’s just seven different nail polish colors that each have an extremely loose connection to baseball. … Finally, a minor league promotion that doesn’t just repeat the old Stars Wars Night or Jimmy Buffet Night themes: The Memphis Redbirds will wear these amazing hieroglyphic jerseys on June 7, for Tribute to Memphis, Egypt Night (from Thomas Qualls). … The Mariners’ Brad Miller might just be Phil’s favorite player in the game today: stirrups and no batting gloves! … A few Brewers items from John Okray: Miller Park installed grow lights for its grass, fans will decide the base designs, and the team is selling Hank merchandise. Hank is the stray dog the Brewers adopted in Arizona last month.
Hockey News: This is what a Capitals/Ducks game looks like when shot with an infrared camera. Spooky! (Thanks, Phil.) … The Syracuse Crunch will wear 1994 throwbacks on Saturday. … The Lake Erie Monsters will Pink the Rink this Friday (from Tom Pachuta).
Soccer News: Sporting Kansas City held a jersey debut ceremony the other day (from Barry Brite). … Yusuke Toyoda sent in some soccer news: Brazil has worn its signature yellow shirt for 60 years; Pikachu is the official mascot for Japan in the World Cup; Stoke City is switching from Adidas to Warrior Sports; and Luton Town is letting fans vote for the team color for next year. The club recently handed over its image rights to supporters for protection against unwanted future changes.
NBA News: New commissioner Adam Silver, in response to a question at a conferene said uniform ads are inevitable, although he suggested that they might be at least five years away. … Cleveland (and former Golden State) PG Jarrett Jack said that sleeved jerseys look “disgusting” and compared them to what beach police wear. … The Knicks are asking fans to name their D-League team.
College Hoops News: The NCAA Tournament begins today, and if you have a beverage near the court, you know what that means (from Timothy Tryjankowski). … Austin Gray and some friends made an interactive best-logo bracket for the teams in the Tournament, and Clint Richardson made a best-uniform bracket. … A Virginia fan got on-court access at the ACC title game thanks to some confidence and an orange tie. … Tennessee wore jerseys with “Rocky Top” on the inside collar last night.
Grab Bag: The USFL’s Chicago Blitz and Oklahoma Outlaws went color-vs.-color way back in 1984 (from Scott Mason). … The North American Handmade Bicycle Show had some finely painted bikes, and the Women’s World Cup leader jersey will look like this (both from Sean Clancy). … East Jefferson High School in New Orleans wore loud socks in the state title game (from Christopher LaHaye). … Arkansas has a new lacrosse helmet. … Titanium golf clubs can start fires. Imagine the tall-tale golf stories that will come of that. … A Redditor painted George Washington dunking on Kim Jong-un (from Gordon Blau). … I have a mini Culinary Corner for you guys. Last night I made an egg cream, that famous New York drink, and it was the first time I’d ever had it. I’m a Chicago guy staying in beautiful Waukegan, Illinois, for the week, so I couldn’t make it the traditional way. I don’t have access to Fox’s U-bet syrup and I didn’t have whole milk in the fridge, so I made do with seltzer water, 2 percent milk, and Hershey’s chocolate syrup. I poured in one part milk and two parts seltzer water, stirred to get a foam head, then poured in the chocolate and stirred some more (gently, as to not ruin the head). I drank it… and it tasted like chocolate milk with seltzer water dumped in it. Blech. [Heartbreaking. Mike, If you ever make it to NYC, I’ll take you out for a proper egg cream. — PL]
What Paul did last night: Last night my friend Katherine and I went to see a talk by this guy who photographs people with their record collections. It was really fun! Then we went to the Corner Bistro for beer and burgers. That was fun too! Then we got caught in the rain on our way to the subway and ended up getting a bit soaked. That was not so fun! But it was still a lot better than sitting home.