What we’re really saying when we criticize Yuja Wang

And by “we” I mean “you” because I refuse to be part of that clownfoolery

Last Friday Yuja Wang, superstar pianist, played a concert. This would not ordinarily be news, because Yuja Wang is a superstar pianist and therefore plays a lot of concerts. Reporting that Yuja Wang performed a concert would be like reporting that an accountant did a tax return, or that a composer procrastinated on Twitter. This particular concert, however, spurred self-styled critics into a frenzy, tearing into Wang online and shaming her mercilessly.

What was Yuja Wang’s crime? Did she kick a puppy on stage? Did she announce her endorsement for Michael Bloomberg? Did she declare that Rise of Skywalker was the best Star Wars movie? 

Worse, my friends. Yuja Wang committed the unspeakable crime of wearing sunglasses on stage.

There are many reasons a person might wear sunglasses at any given point; if I see a person wearing sunglasses indoors or in an otherwise unusual circumstance, I usually assume that they have some reason to do so, be it a medical condition or a winged eyeliner mishap. Unless I am in the room to give them an eye exam, it is none of my business. I then get on with my own life, because I have a lot of my own problems to deal with.

In Yuja Wang’s case, it turns out she had been detained and questioned at the airport, an experience she reported “humiliating,” almost causing her to miss said performance, and she donned the sunglasses so that the audience would not be distracted by her red and swollen eyes. In other words, she was a consummate professional with a very legitimate reason to cover her eyes, and she gave what sounds to be a brilliant performance.

However, it seems that “minding your own business,” “understanding that you don’t know the whole story,” and “enjoying a performance by one of the most famous pianists on the planet” are concepts too difficult for grown adults to process when there are dark-colored spectacles involved, and people who apparently have little else to worry about ripped into Wang for “rejecting” her audience and being “attention-seeking” (two concepts which are pretty much mutually exclusive, but that’s neither here nor there). It got so bad that Wang released a personal statement on social media explaining the situation.

Sunglasses are a very, very small thing to spark controversy, but the elephant in the room that no one seems to be addressing in Sunglassesgate is that there is a not-very-small number of people who will take any opportunity, however contrived, to attack Yuja Wang, because there is something about her they find deeply offensive. (In other words, I don’t think this was really about the sunglasses.) It is no secret that for the past decade—in which Wang has sustained a brilliant international career and proven herself to be both an unparalleled virtuoso and a deeply expressive artist—critics who are ostensibly here to talk about music have instead focused on Wang’s sartorial choices. I remember being a piano student looking forward to having an excuse to wear glamorous gowns onstage, reading reviews in which Wang was raked over the coals for wearing dresses that were too short! too revealing! too distracting! and being dismayed that this was another thing I had to worry about. 

(Never mind that you see much more of any number of women on the covers of mainstream magazines when you stand in line buying bananas at the grocery store; apparently knowing that a concert artist has legs and shoulders and even a midriff is enough to make one’s ears shrivel up in horror.)

I love going to Yuja Wang’s performances because she makes the music, and the stage, her own. She obviously loves the music she plays, she obviously gives a lot to her audiences, and she obviously enjoys performing. She wears designer dresses that signal that she is fashion-savvy as well as musically talented, and her effortless pedaling in four-inch Louboutins always reminds me of the famous quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did “backwards and in high heels.” She is confidently and unapologetically herself on stage, and this gives me inspiration: to be myself, to also let my own voice speak through the music of others, to present myself to the world in whatever way I feel comfortable.

It is this confidence and lack of apology, I think, that really rankles people. Despite my best efforts, I keep running across comments that Wang doesn’t “respect” the music, that her choices are “distracting.” Wang posted a photo of herself in a crop top and shorts posing against one of those ubiquitous Los Angeles angel wing murals (in other words, looking like every other girl in SoCal), and a commenter begged her to keep “clean representation.”

I believe gatekeeping in classical music is bad, that we should not be snobs who shame listeners for not knowing more about music history or theory (studies which often require specialized and expensive training). But when I encounter people wringing their hands over not “respecting” the music, not “keeping it clean,” I think, bro, do you even know anything about classical music?

Classical music has never been “clean.” It’s an elitist art form historically funded by the noble and the wealthy in order to prop up their public personas of being lofty intellectuals; composed and performed by people who swore and got thrown in jail and wrote about sex and defecation; used by Nazis to justify racial supremacy; whose rules have been arbitrarily used to exclude women; which has been censored and tightly controlled to protect fascist governments. The history of classical music is as sordid as anything else in this world—I say this as someone who loves and plays and promotes classical music—and the fact that we still remake this music in ever-grander images in a never-ending effort to transcend the dirt and desperation of our imperfect world is a testament to human optimism and our collective desire for progress, more than it is a reflection of the music’s inherent purity. 

It’s an art form that, despite the endless train of doomsday sayers claiming it is dying, continues to be fresh and to draw new audiences, in large part thanks to artists like Yuja Wang. What does criticizing her constantly for her non-musical choices on stage do? The stage, as the world, is a cruel and lonely place; in a world increasingly hospitable to us being our truest selves (not shamed into staying in the closet, not shamed into suppressing our individual stories, not shamed into irreparably hurting our bodies and faces to conform to unhealthy ideals of beauty), why do we still insist that the audience has the right to control the appearance of a person they are there to listen to? Presumably Wang is comfortable in what she wears and her choices don’t keep her from giving world-class performances to countless audiences: why is that so threatening? Why do we celebrate Glenn Gould’s weird creaky chair and humming-while-playing and demonize Yuja Wang for wearing sunglasses or reminding us that, like the rest of us, she has shoulder blades? 

Fashion has long been one of the only acceptable ways for women to express themselves. Long before women could vote, publish under their own names, own property, or be viewed as full people in the eyes of the law, women have been allowed control over their appearance as a socially approved substitute for having a voice. It’s striking to me that when critics mention a female performer’s outfit, they rarely name the designer (probably because they neither know nor care, because it would be superficial to know or care) but are more than happy to dunk on said outfit anyway, never mind that finding an evening dress in one’s size that allows full athletic mobility and breathing and stays up during feats of physical movement and still looks glamorous-but-not-gauche, modest-but-not-matronly onstage and makes the performer feel physically and psychologically comfortable is a losing battle. And when an artist rises above these limitations to wear a whole cavalcade of gowns that don’t just cover, but also communicate, through the language of fashion, as Yuja Wang does, the knives come out, and not in the fun way

And while I’m at it, what is with the “attention seeking” jab? Putting aside the fact that her choice to wear sunglasses was a professional courtesy, and not a demand for attention—how is an artist looking for attention such a terrible thing? Are we supposed to pretend that unseen forces plucked Wang, and other famous musicians, up from a quiet humble life of obscure toil against their wishes, that they never asked for the limelight, that all musicians play music for themselves and not for the attention of others, that no artist longs for an audience? Attention is the currency of the arts. We are all looking for attention, whether we’re musicians selling tickets or trolls on social media or lonely singles on Tinder or people with blogs attacking famous classical musicians. Why is this artist, this particular choice, this instance such a horrible example of seeking attention?

I’ve asked a lot of questions, and the secret here is that they’re all rhetorical. I know the answer to all these questions, and if you give them even a moment’s thought, you do too. I ask these questions because they are questions I have to grapple with in my own aspiring career. Female artists—even us lowly nobodies with a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Yuja Wang’s audience and critics—have to worry about how we present ourselves to audiences to a dizzyingly stupid degree. Wear something that covers your arms and you’re a frump who can’t possibly convey any sensuousness in the music; wear something that allows your arms full movement and you’re an inappropriate hussy who is incapable of communicating deep universal truths. A young Robin McCabe was slammed in a review for looking “gauche” in a peach chiffon dress; Lara St. John’s 1996 relatively tame album cover was cited by commenters as proof that she was merely an “attention seeker” when in 2019 she came forward with her painful story of being assaulted at Curtis. The records of women offering the labor of their music, and being criticized for their appearance instead, are legion to the point of being cliché. And now we have this: the sunglasses. 

So next time Yuja Wang, or any other artist, makes some onstage decision you don’t like, that has nothing to do with the music, stop feigning concern over your purported respect for the music and just admit that you don’t respect the performer. You could simply choose not to go to her performances; she sells out more than enough concerts to miss you. If you absolutely must hear her playing live, but can’t focus for what you see on the stage, you could simply choose not to look: in fact, you might find it helpful to wear a pair of sunglasses.