The Rights and Wrongs of Negative Reviews

Oh dear. The Guardian’s Ian Gittins has written a one-star review of Ed Sheeran protégée Jamie Lawson, and all hell has broken loose in the comments. So much so that the reviewer, to his credit, has entered the fray and defended his review. Not that I’m completely buying his defence.

Since I mentioned his negative reviews of Steve Hackett and King Crimson as a reason not to take his word for it in the comments, he also responded directly to me:

Hello Kalyr. I think we have safely established now that we don’t see eye to eye on Steve Hackett and King Crimson! However, I thought Steven Wilson was great at the Albert Hall a year or so ago, and raved about it in the Guardian. Believe it or not, I am not pathologically anti-prog…

This was my response:

Ian,

First, you deserve a lot of credit for coming into the comments defending your review; most writers won’t do that.

About that Steve Hackett gig. I was reviewing that show for another publication. I had volunteered for that one not because I was a huge fan of Steve Hackett but because I was a friend of the support act, singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Helder. I knew it was going to be a nostalgia show, and thought Hackett’s newly-released Genesis Revisited album was a rather pointless record which added nothing to the original 70s recordings.

Because the publication I was writing for wasn’t high enough up the food chain to get more than one person on the guest list, I had to double up as a photographer, and there was no photo pit for that gig. Which meant I had to position myself along the side of the room about a dozen rows back and use a telephoto lens. So I had a very good view of the audience, and how they were reacting.

I have no idea what part of the room you were in, but from where I was the atmosphere was absolutely electric throughout his set. It’s true that there was little verbal interaction with the audience between songs, and Nad Sylvain is no Peter Gabriel, but that wasn’t the point, the music spoke for itself. For much of the audience it was music they’d grown up with but had not heard performed live for thirty years. There was a lot of passion in that performance, feeding off the energy from the audience, and it sure didn’t feel remotely like a bunch of has-beens going through the motions like a few other 70s bands I could mention.

My golden rule for reviewing is base everything on how you feel the moment you walk out of the venue; are you in a state of euphoria or is it a case of “thank God that’s over”? For me, and for almost everyone else I know who was there, that was at least a four star gig, not a two star one.

You are entitled to your opinion, of course. But I’m far from the only person who thought you misjudged that gig very, very badly.

I know we prog fans can get very defensive about critical reviews in the mainstream press. But that’s because no other genre seems to get misjudged so frequently.

What got me about his Jamie Lawson review was the mean-spirited nature. It might be true that the subject is a mediocre talent who’s been the undeserving recipient of media hype. It might be equally true that one irritatingly simplistic and sentimental song has become a massive hit with the sorts of people who are not normally music fans. But that’s no excuse for a spiteful review that reads more as a personal attack on the artist than a critique of his art. And like a lot of this kind of review, there’s an implied subtext of an extended sneer at his audience. Like the all-too-common ritual dismissals of progressive rock, it’s a sort of lazy faux-iconoclasm, going after targets who already fall into the writer’s outgroup for cheap applause.

We prog fans get very defensive about this sort of thing. In part it’s because we’re all sick and tired of the ritual dismissal that harks back to the days of punk. But it’s also a consequence of the incestuous nature of the current prog world where there’s a blurring of boundaries between artists, critics and fans. That sort of scathing review simply isn’t possible; as the saying goes, you can’t shit in your own bed. There needs to be a space for critical reviews, of course, but if you want to avoid being ostracised from the scene you either have to frame things constructively or carefully pick and choose what you review. There have been cases where I’ve been disappointed with records when I’ve known the artist, and have told editors that I wasn’t willing to review for that reason. As I’ve said in the past, criticism is as much about what you do and don’t write about as it is about what you actually say.

You only have to look over the wall at the toxic cesspool that Science Fiction fandom has become in the wake of Requires Hate and the Sad Puppies to recognise what happens when empathy-free criticism is actively encouraged.

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5 Responses to The Rights and Wrongs of Negative Reviews

  1. Ian Redfearn says:

    Very well said. One of the things that really annoys me with a lot of reviews (both in the printed and electronic press) is the lack of understanding of the product under review. For example, I want a Steve Hackett review to tell me that as a fan it was good, bad or indifferent. Highlight the positives and negatives. Then add a layer that gives me an insight as a non fan. The same with movies, for example is the latest Avengers movie a good movie for its genre, a movie that breaks out of the genre to a wider audience or is it poor within its own space. I am not interested in a review that tells me that it is awful compared to the latest art house film exposing the myth of love through decaying flowers. Critique the movie, gig,track within the context of the work.

    Apologies for any grammatical errors in this, it was typed on a mobile phone whilst travelling between Euston and Crewe on a bouncy Virgin train.

  2. Chuk says:

    I like your golden rule of reviewing. I often like your reviews even though I am not really a fan of most prog, and I can read the review while thinking “I probably would not have enjoyed that show.”

  3. Tim Hall says:

    I’ve got an equivalent rule for support bands, it’s how you feel at the very moment they announce “and this is our last song”. That feeling never lies.

  4. Colum Paget says:

    I get a bit wary of invoking she-who-must-not-be-named in terms of mere negative reviews. ‘negative reviews’ can mean just someone saying ‘I didn’t like this’, which is fine. At the next level we’ve got the kind of review that says ‘person X is a ******’, which is not a review at all, its’ a personal attack. Some number of levels up the fruitcake we have someone like requires_hate, who manipulates an entire community to their own ends through a campaign of hatred. RH was much more than just a negative reviewer, and I do wonder if it’s fair to either RH or Mr Gittins to conflate them. Mr Gittins reviews may sometimes cross a line, but I suspect he’s a long way from really implementing the kind of reign-of-terror that RH commanded in her heyday.

  5. Tim Hall says:

    But as you and I know, Bob, RH went well beyond vitriolic reviews and was guilty of stalking and harassing authors. That’s not just the line Ian Gttings crossed, but several more lines beyond that.

    SF fandom has the problem that so many of her enablers and supporters are still repected members of the community.