Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong

Interesting post on Criticwire; A.O. Scott and Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong. It’s really about film criticism, but it’s the sort of thing that’s more widely applicable, including music criticism.

Criticism isn’t meant to be the final word but an opening statement, or, increasingly, a volley in the potentially unending ping-pong match between writers and readers — to the extent that distinction is even meaningful anymore. Critics should try to be right, of course, whatever that means in the context of a largely subjective medium. (My definition: Passionate but controlled; true to the aesthetic and moral principles you’ve articulated and evolved over the course of your critical career. Also, try to spell the names right.) But there’s nothing more dangerous to a critic than the ironclad belief in their own rightness.

A couple of things resonate quite strongly here. The first is that anyone who’s too afraid of being wrong will be less effective as a critic. We’ve all seen reviews where the reviewer won’t commit to saying whether the record is good, bad or indifferent, and instead dances around the subject with a load of anodyne waffle. Worst still is groupthink, when the reviewer is afraid to be the one who’s out of step with everyone else. It’s the reason I  never read other reviews of a record before I’ve written my own.

The second is that reviews are ephemeral compared to their subjects. For new releases a review is only relevent during a record’s release window. Once a critical mass of people have had the chance to hear it for themselves, anything you write is old news. In the case of a high-profile major act that window is measured in days. For a small independent release that relies on word-of-mouth for promotion it’s more like months, and reviews are an important part of that word-of-mouth process. In many cases the most significant thing is the fact that you’ve chosen to review it at all.

Eventually the record will either become part of the canon, for some given value of canon, or it will sink into obscurity. Either way, subsequent writing about them will read in a very different context, even if the writer or reader is discovering the actual music for the first time.

To give an example, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” now has an assured status in the rock canon, with Dave Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” recognised as a rock standard. Few remember or care about Sounds’ Dave McCulloch’s one-star review that complained that there were too many guitar solos.

I’ve just written a strongly negative review of a record by one of the biggest names in progressive rock. Judging by subsequent conversations a lot of others share my opinion. But there are some strongly positive reviews out there of the same record that declare it a masterpiece. And here’s the important thing; none of these reviews are wrong. They’re all part of the conversation. Eventually a consensus will emerge, even if that consensus is that it’s a Marmite record that divides opinion.

And yes, sometimes you will look back at a record you praised or damned, and realise you were completely wrong about it.

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