Tag Archives: Critics

When Critics Fail To Do Their Job

The Guardian have published an interesting article on the massive hype surrounding the release of Oasis third album “Be Here Now”, and the subsequent bursting of the bubble.

The press release declared it as having the same impact as coming of Elvis and Dylan going electric. It received fawning five-star reviews in almost every publication. And then in a space of just a few days, its reputation crashed and burned once people had the chance to hear the record and realised that what they were hearing didn’t match the hype.

The mood of the country had changed since Oasis’ first two albums; Radiohead’s “OK Computer” was the record everyone was talking about, and the cool kids were forming prog-rock bands. Oasis’ combination of the least interesting aspects of indie and classic rock has become yesterday’s sound.

This pair of quotations from music journo Paul Lester and publicist Johnny Hopkins are quite illuminating.

“I was caught up in the excitement of it all,”  Lester says. “I’m so sorry to everybody for that review, but the enormity of it was captivating. We were reviewing a moment in history and staking our part in it. It was like seeing the great behemoth of a spaceship in Close Encounters. You felt awed into submission.”

“You want the record to be good because you’re into the band,” says Hopkins. “And you want it to be good because that means it’s going to sell well and that’s going to help the magazines sell well. But I was surprised that there wasn’t a dissenting voice. When a band gets to that level, there’s always someone who says, ‘Hold on a minute,’ but there wasn’t [for Oasis].”

The whole episode is a teachable moment in the history of music criticism. It marked the beginning of the end of an era in which the mainstream music press had a huge influence as tastemakers and gatekeepers. For the NME in particular it was the beginning of their long-overdue decline into irrelevance.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | 5 Comments

What is Criticism For?

Thiis comment left on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog resonated very strongly with me

Being a good critic takes a lot of courage of a certain kind, I think. Perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of reviews of more contemporary media. Especially for critics who fraternize with the writers they’re charged with reviewing (of course they same applies with video games or what have you), I think it can be difficult to write honest criticism and there is the temptation to inflate positives. Hell, these pressures are even present when you don’t personally know the creator. I’ve reviewed or wanted to review games I’ve played where it pained me to list negatives because I really liked or sympathized with the developers.

I’m reminded of that line in the film “Almost Famous”, when Lester Bangs tells the novice music journalist “These people are not your friends”.

When you’re on first name terms with some of the people you’re reviewing, there’s always the potential for conflicts of interest. No matter how much you try to be objective, once you know the people involved it does change the way you perceive their music.

When you’re writing enthusiastic positive reviews, they’ll always love you, but if you say something critical you can sometimes find out how professionally they handle it the hard way. Nowadays I’ve got a self-imposed rule that I’ll restrict strongly negative reviews to artists I don’t know personally and am unlikely to meet, and will decline to review albums or gigs by people I know if I think they’re sub-standard. I haven’t always followed that rule in the past, but the damage it can do to relationships just isn’t worth it.

The linked blog post raises wider questions, which it doesn’t really answer, over what criticism is supposed to be for. I’m a strong believer in critic-as-curator, someone who sifts through the dross and tells the world about the good stuff that might otherwise have flown beneath people’s radar.

There’s a place for criticism highlighting where artists can improve, but I’ve not got much time for critic-as-gatekeeper, or worse, critic-as-would-be-censor. The most obnoxious failure mode of rock criticism is the sneering dismissive review by someone with no love or understanding of what the artist is trying to do, that challenges their work’s right to exist. Too much mainstream music press coverage of progressive rock by people steeped in the thirty year old revisionist punk narrative falls into that trap.

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The context was actually Manga, but the advice from a convention panel goes broader than that. “Be thick-skinned. you need to be able to take both good and bad reviews“. Because, to quote Serdar Yegalulp, “Sometimes praise can be as damaging as insult, and the damage is not always as palpable“. This is just as true with music, especially in this social media age. I’ve seen artists surround themselves with sycophants, and it’s all too easy for them to lose their edge as a result.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off