Artists, and their fans, who hit out at mixed reviews misunderstand the value of critical ambivalenceby Harry Harris / October 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
There is a thing that happens with popular art where, once it has achieved an almost canonical status, we go back and roast the folks who weren’t that fussed on first viewing.
Ricky Gervais invited his fans to do it in 2016, sharing Victor Lewis Smith’s 2001 Evening Standard review of The Office in which Smith says “how this dross ever got beyond the pilot stage is a mystery.” In April of this year, the Spectator published a hilariously smug article in the wake of Fleabag’s second season saying that while they had always loved the work, many others did not. (The Spectator fails to mention the Scotsman Fringe First it won, and the Stage award for outstanding performance awarded to its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, both of which may have had something to do with the fact that it was on the Spectator’s radar.)
The implication here is that all these negative reviews of things that the public have now deemed to be hugely successful are objectively wrong. Never mind that Smith’s review correctly picked up on The Office’s Larry Sanders’ influence, or the fact that the majority of the three-star Fleabag reviews are, in fact, full of praise for the show. The reviewers didn’t go ride-or-die hard for something that is now inarguably a hit, so they’re put up for ridicule.
Artists, too, are increasingly getting involved. Back in April, 2019’s breakout popstar Lizzo said “people who review albums and don’t make music themselves should be unemployed.” In September, Lana Del Rey responded to Ann Powers’ actually pretty favourable review of her new album Norman Fucking Rockwell with a couple of pointed jabs on Twitter, saying “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music.” Just the other week, one of those early three-star Fleabag reviews also went viral in the aftermath of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy win, alongside the caption “Don’t let the fuckers grind you down.”
There’s a Simon Munnery joke, often repeated by comedian Stewart Lee, which says something to the effect of: “If the crowd’s behind you, you’re facing the wrong way.” It actually reads more like a philosophical maxim than a gag, and implicit in it is a suspicion of universal acclaim.
This is good. We…