Critics who don’t themselves make music “SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED”, the American rapper Lizzo tweeted to her 222,000 followers this week. The star was reacting angrily to an unflattering, though far from hostile, review of her new album Cuz I Love You. The battle between offended artist and critic is a well-established one. Though the medium has changed, Lizzo’s message was a striking echo of a furious telegram displayed in a new British Library exhibition. Its sender, the playwright John Osborne, complained that a reviewer did not understand creation, warning him, also in capital letters, “FROM NOW ON IT’S OPEN WAR ALL THE WAY”.
But Lizzo was wrong about this, as she may have taken on board. (“Gonna take my temper off the internet”, she subsequently tweeted.) Publishers, studios and artists have always been publicists as well as creators. Independent voices offer a crucial counterweight. Critics help people determine which music, TV, books and plays to spend their time and money on, and to make the most of those choices. The internet has made it easier to sample culture, while social media has vastly increased the range of word of mouth. But in our age of algorithmically generated recommendations, this curatorial role has arguably become more important.
Judgments, whether of opera or soap opera, are subjective. What is considered beautiful or interesting depends on perspective. But knowledge and experience, whether of folk music or science fiction, matter. A person who has been reading poetry for decades, or has seen a play many times, will be able to tell you things about a new poem or performance that others can’t – even, sometimes, their creators.
Disagreement is healthy. Artists are free to take issue with critics (in the world of books these are often the same people), just as other critics are. The internet was supposed to make this whole process more democratic and open, since comment threads and websites could publish far more opinions than the printed pages of old. The wisdom of the crowd, in all its diversity, would enhance that of the traditional gatekeepers.
This partly worked. It is much easier to access a range of views than it used to be. Lively arguments about talked-about shows – like the discussion of the Fleabag finale – can quickly spread. But social media also provides a platform for performers to reveal their thin skins, or for armies of fans to descend upon anyone who dares to dislike a favoured star or film franchise. Justin Bieber’s outburst this week, after he was criticised on a talkshow for lipsynching in an appearance at the Coachella festival, suggested an alarming degree of sensitivity.
The malevolent critic, motivated by envy of creativity, is a tired trope kept alive for the benefit of the artists it flatters. (In the 1973 film Theatre of Blood an actor played by Vincent Price takes the ultimate revenge, killing off his critics one by one.) True, reviewers can be gratuitously mean. Criticism is the exercise of judgment, and this applies to what is said but also how and to whom; as a rule, novices should be treated more gently. Yet performers and others who resent harsh words should be careful what they wish for. Critics are part of the proof that culture matters.