Criticial Facilities

Unless you spend a lot of time wading around the shallow end of the music media, you probably missed the recent kerfuffle where a number of high-profile musicians (starting with Lorde) used social media to express their disapproval of magazines – specifically Complex – putting artists on the cover then bagging them out in reviews:

bugs me how publications like complex will profile interesting artists in order to sell copies/get clicks and then shit on their records? it happens to me all the time- pitchfork and that ilk being like “can we interview you?” after totally taking the piss out of me in a review. have a stance on an artist and stick to it. don’t act like you respect them then throw them under the bus.

[Yes, we know we’re not music reviewers. We’re going somewhere with this, trust us]

Unsurprisingly, Complex had their own take on this:

Contrary to whatever Lorde may think, for Complex to give a cover to an artist like Iggy Azalea or current covergirl Jhené Aiko (or even Lorde for that matter) it simply boils down to Complex thinking the artist is someone our audience is interested in. Giving someone a bad review basically boils down to thinking someone our audience is interested in didn’t make a very good record. We can’t speak for all publications, but we imagine it works about the same way for them.

And the internet being what it is, everyone else who’s ever written a word about music chimed in:

Tom Hawkins:

This, in turn, is indicative of a more pervasive problem, which is the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, regardless of its premises or coherency. It’s not. You either know what the fuck you’re talking about or you don’t.

Bernard Zuel:

Still, you would like to think that most artists have some grasp of the difference between what we might call a “feature”, that is a story and/or photo, usually involving an interview with them, and a “review”, a critical appraisal of their work. And, in understanding the difference recognise the differing roles.

Jake Celand:

“suggesting that a magazine’s staff – let alone the freelancer who is not on the masthead but is increasingly responsible for producing this type of content in exchange for peanuts and pennies and open bar press passes – owes you a positive record review simply because you and your publicist were kind enough to grant their employers a mutually beneficial interview is tantamount to promoting corporate censorship in arts criticism.”

Why are we mentioning any of this in a comedy blog? For one thing, we’re jealous: can anyone seriously imagine the television critics of Australia rising up if someone famous took a swing at them for being inconsistent? Oh wait, that would never happen because the situation would never arise – the unity between “criticism” and overall editorial opinion that Lorde is asking for is what we currently have in the world of Australian television coverage. We live in a land where TV coverage is based entirely on having a (favourable) stance on an artist and sticking to it no matter what. And hasn’t that worked out so well for viewers?

As for comedy critics… well, not a year goes by it seems without one comedian or another having a go at the critics covering the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It’s hard to know what’s more depressing about that: the fact that no-one steps up to defend comedy criticism the way these writers have defended music criticism, or the fact that the comedians are usually right.

But mostly we’re just in hysterics. If you said “suggesting that a magazine’s staff owes you a positive record review simply because you and your publicist were kind enough to grant their employers a mutually beneficial interview is tantamount to promoting corporate censorship in arts criticism” to a television publicist you’d see an awful lot of blinking and not much else. Because that’s exactly how television publicity works in this country: if you want access to the stars, you have to suck up to the stars. And if you don’t want access to the stars, what are you doing writing about television?

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  • BIlly C says:

    The main issue with comedy criticism in this country is that a lot of it isn’t very good. At the Adelaide fringe you’d have people putting 10-15k on the line to put on shows and then being given a crap review by the food critic from the Tiser. The verdict – Not enough seasoning.

    Some of those shows would then win awards. It’s not only the Murdoch press, the Age has sent the dance reviewer or court reporter off to see things they’ve panned that have then gotten brilliant reviews. Likewise it’s happened the other way round with the Herald-Sun giving 4 to 5 star reviews from first time reviewers to first time performers while experienced performers get tough reviews. Not good for the punters. I saw some shows this year that were well reviewed by the Herald-Sun that were pretty average. Not terrible but very middle of the road. It’s all obviously subjective and par for the course and people should cop it on the chin and shut up and deal with it.

    This year was different however as the Herald-Sun pulled reviews and replaced them with better ones once the shows were nominated for awards or they realised they had sent poor reviewers and that’s the height of incompetence. So when the festival sponsor pulls a poor review of a festival produced act and replaces it with a good one it’s not a good look.

  • Tristan says:

    Interesting that they would swap a review like that. They would only do it for the shows at festival managed venues though, because of the partnership between the festival and the Herald Sun. All the other shows at independent venues are mud under the shoes for all the MICF management cares. The independents can cop all the unfair and shoddy reviews because the less people that go to them, the more people will go to the festival managed shows, where the MICF collects 10% of the ticket price. The only reason they keep the festival open and keep independent acts around is to prevent a rival festival from springing up and competing for grant money. I always thought it a bit shady that the handful of people who nominate and choose the winners for the festival awards are the same people who produce the festival managed shows. It’s all about the bottom line more than anything else.

  • BIlly C says:

    They also swapped out a review for a show at Tuxedo Cat. The MICF does not collect 10% of the ticket price. Ticketmaster collects a fee and the festival charges a venue fee but they obviously incur costs to produce the venues. Also with the exception of the Festival Director’s Award all other wards are chosen by panels predominately made up of people who do not work for the festival. It is an uneven playing field in many ways but not exactly as you’ve described.