here’s a scene near the beginning of Almost Famous where 15-year-old William miller (played by Patrick Fugit) is put down by the up-and-coming band Stillwater for his status as a music journalist. Jason Lee calls him “the enemy.” Billy Crudup says the band makes music for the fans, not the critics.
I’m glad Billy Crudup got shot in Mission Impossible III, and I hope Jason lee is stuck in nothing but Alvin & the Chipmunks sequels for the rest of his career.
Seeing critics as the enemy is something artists— musicians, filmmakers, authors and so on— tend to do very often. Do a Google search for Crudup’s line: there are 234 million results, and you have get to page 30 before finding a reference to the movie. Most them are interviews with artists done after their latest work fails to impress critics.
Motives aside, and speaking as a proud critic, it’s an incredibly unfair assertion to make. A well-done piece of criticism requires a great deal of thought, just like any good art piece. And just like any other art forms, for every person who does it well, there are several more who don’t.
You may turn hours into days or weeks working on just the right bridge for a new song, but would you listen to the new Slipknot album, not once, but for as many times as it takes to form something resembling a comprehensive thought? Or go to an advance screening of That’s My Boy and then spend the rest of your night putting together 500 words on the subject?
What seems to be lost is that, like other forms of art, the ultimate goal in criticism is entertainment. Despite it being the implication, a good critic is not someone trying to offer a definitive opinion on what is good or bad art. It’s someone who does their best to convey their thoughts, feelings and emotions in a distinctive and entertaining voice.
Turn the page and look at The Lance’s reviews. There are no stars, letter grades or thumbs. It’s because the focus is not on telling you whether something is good or bad at a glance. Art is not that simple. And neither is reviewing it. Read the review and decide for yourself whether it’s something you’re going to spend your time with.
The fact that a critic’s work is also offered up to the gladiator pit of debate that is the Internet just means we have to be that much more on our game, not only because of competition and comparison with peers but with the knee-jerk reaction of online fan communities. Try this: go tweet something vaguely negative about Justin Beiber and see the amount of backlash you receive by the time you finish reading this column. And critics know that they have to deal with this these days. They are less entranced by visions of a Pulitzer Prize and instead dread the inevitable wrath that awaits them in the comment sections of their stories.
In the aforementioned scene, Miller wins over Stillwater by listing off facts about the band and a positive assessment of their recent material. The band, seeing that he is the fan they so righteously perform for, instantly accept him and bring him on a rock and roll adventure. But even though he was being honest, all Miller did was tell the band what they wanted to hear. And “real” artists don’t seem to have a problem with critics when that’s the case. But, to quote Miller’s mentor Lester Bangs, “you have to be honest and unmerciful.” Only then, does criticism become its own art.