4 Ways Pop Culture Critics Have Made Themselves Obsolete
This isn't going to be one of those "artist versus critic" things where I, the artist, impugn critics and equate them to trolls and demand they create something better than I can or shut up because art. Like it or not, artists can't dismiss critics for the simple reason that art IS in part criticism ...
This is, however, one of those "critics aren't doing it right" things, because when it comes to critiquing art in the 21st century, critics generally suck. Thus I present my review of the reviewers.
They Don't Understand Why People Read Reviews
The conventional reason to read reviews is to see if that thing you're considering dropping 40 bucks on is actually good or not, and conventional reviews reflect this, but just as often people also want to be entertained and to have their opinions validated. I'm sure I'm not alone in immediately jumping on YouTube to find a review that confirms that the game I just enjoyed was in fact the Best Thing Ever, I'm sure I'm not alone in enjoying watching reviews of things from 20 years ago, and I'm certain I'm not alone in watching analysis of things I have no intention of buying, because there are plenty of people with huge audiences making criticism that caters to exactly this kind of stuff. And yet so many reviews are still a generic affair, wherein the product is described, pointlessly compared to an album from 1989 that nobody's heard of, and then given a score out of 10 where anything less than 7 equals disaster -- and all this regardless of the fact that the Internet means anyone can sample anything and thus descriptions of things are less and less relevant.
I started by lashing art and criticism together, and that means one needs to live up to the standards of the other. And if the criticism ends up being more entertaining than what it's critiquing, so be it -- it's the audience who wins in the end, and that's what matters. For fuck's sake we just want to be distracted and/or feel less alone as we're rocketing toward the grave with all our dreams and ambitions disappearing in the rearview mirror, so at least wear a funny hat or something while you're monotonously dancing about architecture. All art is a gift to critics in that they can succeed as entertainers themselves off the back of it, but first they have to accept that gift and run with it, as opposed to tediously panning it and then complaining how everything sucks. There's a group of people who don't even read reviews -- the fucking majority of people, they're called. There's no group of people who doesn't like entertainment.
They Think for the Audience
This review of the show Undercover Boss hits the usual notes of reality TV is for idiots, and everything is staged, and it all distracts the Sheeple from being shaken out of their consumerist stupor and thinking about the real problems in society. Yeah, except what if the audience knows that? What if they aren't complete morons and know that reality TV is staged, or know that it's frankly irrelevant how staged it is because the editing process is so all-powerful as to be able to make anything look like anything else? What if the people watching can see all these problems -- y'know, just like the reviewer could see them, but they enjoy the show anyway because they like it for what aspects of it are authentic. What if reviews suck when you decide to think for the audience ...
What if Undercover Boss isn't a show about pulling fake happy stories out of a nightmarishly unfair corporate deathscape with the goal of placating the servile masses? What if it's a show about seeing the kind of problems that everyday people deal with in a grossly unfair system, and about the shameful distance between management and the shop floor, and about how the most cheerful employee so often seems to have tremendously difficult personal circumstances but is somehow cheerful anyway, and it's nice to see quiet courage actually glorified on TV for once. Because that's my review of Undercover Boss, and others', because even reality TV is only as dumb as your review of it. And if you just want to slag something off, that's what trollish opinion pieces are for.
They Don't Understand Why People Like Things
The reason critics talk down to people is their reviews are targeted at a general audience (again, the exact group of people who doesn't read reviews) -- you give water 10 out of 10 because everyone would like it, and anything that has a strong flavor fewer points because it appeals only to a niche group. But raise your hand if your absolute favorite stuff is thus because of weird, specific reasons that weren't mentioned in any review. Raise your hand if you like strong flavors that others don't. Raise your hand if you're like everyone on Earth: part of a niche audience.
COULD a given piece of art be someone's favorite thing? If it includes any kind of strong flavor, then yes, it could be. If something is weird or unusual because it has some kind of really distinct aspect to it, then I guarantee you that everyone who likes that aspect is going to love it, and that's the kind of thing that every review needs to consider. And the only example you need is Batman, because everyone who loves Batman is automatically going to like a Batman thing more than a general audience will, and everyone who doesn't care about Batman is never going within 100 yards of it no matter how polished it is. So it's easy: Just pretend every game is a Batman game. Find the Batman -- the distinctive flavor -- and score accordingly. Everyone has their Batman, whatever it may be.
Thanks to the ability of the Internet to unite and harness the buying power of people with really specific tastes, art in most mediums is evolving accordingly. But most reviews are still targeted at the increasingly mythical General Audience. If you're in a niche culture you need to write niche reviews. Speaking of which ...
They Aren't Changing With the Stuff They're Reviewing
One of my favorite video games is only thus because fan-created mods fixed the huge host of graphics and control issues that ruin the out-of-the-box version. My favorite rap song is a bootleg remix of a Sage Francis song mashed up with "Bittersweet Symphony" -- which itself famously borrows from a Rolling Stones song. There are bands I know about only because I heard them on a pretend radio in a pretend bar in a modded version of a video game that was in retrospect merely raw material for the numerous free mods and overhauls that brought out its true potential. Some of the best art in life is free. Some of the best versions of songs are remixes or covers. Sometimes I hate a game because it's a remake of a game I loved and it gets everything wrong. Sometime I love a game, from the same company, because I never played the original version of the game it's a remake of. My absolute favorite video game soundtrack is an album I was listening to that meshed perfectly with the game I happened to be playing. Sometimes the biggest fans aren't in the target audience. Sometimes I love something that got bad reviews and sometimes the opposite, but it's never consistent, if it was even reviewed to begin with, if it even could be reviewed. Sometimes you have to look at the postmodern set of circumstances we live in and conclude that the way we review things hasn't changed nearly to the same degree that art has changed, and that's the biggest problem of all with modern criticism.
And it's true that some critics seem to be finally addressing this, but for the most part it's still 20th century reviews of a far more mercurial 21st century world of art, because the way we review stuff was developed in a world before all the remixes and remakes and obsolescence and gray areas and blurred lines that we have now. What, then, can critics do if they're often reviewing things that are niche and free and Kickstarted and a copy of a copy of a copy? That's up to them to decide, but it is their problem and it's not good enough to say: "Oh, we're gonna review it as it was released and then stand by that initial score no matter how unrecognizable it is after two months of hysteria and patching and fan mods, because the Metacritic dictatorship is too entrenched to allow for reviews that change to match how art changes." Art isn't what it used to be, and you can be out of sync only for so long before people start realizing that their favorite everything is nothing like the reviews said it was, so why even read them?
The best thing I played recently was a free fan-created mission for a PC game from 14 years ago that you need an additional free third-party program to run properly, but I only discovered it because someone on a discussion forum had reviewed a ton of fan missions and had rated it a 9.5/10. We need critics to get with the times because we need critics, and if that means criticism becomes less the domain of hopelessly out of touch self-appointed tastemakers and more decentralized and independent in the way that the arts increasingly are, then that's Batman as fuck.