Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pitchforks, Wine, and Battlefields: Why Critics Suck (for the most part)

I’ve never much liked critics. Corman and I were talking about them yesterday and he quoted some brilliant author who described (I’m paraphrasing) them as people who come onto a battlefield after the fighting has ended and shoot all the dead people. They’re mean little cusses, and what they do amounts to very little.

So I heard about this study (and then went and looked it up and found it) where they had some people (not connoisseurs, but people who like red wine) try five “different” wines and rate their taste. Additionally, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity and measure “experienced pleasantness” as they tasted each wine. Overwhelmingly, the subjects rated the most “expensive” wines as the best-tasting. Additionally, the fMRI data showed that the most expensive wines also registered higher experienced pleasantness. In other words, opinions matched brain stimulus.

Here’s the kicker, though… There were only three different wines. One was a $5 bottle that got labeled twice, both as a $5 wine and a fictitious $45 wine; one was a $90 wine that got labeled twice, both as a $90 wine a fictitious $10 wine; the last was a control wine that was correctly labeled with its $35 price.

The study suggests that more than just pretending to have better taste, wine snobs might actually be enjoying more expensive wine better than the cheap stuff; not because it’s inherently better, but because they think it is and unintentionally (but genuinely) enjoy it more.

Is the human brain influenced not only by inherent value of an experience, but also the expectations, perceptions, and marketing surrounding that experience? Whether we like it or not, it seems so.

I've read reviews where Coldplay takes flak for almost everything they do, partially because of Chris Martin's songwriting, but also partially (I think) because of the great level of popularity they have achieved (their new album, for instance, sold 300,000 copies in its first 3 days in the UK alone). Indie critic sites like Pitchfork* pretty much bemoan everything Coldplay does, often referencing a disconnect between the band's huge popularity and its "gag-inducing" songwriting/influences/production. I'm sure that most of the Indie-critics out there would say that popularity really has no weight over the greatness or quality of a piece of music; and yet so many of them use that factor as grounds for an even more intense lambasting of something that has widespread notoriety. The same song that might have been labeled "mediocre" as a no-name's debut single now becomes an absolute "atrocity" simply because the artist has achieved great popular (if not critical) fame.

So I’ve come to a brilliant conclusion: critics are snobs. Big whoop. But I would actually like to defend critics a bit. The above study does help confirm some of the snobbery we have suspected for a long time, but it also tells us that we all are subject to marketing, media attention, and our own personal expectations. Because I love Coldplay, I will probably enjoy their new album more than if it had been released in identical form by some other band. Conversely, those Pitchfork critics hate it simply because it’s Coldplay, but it’s not completely their fault… it’s also the evil record company’s.

So those are my groundbreaking thoughts: critics are lame and record companies suck.

I’ll be doing my own post-battle shooting later this week with a review of Coldplay’s new album which I’m listening to right now.

* Pitchforkmedia.com is a website that reviews music. They are the quintessential Indie-snob critic site. See TheOnion's hilarious parody where Pitchfork gives music as a whole a 6.8 out of 10.


Annie said...
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Annie said...

So, you're being a bit of a critic critic huh? There is some value to critics, as is affirmed by you assuming their role in this post. :)
hah, but seriously, perhaps you are only talking about food and music critics, but there is one critic that comes immediately to mind that i cannot place in this category:
Neil Postman. He writes in his book Technopoly (one of my new favorites), "Anyone who practices the art of cultrual criticism must endure beign asked, What is the solution to the problems you describe? Critics almost never appreciate this question, since, in most cases, they are entirely satisfied with themselves for having posed the problems and, in any event, are rarely skilled in formulating practical suggestions about anything. This is why they become cultural critics...I have indeed given this matter some thought and this chapter is the result. Its simplicity will tell the reader that I am, like most other critic, armed less with solutions than with prolbems."

Perhaps the mark of a good critic is one that acknowledges his or her job for what it is, and tries to transcend it to offer some practical solutions. Anyway, there are some terrible critics, probably more bad critics than good ones, however i don't think that we can demean their roles because of those who don't do it well. I think the mark of the BEST critic is one who offers solutions, but not just any solution, ones that would actually work, stand the test of time.

Travis Whalen said...

Your words flow like a symphony. And Coldplay's new album appears awesome because it is. I often wonder how critics got their start... and how they continue... obviously there is a deep demand for their trade... so do they thrive because we enjoy their views or because we love to hate them?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Good thoughts Ben...
I wish it were easier to be neutral when making and forming opinions.

Unfortunately, alot of junk clouds our sight.

You have a good mind.

Andrew said...


three things:

1. Good post, but you're a critic.

2. Annie Dimond would bring up Neil Postman.

3. I miss your musk.


Chris said...

Ben! I appreciated your post! I went and bought the new album Tuesday and I love it. I miss you!

Annie said...

Andrew Paul, You would be critical of my love for Neil. Well get over it.

Steve Conn said...

a brilliant post. I miss your insight as much as your humor, which is saying a lot. Also, Joe ringerberg was not the first man to use foot-notes, he was just the best.

Corman said...

Criticism isn't necessary. Now, I know what you're thinking. "How will we all know what's good if there aren't critics to tell us?" The answer is simple: Sales figures. If something sells well, then it's good. For further proof, see: The Spice Girls, Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, and Kelly Clarkson. Also Maroon 5. And Nickelback.

Seriously though, the problem isn't critics, but rather our own preoccupation with looking cool. It's been that way since that time in middle school when one kid was listening to Sublime and you walked up to see a group of your friends all bobbing their heads knowingly. You had never heard of Sublime, but they were instantly your favorite band because, well, someone you wanted to be (at least in one sense) liked them.

Nona said...

People should read this.