Is this the worst of times for critics’ end-of-year lists?

Hugh Linehan: The dialogue between commercial success and theories of artistic quality has been broken in the era of data hogging

As you will no doubt have noticed, the season of lists and critical retrospection is upon us. Its starting point since time immemorial (or the late 1990s, which amounts to the same thing) comes in the first week of Advent, when culture journalists huddle together to construct their Bests and Worsts of the year. A week or two closer to Christmas, the political correspondents deliver their verdicts on the events that mattered, followed in short order by the sports hacks, the foreign correspondents and all the rest. A brief hiatus ensues, and then, as soon as the last cracker has been pulled, we find ourselves propelled into lists of Things to Look Forward to Next Year.

None of this relentless tabulation has anything to do with the need to fill yawning stretches of empty space at a time of year when not much else is going on, of course. Nor is there any reason to denigrate the noble efforts of those who toil year in year out at the listmaking coalface. At the very least, they provide a valuable aide-memoire for the rest of us who haven’t been immersed in their specialist artform all year. When it comes to books, they might even spark a couple of last-minute Christmas-present ideas.

How many listeners does the Rest Is History podcast have? How many people watched season two of The Bear? All we know is what gets spewed out in puff pieces about Spotify Unwrapped

Posterity apparently demands that the calendar year be minuted, measured and judged, although it’s unclear whether posterity is paying any attention. As a former listmaker myself, I’d probably prefer if you didn’t scroll back through the decades to see how well the judgments of the past have held up (but you know where to find them).

So where stands the best-of list in 2023? When I asked ChatGPT about this it came up with a few banalities about how the perceived value of professional critical judgment had adjusted downward in the age of Rotten Tomatoes and Goodreads. (It also refused to come up with a Best of 2023 because it’s designed to know nothing about anything that happened after January 2022.) But it did fail to remark on one particular change that has occurred over the past two decades, perhaps because it seems counterintuitive: the disappearance of publicly available data on public consumption.

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Reports of actual sales had been central to the music business since the 1940s – the entire industry was built on the weekly narrative of who was up and who was down. By the end of the last century it had seeped into film coverage too. For several years this newspaper published box-office top tens every week. People talked apparently knowledgeably about arcana such as screen averages and opening-weekend targets. In the early noughties the trend even infiltrated such unlikely activities as print sales of newspapers.

The tension between popular taste and critical hauteur has always been one of the most entertaining parts of the whole process

Then it all stopped. Music shifted from physical sales first to downloads and then to streams, the data on which was held by the platforms themselves. The same thing happened with swathes of movies and TV. Now information on how many people watched or listened is more detailed than ever before. But Spotify, Netflix and Apple, their business model based on consumer surveillance, jealously guard that information and manipulate it for their own purposes in their own most-popular lists and personalised targeting. How many listeners does the Rest Is History podcast have? How many people watched season two of The Bear? All we know is what gets spewed out in puff pieces about Spotify Unwrapped.

Does this matter? It does mean readers of critics’ best-of lists lose a useful yardstick to measure them by. The tension between popular taste and critical hauteur has always been one of the most entertaining parts of the whole process. I’ve already had a couple of people inform me they’ve never heard of many of the titles in The Irish Times’ Best Films of 2023. That is fine by me, although I do suspect anyone interested in the future health of the artform of cinema is a little uneasy about its apparent retreat to the cinematheque and the festival circuit.

Film and popular music, the two great artforms of the 20th century, derived much of their potency from the technologies of mechanical reproduction that allowed film reels and vinyl records to be manufactured and distributed and sold around the world, or reproduced over analogue TV and radio. The internet broke that system in ways we are still reckoning with, upending the dialectic between commercial success and theories of artistic quality. My instinct is that critical tastes in music have edged back towards the commercial mainstream with the increased centrality of pure pop music and the decline of guitar rock but that the opposite is happening in film, where the centre ground continues to shrink and the streaming bubble is bursting.