Artists get upset over a bad review? Give me a break
Donald Clarke: The act of appreciation is just a refined version of what audiences do every day
Lizzo performs onstage at the 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival o in Indio, California. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
Not this again. You didn’t like Shazam!? Well, I’d like to see you make a superhero films. Down on Adele? I didn’t know you had such a way with the wine-bar ballad.
We have the American pop star Lizzo to thank for the latest round of “shut up if you can’t do better yourself”. Earlier this week, the Minnesotan belter, whose new LP Cuz I Love You is already unavoidable, posted a controversial demand on Twitter. “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED” she said in a cap-locked mode that effectively echoed the melodic foghorn of her excellent voice.
Lizzo had been embarrassed by a breathlessly positive review and, feeling that she didn’t deserve such praise, was anonymously upbraiding a music writer unschooled enough to appreciate her limitations.
I’m yanking your chain. Of course she wasn’t. Artists never seem to make this distinction when they are receiving praise. A lukewarm (6.5/10) notice in hipster bible Pitchfork looks to have upset Lizzo. “Despite her obvious skill and charisma, some of the album’s 11 songs are burdened with overwrought production, awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping,” Rawiya Kameir wrote. She said nicer things elsewhere.
It never looks good for an artist to get their tinies in a twist over a bad review. It looks worse when that artist turns ad hominem on the critic. They are too old. They are too young. They are too white. Brie Larson’s otherwise commendable campaign for diversity in the movie media took a stumble when she announced that: “I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him!”
PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED— |L I Z Z O| (@lizzo) April 22, 2019
All right then, Brie. I have no interest in hearing what you have to say about material focusing on middle-aged white Irish blokes such as … Erm … Mrs Brown’s Boys. I don’t want to hear what you think of Mrs Brown’s Boys. Okay?
The news that Cuz I Love You got generally excellent reviews makes Lizzo’s position look more childish still. “It’s insane that Lizzo isn’t a household name already, but that will no doubt change soon,” Louise Bruton wrote in The Irish Times. It has already changed. In the week since that review was published, the album has picked up massive attention. It is going to be played everywhere this summer.
If she was producing retro-folk-glitch above an organic porridge stall in Brooklyn then she wold have every right to be annoyed with Pitchfork. But mainstream ain’t that site’s bag. Roll with that punch, former Melissa Viviane Jefferson. You’re doing fine.
Whatever about the merits of this particular case, Lizzo has touched upon a theme that has rumbled throughout the long relationship between critics and the criticised. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t even do that criticise. Right? Ha ha ha!
Get out of here. The act of appreciation for the critic is - when done correctly - just a refined, formalised version of what readers, listeners and audience members do every day. Martin Amis once described the critical process as determining how some work rubbed you up and then working out why it rubbed you up that way. Yes, we expect critics to have an in-depth knowledge of their subject.
A filmmaker would be justified in offering two fingers to a critic who couldn’t tell their Hawks from their Haneke. A musician can be rightly annoyed if a reviewer fails to identify the role of the middle eight in popular song. But you don’t need to make a film or release a record to accumulate that knowledge.
And yet. More than a few distinguished professionals have placed feet in both ponds. We shouldn’t be surprised that novelists often move into literary criticism. Both tasks involve the arranging of words within paragraphs. In other media, however, the passage is more often in the opposite direction.
Neil Tennant was assistant editor of Smash Hits before forming the immortal Pet Shop Boys. Kenneth Tynan was the UK’s most distinguished theatre critic before creating Oh! Calcutta! and helping found the National Theatre. A whole generation of French film critics - Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, others - got behind the camera and invited the Nouvelle Vague to rise.
The world would be a greyer place without the Shoppies’ West End Girls or Godard’s Vivre sa Vie. But the shift in allegiances is unhelpful to those of us left behind. We want to tell Lizzo not just that critics are capable of assessing the art without themselves being artists, but also that - contrary to popular rejoinder - they are not all secretly dreaming of becoming musicians, directors or sculptors. You’ve been letting us down for decades, Godard. Stay in your place.