Critics aren’t the problem. Opinions are.

In a recent interview with CMT’s Craig Shelburne, Shania Twain revealed the last potential hiccup that all the months of preparation and rehearsal for her big return to performing (in her own Las Vegas spectacular, no less) had failed to address.

Namely, the critics.

I think the only thing that makes me nervous is the critics. The fans are who I’m out there for. I’m there for them, and I feel it. They’re there for the same reason that I’m there. We love music, and we love the entertainment. So I feel like there’s a really positive exchange there. And critics just make me nervous. What can I say? That’s the nerve-wracking part of it.

Really, Shania? The critics?

In the U.S. alone, Twain has sold 11 million copies of Up!, an album professionally reviewed on its own Amazon sales page as the work of “a perky lounge singer with a calculatedly honeyed voice [and] a penchant for inane lyrics–often about absolutely nothing.” So I’d say she’s immune to whatever the ill effects of a mixed/negative review for a lesser or up-and-coming act might be. She’ll do well regardless. Her brand of music has never really been of the sort that lives and dies by what critics say, anyway.

Her Vegas show could get panned repeatedly and still sell out night after night. What’s to fear?

Besides which, the days of the really influential, make-or-break-you critics are mostly past. Sure, a nice write-up by Jon Caramanica at the New York Times or Barry Mazor at the Wall Street Journal or Peter Cooper at The Tennessean still means substantially more than a cover story in the Podunk Gazette. But the overall media environment is so fragmented and in flux right now that no particular voice reaches the audience or controls the conversation in the way it once did. In fact, with even the biggest outlets scrambling to make ends meet, we’re not even sure which voices will still be around several months from now.

Kind of hard to give a Sermon on the Mount when your mount could be taken away from you at any moment.

Moreover, as Ben Foster astutely pointed out in the comments section when I first excerpted the Shania quote a couple weeks ago: “The terms ‘critic’ and ‘fan’ are not mutually exclusive. Critics are fans.”

Ben’s observation reminded me of something I heard Eric Church say in an interview with the Rhapsody music service some years back. Discussing what critical acclaim meant to him, Church said something to the effect of “obviously, it’s flattering when people who listen to a lot of music like what you do.” At the time, I recall being impressed by the simple elegance of Church’s definition of critic – not a person with an agenda, or a person blessed with greater powers of discernment (which we might like to imagine to be the case), or anything else. Just a person who listens to a lot of music – and who then, presumably, tries to talk about it in some semi-intelligent way for an audience.

So yes, critics are fans. Big fans, as evidenced by the fact that, unlike most other fans, they choose to devote large amounts of their time to thinking and writing about music.

But I would also hasten to add that fans are critics. They notice the same things and have the same range of opinions, though perhaps less means or inclination to articulate them.

A critic has never written anything that some fan somewhere hasn’t already thought, or at least been willing to entertain on the basis of things previously observed. Critics don’t pull these things out of the ether. When you sing off-key or devote yourself to inane subject matter, people who are paying attention to you (i.e. your fans) notice. Even if they immediately forgive you or have the tact to avoid mentioning it. Even if they decide that your particular faults are part of your unique charm. A critic simply notices and then says so.

Surround yourself with ‘Yes Men’ to your own detriment.

It seems to me that Twain’s critic anxiety is actually a fear of public opinion – and, particularly, a new media environment in which it has become increasingly difficult to insulate yourself from what other people think. This was less of an issue in 2004, when AOL still had 22 million subscribers and Twain wrapped her last tour. Back then, things were obviously changing quickly, but you still pretty much had a sense of who the major tastemakers were and could pitch yourself accordingly. The line between ‘fan blog’ and ‘real publication’ was clearer. Few, if any, of the country blogs we read today even existed.

Now, Shania is in a new situation where anyone in her audience could conceivably write a scathing review that might actually get read by a fair number of people.

The trouble isn’t ‘what the critics will think,’ but that now everyone is a critic. That’s always been the case, though. It just used to be easier to pretend otherwise.

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  1. KC says

    Great post. Especially like how you pointed out that fans have already thought what the critics are saying. There are definitely things about my favorite artists’ music that I don’t like, but generally don’t say to anyone.

    It’s always bothered me how artists seem to think critics are only useful if they like the artist’s work. An artist who gets a good review posts it on twitter or their website, but when they get a bad one they say critics don’t matter. Either a critic’s opinion matters or it doesn’t, you can’t reasonably cherry pick only the good reviews..

  2. Sarah says

    Excellent article. The best thing any kind of artist can have is a good group of intelligent people willing to tear them apart (not that all critics are out there to tear apart all artists – though the artists would probably do a better job of improving if that were the case). People who care enough about music to dedicate time to writing about it and spreading it are really just fans who care a lot, and the music business can’t run without people like that.

    As a fan who has a lot of critical things to say about music (but doesn’t say them in any public forums outside of the occasional comments section), I’m never going to be turned off of a song/artist/album I like if it got a bad review. So if I read a negative review of something, and then I go listen to it and like it, that negative review just won the artist another fan. And I read the review and then listen to it and dislike it, I wasn’t going to like it anyway.Whether they’re writing positive or negative things, critics are spreading the word about music, which should be important to all artists.

  3. says

    Excellent read, C.M. It’s definitely a shame that the critic’s profession is so misunderstood, but this article beautifully articulates the way I’ve always felt about it.

    Of all the defensive jabs that critics get in response to negative reviews, the one that’s irritated me the most is probably when people say that critics only pan successful artists out of jealousy (because they couldn’t make it as musicians, songwriters, blah blah blah). I’m like ‘Do you really think someone is going to invest this much time and effort into a pursuit driven by mere bitterness and jealousy?’ Some folks just don’t quite grasp the fact that music critics are driven by a love of music, plain and simple.

    And of course the other favorite is when people say ‘Well, you can’t say bad things about this music unless you’ve had hits on the charts’ without considering the fact that anything a critic write is something that any fan could have said or thought. And of course, there’s Leeann Ward’s very astute chef analogy – You don’t have to be a chef to evaluate good and bad food, so why apply such thinking to discussion of music?

  4. Paul W Dennis says

    The role of the critic is to give an opinion, good or bad, after conducting a fair evaluation of whatever is being criticized, be it a book , music, cinema or theatre.

    Too many, both critics and general public alike, don’t seem to understand this. I’ve given many a favorable review of records released by artists I generally don’t like, and I’ve given poor reviews to missteps by my favorite artists.

    Too many fans think that the role of a reviewer is to praise the work of their favorites – just put a negative comment about Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift and seem how many spam-ish comments you receive (and to you Carrie fans out there, I meant no harm comparing Carrie Underwood – who has a terrific voice – with Taylor Swift , who can’t sing a lick)


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