Critics love albums that the public hate

Posted on June 5, 2008 

Critics love albums that the public hates

Bob Dylan

All right, it probably won’t ever happen, but in the unlikely event that someone, one day, bets you a large amount of money that you won’t be able to identify which person in a crowd of strangers is a music journalist – without asking them directly what they do for a living – here’s how you win the bet. Go up to each person in turn and ask them to name their favourite Beatles track. The music journalist is the one who chooses Tomorrow Never Knows.

You can be sure of two things. First, nobody who doesn’t listen to music for a living will choose the final track on Revolver. An early pop gem such as I Wanna Hold Your Hand, perhaps, or a psychedelic masterpiece such as Strawberry Fields Forever, or a late-period sing-along such as Hey Jude, but not Tomorrow Never Knows. Second, the music critic has to say Tomorrow Never Knows. It’s the law. If they choose Penny Lane or Let It Be, they’ll be drummed out of the union.

In part, this is explained by the importance of image in commercial success. Even in their younger days, Hiatt and Newman didn’t carry themselves like pop stars, and while Mann gave it a go, she always looked uncomfortable in the role. Mainly, though, the discrepancy between Trouts and Bats is due to the fact that music critics are assessing music using different criteria than the rest of the world. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’re using roughly the same criteria, but giving greater weight to some of them. Critics are particularly keen on authenticity, innovation, great lyrics and – most of all – a direct and identifiable connection between the emotions of the songwriter and the finished work. We’re looking for the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock – it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it must be genuine. If you take a look at the list of Bats, you’ll note the almost complete absence of these qualities, in favour of attributes that critics often downweight – melody, entertainment value, immediacy, escapism, image.

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