The joy of the bad review: my Artistic Licence column from The Sunday Business Post, 10/06/12

There’s a scene in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 slacker film Singles, in which band member Eddie (Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, playing himself) discovers a newspaper review of his group Citizen Dick while the guys — all scraggy hair, bad jumpers and pale skin — are chilling out in a Seattle diner. Lead singer Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon) tells Eddie not to read anything negative, and then sits back, a confident smile on his lips. Eddie reads the long review in long and troubling silence, until he gets to the final line, a line that can be read aloud: “Other than that, he was ably backed by Stone and Jeff, and drummer Eddie Vedder.”

It’s a clever moment in a film that became a touchstone for the slacker/grunge zeitgeist, not only because it featured members of Pearl Jam, but because it struck a chord in every band’s life — that moment when they picked up a newspaper to discover that someone loathes their material and has penned a review that fairly sparks with menace in its attempts to document said fact in an entertaining and readable manner.

Good reviews are a balm for artists. They can bathe in the warm glow of their positivity, and look forward to generating sales off the back of them. But bad reviews are tremendous affairs for almost everyone else. They generate interest, provoke controversy and help sell newspapers. Everyone loves reading a scythingly awful review, even sometimes people who would describe themselves as friends or colleagues of the artist in question — consider the honesty of Gore Vidal’s line: `When a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Ridiculous as it may be, when an evil-faced review appears, there’s a little part of us that exults in the fact that the axe has not fallen on our own heads. We have been spared to fight another day. We feel larger for someone else’s diminution. It’s awful and wrong, but it’s human nature.

Even if schadenfreude is not rearing its ugly head, bad reviews are nearly always more entertaining to read than the good ones. Reviewers are rarely more witty or inspired than when they’re drop-kicking and pummelling an offensively soggy offering into submission. From this newspaper, consider Jonathan O’Brien’s withering verdict on Sigur Ros: “They’re just a four-man Enya singing in a different language”. Or an acid Kevin Power on the novel Skios: “The most impressive page in Michael Frayn’s new novel appears at the front of the book, and is headed “By the same author.” Ouch!

Recognising the allure of the wretched review, a new book of reviews by the Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner doesn’t bother to include the positive refrains: My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out exclusively deals in cat-haired batter, lukewarm coffee and mushy avocado. Rayner is a man who knows his audience.  

But a bad review only truly gains power at full-throttle when it allows itself to contain a strand of positivity, a silver lining to highlight the overwhelming gloom. That scrap of positivity is what makes the reader understand that this isn’t a personalised attack; that it is, in fact, a fair review.

Ultimately that’s why the scene in Singles so well-written — because, in praising Eddie Vedder, Stone and Jeff, the resulting emphasis on poor Matt Dillon’s failures as a lead singer became even more authoritative. And so Cliff Poncier had to face facts: that his music really was just “pompous dick-swinging swill from a man who has haunted the local scene for far too long.” Probably not one for the scrap-book, then.


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