“Critical acclaim” is a nebulous topic in entertainment, by design. Music, film, theater, etc is meant to entertain, and it’s a business first. Never forget that. Anything beyond this is considered a bonus for fans, but often a negative for the industry. When entertainment becomes art, it educates & electrifies the masses, which is something the establishment always seeks to contain. These are the ideological (political) issues which determine access to art.
Critical acclaim is used as an instrument to manipulate public opinion on art. When an artist is blacklisted, such as the Velvet Underground (Andy Warhol) were in the 1960’s, their records don’t sell. When their catalog becomes unavailable in the 1970’s, they become “critical darlings”– because no one else can hear their music, so critics get a monopoly of opinion. It’s about who controls the narrative. Censored artists also have a hard time touring in any era, due to few good opportunities & low pay. It’s a grind, and it’s the reason brilliant bands like the VU break-up the way they did.
Captain Beefheart is another example of an artist who was censored & undercut by the industry, because he was too far ahead of his time. Beefheart was branded “critically acclaimed” with Trout Mask Replica (1969), and that label unfortunately stuck. If revolutionary artists such as the VU, Beefheart, the Stooges, Graham Parker, Wire, the Minutemen, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, et al, are never played on classic rock radio (or any other industry-defined format), then how are music fans supposed to find their music?
Where’s the critics’ support for getting these artists on FM radio, so we can randomly listen to them in our vehicles? This “critic support” doesn’t exist, because “critical acclaim” is a fraud. For decades, the music industry had a stranglehold: payola for radio promotion; distribution through record/CD stores & touring for sales; Rolling Stone magazine, et al for media publicity– meaning favorable critical opinion of established major-label performers.
If you weren’t “plugged in” to that network machinery, then you couldn’t exert much influence, or get paid. The significance of the grunge movement (late 1980’s/early 1990’s) was that college radio stations & indie record labels became an influential force outside of industry control. By the late 1990’s, reaction had set in, and nearly all the college stations & indie labels had been bought-up & corporatized.
This is why the internet rules today, because it democratized music availability– when Napster came along. YouTube & Facebook are social media platforms which exchange content & ideas, and despite the worst efforts of corporate ownership to manipulate users with AI & algorithms, it’s now impossible to keep revolutionary music from reaching listeners– young & old. If you want to find something you will, and that wasn’t always the case.
This is why these “critically acclaimed” (ie- suppressed) artists are now finding greater audiences. Being “critically acclaimed” has always been a fallacy, because it’s the critics who most fear & hate revolution, as it threatens their comfy & lazy pencil-pushing existence. When their “expertise” is called into question, there’s nothing left but blabber & smoke. If these phonies are exposed, they may be forced to get a real job, and they don’t want to do that.
A “critically acclaimed” artist has precisely half the weight of critical opinion in support, and the other half hating. This means everything washes out to a net zero in total impact. Who do you believe as a reader, the positive or negative critic? Comparing critical opinions often comes down to who is the better writer, or worse, who is more powerful in the industry. The problem, of course, is the better (or more powerful) author may be prejudiced. If this person becomes editor, he/she controls the flow of many opinions.
If fact, “critical acclaim” is given more generously to those with little-to-no talent, for the opposite effect, but same purpose. This is the hyped garbage which is elevated by the media, and is meant to replace art. Armies of establishment critics universally praise this gobbledygook when solicited by their paymasters. They must, it’s what pays the bills.
These days the industry prefers to produce its superstars, instead of letting them happen out-of-the-blue, which is why Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, et al dominate the teen music market. These mega-stars are created (and then re-created) by the industry machinery, and rely on it to sustain their success, which makes all of them easy to control. It’s a long way from John Lennon & Mick Jagger, for sure.
Critics pose as experts by using their learned knowledge of human experience, to consolidate bourgeois opinions on art & pop culture through the media. Take jazz music for example. You can’t be a respected critic in this field, unless you bow down to certain sacred cows– Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, et al. As a critic, you have lists of all sorts in your head; best songs, albums, players, genres, eras, and so forth. These critics are always ready to pounce on any heresy, with pre-formed sound-bites & arguments. These are the sort of fakers which real artists & serious listeners despise.
But to stick with this example in jazz, let’s say something fresh & revolutionary hits, from an unknown artist, which merits that level of reverence. Will that work be immediately recognized as genius by the critics, on the same level as these acknowledged masters? Not a chance. You see, these experienced critics “know” that no one can be that good anymore, so this can’t be a genius of that order.
That is every establishment critic’s “thought process.” The kids & music freaks LOVE this new prodigy, and share it with everybody. The critics will certainly notice this, because true critical opinion comes from the kids; but the critics will not acknowledge it, or at best be cold & demeaning towards it, because it replaces sacred idols. Their lists are set in stone.
If this new artist is indeed the real thing, then the work will hold up, which means more underground fans, but still no mainstream critical acknowledgement, much less praise. What happens over time is that critical opinion changes, as new critics join the field, as long-standing fans of that artist. At this point, the artist is now “critically acclaimed,” despite the fact that 99+% of their support comes from fans.
Conclusion: If you approach art with the goal of pleasing the critics, then you are on a path towards failure. Most critics don’t care, they only pretend to care using sophistry. There is very little passion for art with critics. But it’s that passion which keeps us young, which connects artists to the kids. Nowhere in this equation is the critic helpful, unless they approach art with historical experience & an open mind.
Music as art is all about the artists & the kids. Once the kids are hooked, they become fans for life. My goal as an artist is to reach everybody, but the kids are always first. Are the kids going to like this? Does this send the right message? These are the questions real artists grapple with during the creative process.