The Opinion of Experts Versus the Wisdom of Crowds – Why are Music Critics So Often Wrong?

Led Zeppelin I

Here’s an excerpt from a review of Led Zeppelin’s first album dated March 15, 1969 by music critic John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone magazine:

Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument’s electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group).

And here’s an excerpt from Mendelsohn’s review of Led Zeppelin II dated December 13, 1969, again in Rolling Stone magazine:

Hey, man, I take it all back! This is one fucking heavyweight of the album! OK — I’ll concede that until you’ve listened to the album eight hundred times, as I have, it seems as if it’s just one especially heavy song extended over the space of two whole sides. But, hey! you’ve got to admit that the Zeppelin has their distinctive and enchanting formula down stone-cold, man. Like you get the impression they could do it in their sleep.

And who can deny that Jimmy Page is the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world?? Shit, man, on this album he further demonstrates that he could absolutely fucking shut down any white bluesman alive, and with one fucking hand tied behind his back too.

 

Queen - Jazz

Now along the same line of commentary, let’s move on to Queen.

Here’s an excerpt from a review of Queen’s album “Jazz” (now considered one of their very best) by music critic Dave Marsh dated February 8, 1979, again for Rolling Stone magazine:

There’s no Jazz on Queen’s new record, in case fans of either were worried about the defilement of an icon. Queen hasn’t the imagination to play jazz — Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock & roll. Jazz is just more of the same dull pastiche that’s dominated all of this British supergroup’s work: tight guitar/bass/drums heavy-metal clichés, light-classical pianistics, four-part harmonies that make the Four Freshmen sound funky and Freddie Mercury’s throat-scratching lead vocals.

Continuing with Queen, here are some excerpts from movie reviews by notable film critics regarding the music biopic Bohemian Rhapsody:

A baroque blend of gibberish, mysticism and melodrama, the film seems engineered to be as unmemorable as possible, with the exception of the prosthetic teeth worn by the lead actor, Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, Queen’s lead singer. – A.O. Scott, the New York Times

Most of the film is stuffed with lumps of cheesy rock-speak (“We’re just not thinking big enough”; “I won’t compromise my vision”), and gives off the delicious aroma of parody. – Anthony Lane, the New Yorker

Bohemian Rhapsody is bad in the way a lot of biopics are bad: it’s superficial, it avoids complexity, and the narrative has a connect-the-dots quality. – Sheila O’Malley, RogerEbert.com

Here’s a link to a Wikipedia page that provides a list of the best-selling music acts of all time. Notable in that list are the following musical acts:

Led Zeppelin, 200 million – 300 million units sold

Queen, 175 million – 200 million units sold

And you may have heard that the film Bohemian Rhapsody is the highest grossing music biopic of all time.

Greta Van Fleet - Anthem of the Peaceful Army

Here’s a more recent music review – an excerpt from a review of Greta Van Fleet’s album “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Jeremy D. Larson of Pitchfork dated October 23, 2018. Larson seems to have copied Mendelsohn’s acerbic writing style verbatim:

Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves. The poor kids from Frankenmuth, Michigan don’t even realize they’re more of an algorithmic fever dream than an actual rock band. While they’re selling out shows all over the world, somewhere in a boardroom, a half-dozen people are figuring out just how, exactly, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are supposed to fit into the SUV with the rest of the Greta Van Fleet boys on “Carpool Karaoke.”

Just look at this photo: Brothers Jake and Sam Kiszka, on guitar and bass, are both wearing hippie costumes they 3D-printed off the internet. The singer, the wretched and caterwauling third brother, Josh, is in dangly feather earrings and vinyl pants, like he was dressed by a problematic Santa Fe palm-reader with a gift certificate to Chico’s. It’s a costume—Greta Van Fleet is all costume. And if things that look like another thing is your thing, get ready to throw your lighters up for a band whose guiding principle seems to be reading the worst Grand Funk Railroad songs as if they were a religious text.

“Anthem of the Peaceful Army” was the top selling album in the United States the week it was released, reaching Number 3 on the Billboard 200.

 

caleb-lucas-474322-unsplash

So why are professional music critics’ harsh assessment of certain musical acts (often hard rock acts) so often at odds with their popularity by the general public?

Here’s my best guess:

  1. You may have noticed that I linked the names of each of these critics to their respective biographies. If you take the time to read their bios, they share the following attributes: they’re university educated and live in urban areas. Consequently, these folks would qualify as members of the “urban cultural elite” whose aesthetic tastes often seem to be at odds with “normal everyday people”. You’d likely find folks who love Zeppelin, Queen and Greta Van Fleet hanging out at the shopping mall or eating at a McDonalds, whereas I’d wager that none of these music or film critics would be caught dead at either. Therefore, the difference in  perception of a band’s music is a classic example of the opinion of the elites versus the Wisdom of Crowds.
  2. I have a hunch that a motivator for the harsh criticism doled out  is due to envy and resentment, i.e., “those that can do, those that can’t either teach or become professional critics”.  For example, I remember reading somewhere that Robert Plant described Mendelsohn as a “failed musician”. David Lee Roth said it even more succinctly:

Music critics like Elvis Costello because music critics look like Elvis Costello.

David Lee Roth - Elvis Costello

Some might suggest that professional music critics are very similar to Wall Street bankers – they’re often very highly educated but their work adds zero value to society. What do you think? Feel free to comment below! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements