muppet-critics

With each review I write, I edge ever closer to the feeling I’m engaged in an endgame, whose final death throes, surely, can’t be too far away. And I want out.

There is inherently something smug and self satisfied in a review. A summing up, in stone tablets from on high, of a chef’s toil, a band’s sweat, a playwright’s tears. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Yes, I’ll give my friend’s book a five star review on Amazon. It’s the least I can do. But that new band who make me feel a little unhip? Unleash the anger. Because it’s easier to channel than fear. That lukewarm pizetta? Let’s enjoy a side order of payback, when we twist the knife and let slip the adjectives.

Don’t like what you read? Don’t worry, there’ll be another review along any minute now. By another expert, desperate to dispense their sure and certain view of the way things inalienably should be, and their skillz at cut and pasting context straight outta Wikipedia.

But, in a world flooded with words, what has this recent tsunami of reviews added to our lives? Is anyone, really, listening anymore? Or is it doing no more than fuelling our confirmation bias or excusing our bitterness?

Look around you. Everything you can see has been reviewed. Your music. Your sofa. That hybrid patio rose bush you bought your mum. Your 15 year old Islay whisky. Eye cream. iPad. That holiday cottage you’re mulling over. Your life. Tried, tested, chewed over, spat out and rated.

You could add them all up and give yourself a combined Score Of All Scores.

How did you do? Do you feel a slight sense of smug satisfaction that your taste chimes in with some arbitrary, self-appointed guardians of taste, or a fear that you have the same gripes as a listless keyboard warrior with time on his hands and scores to settle?

Or how about this: you saw the reviews for what they were? A mixture of arrogant, ill informed invective, partisan praise and snap judgements skewed by a random, un-representative experience. An unrepeatable moment in time. A quick shuttle ’round of the city by a London hack with an off-peak return? A string of adjectives and off-the-peg aphorisms as a substitute for considered critical analysis?

Because that’s all a food review, a gig review or a 300 word Biennial review can ever, truly be. Criticism as homeopathy. But what value objectivity when everyone’s a critic? And even the old guard critics (those who get paid for their wisdom) read like they’re lost at sea. Unsure of their place in the world. Where Giles Coren and Jay Rayner, en route to review restaurants in town, beg for advice on Twitter – reviewers asking for reviews, to write a review. A meta worm hole, turning to the wisdom of social media to file copy that is more self fulfilling prophecy than honest on-the-ground legwork.

Every gig, restaurant, play or pub exists, simultaneously, in a series of parallel universes, depending on where your RSS feeder takes you. They’re either stunningly brilliant or shockingly dire. It’s called the TripAdvisor Paradox. There is our review of Dead Dog. And there is the Guardian’s review. Our review of What’s at 62 and The Echo’s review of What’s at 62.

Here’s a sorry tale: I like whisky. I drink a fair amount of the stuff (responsibly, of course), and recently I bought the Jim Murray Whisky Bible. The man’s power and influence is unequalled. If he gives any of the 4,500 drams he tastes every year the thumbs up, it instantly sells out. But I had the curious sensation of drinking one of my favourites while thumbing through, only to discover his dismissive review.

For a good while, the whisky suddenly tasted crap.

And then I took a firm grip of myself. IT’S THE SAME BLOODY WHISKY. And I love it.

Scientists can’t even reach a consensus about which synapses are set alight when we taste things. Of whether my tomato tastes the same as your tomato. So translate that to the myriad flavour compounds in a typical 18 year old malt (or the dance of firing neurons set in motion when you listen to Beyonce or Bach) and, come on, tell me: you’re going to let a review shift your view?

The deeper I read the book, the clearer I got to understanding exactly what Jim Murray likes. And, frankly, I could care less about that. Because the chances of him popping round, and me needing to supply him with a peaty single cask are, let’s be honest, slim.

I’ve thrown the book away.

It’s nonsense, and I’m increasingly troubled by it. Minded to avoid adding to the madness. We’ve never reviewed a music gig (strewth, the world needs another ‘crystalline vocals and spiky, angular guitar’ write up like it needs another Example CD), but even food reviewing, now, seems curiously anachronistic and irrelevant. Truth be told, writing reviews these days feels as outdated as a ‘Home Taping is Illegal, and It’s Killing Music’ sticker. Feels like part of the problem, when a solution is desperately needed.

Reviews have always been contrary beasts. Take a look at Rotten Tomatoes, or MetaCritic, and you can see how the heavyweights slug it out, with consensus rarely, if ever, achieved. If surgeons posted their methodologies, or aircraft manufacturers their safety features only to find them as wildly fluctuating as, say, reviews for Disney’s Maleficent (‘delightful’ -Salon, ‘a let down’ – NYMag) Something Would Be Done.

This may well be why, increasingly, they feel like filler to be read and ignored – Harry Hill’s musical garnered great reviews, but closed down after a few months. The worst rated films on IMDB are the biggest box office draws. The biggest grossing restaurant in Liverpool ONE (Red Hot World Buffet, sorry to disappoint you) gets a drubbing on Tripadvisor, and there’s queues out the door.

So what’s the real story? As the old order breaks down, have reviews become so ubiquitous that their currency has been devalued beyond repair? Are restaurant reviews, in effect, eating each other?

I’d argue yes. And I know this, because I’m a liar.

When I was regional editor for a leading guide book title, I was given the task of compiling the Best Restaurants section for Wales and the North West of England in their ‘Eating Out in Great Britain’ Guide. Exciting?

Not really. This is how it works…

I was sent a printed-off list of places to try (culled from last year’s book), but was told ‘feel free to find any new restaurant, but keep the total number of entries the same’.
The flaw in this commission? I was paid a flat fee of £80 per entry accepted. And that was to include my restaurant bill, and my review too. Therefore, the challenge – should I, a poor freelancer, take it – was to risk trying out new restaurants, and possibly squandering my fee on a meal that wasn’t good enough to make the Guide (and therefore, a review I wouldn’t be reimbursed for).

The result? The same restaurants make the same guidebooks year after year – the same newspaper ‘best 50 lists’, and the same blogs. In the end, it’s easier to simply tick off all the usual subjects, pop in and have a main course (or, whisper it, just have a look at it online) and simply reprint the same old tosh.

Of course, this isn’t a SevenStreets policy – but you’d be surprised how ubiquitous the practice is. Yet still, these reviews perpetuate. There’s something so powerful in the wordy authority of them all.

It’s why the nationals are so lazy and London-centric. They write about what’s on their doorstep – and when they don’t, they Tweet for help. It’s pure economics.

In their defence? ‘Your favourite restaurant wouldn’t last a week in Putney’, says AA Gill. But, of course, he’s wrong. Or no, wait, he’s right. Oh no, that’s it: it doesn’t fucking matter what he thinks.

But food reviews, locally, don’t fare much better either. We’ve already written about payola in blogs, and it’s self evident that local press treat food reviewing as a perk to pass around the over-worked newsroom. The standard of food reviewing, in Liverpool, is at an all time low. But it is in Leeds, and Leicester and Lossiemouth too.

What’s that you say? The sharpness of the sauce really complimented the tangy flesh of the duck? Really? Do tell us more about the flavoursome mouthfeel, the well chosen wine list and the melt in the mouth yumminess of the invoice you’ve sent for their back page advert. “I’ve never been over the water before,” said one wide-eyed food reviewer recently, in a well-read Liverpool publication. And she wasn’t talking Atlantic. She was talking Mersey. God knows what new taste sensations she’ll be thrilling us with next week.

So do we care? Or do we need to claw our way towards a new way to discuss the amazing things around us? Or, better still, just dive in, and taste it all, for ourselves?

And what about music? Does it matter to you what a kid you’ve never met thought of a Warpaint gig, when it’s been and gone? Or someone who thinks ‘derivative’ is a new hipster house act tells you, categorically, that act x was better than y at Sound City? Not to me it doesn’t, because music, well, it’s music, isn’t it? And it lives in your head and heart, not in your thesaurus and wordpress blog. And, anyway, the moment will have been shared, dissected, discussed, instagrammed and downloaded before you can think of another word for ‘ethereal’.

So what’s the answer? If you want to see what Warpaint are like, go see ‘em. And if you miss them, go next time, or guess. Anything more that this is just words. Not music.

There’s another editorial form that the review shares its Jurassic DNA with. Something that gives comfort, entertainment and click bait to content-hungry sites, but that is empty of calories, and bereft of scientific method: the horrorscope.

We know better than to waste time with Russell Grant and co. Dare we tear ourselves away from the tyranny of the review, too?

So, bring on those Glasto reviews of Metallica vs Dolly, but save a thought for Shakespeare – they’re tales told by idiots. Full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.

Especially if you don’t agree.

  • Simon Malia

    Dear SS. It will feel better when you’re a bit older, and like your whisky, more mature. Until then, maybe count to ten before penning something quite as asinine as this. On reflection, make that count to a thousand. Just my view, of course.

  • Pete

    The armchair experts have muddied the waters for the rest of us. I see loads of bloggers in Manchester and Liverpool strutting around thinking they own the place, because they have a few thousand followers on Twitter doesn’t make them any more of a critic than me.

  • fjfish

    Great insight – I agree. It’s even worse when everyone can have a throw away opinion and tweet it. Also … why can’t people change their minds occasionally?

    The £80 per review that might not get you paid … what a stupid system. “If you always do what you always did you get what you already have”.

    I like whiskey too … I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place. 🙂

  • david_lloyd

    yes, i was a fool to buy that book. Cheers!

  • Ramsey Campbell

    I trust your reviews, David, so please carry on! There can also be off days at restaurants, of course. For instance, I liked one local restaurant so much I give it five stars on Tripadvisor, only to have a second meal so bad that I had to post a compensatory bad review.

  • david_lloyd

    and herein lies the horror! Thanks Ramsey

  • Robb

    How wonderfully patronising!

  • Simon

    Thank you. Too kind.

  • Nanny Ominous

    Spot on.

  • ScouseAthey

    I remember being on a distillery tour and the guide said something along the lines of “If someone tells you it is a crap whisky, they’re talking crap. Only you will know if you like it or not.”

    Still there is always a place for a friendly point in the right direction. Sites like yours offer that pointer. I would not have tried (or heard) of half the places i’ve been to in the region without this site.

  • Su

    I absolutely LOVE this article!! I often ponder at the lofty mindedness of many reviews and how one man’s or woman’s opinion can be regarded as gospel or how they can lord it over some establishment or other. It’s proud. It’s horrible. One of the quickest, wittiest, wisest things I’ve read in a while.

    “Don’t look for beauty. You must let beauty come to you. Those who look for beauty are mere journalists.” Borges

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  • Dela

    I’ve reviewed you comment. 6/B

  • Laura-Jane

    This is why i despise the Guardian. What to wear to a festival if you are a man. What book to read, what to eat and where to eat it. What to listen to on the way. It just screams GET A LIFE and make your own decisions. Go to a festival and spot all the Guardian guys in the bright yellow rain jackets listening to the same band because that makes them different…

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