April 3, 2008 by admin
I don’t mean to rudely cut into A.C.’s usual “Q of the Week” feature, and anyway, this is a somewhat different kind of question for anyone who cares to take a stab. I’m trying to compile a list of what I call “critically divisive musicians.” I’m not talking merely about “controversial” musicians (though in most cases, the critically divisive musician is in fact somewhat controversial), but rather, musicians who receive both a lot of praise from critics and a heaping of vitriol as well. It has to be both — that is the key — and the more equal those two streams are (i.e., equal ratio of good reviews to bad reviews), the better. Obviously, there isn’t a revered musician on the planet who hasn’t received their share of negative reviews, so I guess I’m formulating this question with a longer view in mind. Um, perhaps I should illustrate with a few examples.
Take the Beatles and Prince. Both have surely had a few brickbats tossed their way through the years (from the critics, I mean), but in the overall trajectory of their careers, I’d be hard pressed to call either of them “critically divisive” (though you could certainly make a stronger case for Prince, especially post-80s Prince). The critics, by and large, have been on their side (and in the case of Prince, I think in the ’90s a lot of critics simply lost interest or gave up on him rather than slammed him per se… he was nonetheless always highly revered — and his current sins duly forgiven — for the work he did in the decade prior).
On the critically divisive side, two examples come to mind immediately: Madonna and M.I.A. Madonna’s an interesting case in that during the mid-’80s the scales were tipped way in the negatives (with just enough positives — Marsh comes to mind, also the folks at SPIN — to make her such a compelling critical figure), but the balance shifted hard in ’89 with the fairly mass critical acceptance of Like a Prayer. Following which, I’d argue that she’s been riding a teeter-totter effect ever since (I’m reasonably certain, for instance, that the Sex book and the “Justify My Love” video drew sharply divided responses). M.I.A.: I admit I’m judging solely on the basis of all the web arguments that took place around the time of her first album — i.e., all the back and forths about her supposed terrorist ties, questions of her “authenticity,” etc. However, last years Kala received what caption writers like to refer to as unanimously glowing reviews; out of the many that I perused (including the 4.5-star one I wrote myself), I think I came across only a couple that weren’t entirely convinced. So maybe she’s not a great example any longer — perhaps her built-in awesomeness ensured that her role as the Great Divider would be short-lived?
Does this make any sense? Can you think of some examples of Critically Divisive Musicians? Any era or genre is fine, including people outside of rock/pop. Do any jazz artists fit this bill? Electric-era Miles Davis, perhaps? (Also, feel free to slice careers into sub-careers; is it fair to say that the Rolling Stones overall are not “criticially divisive” but that the Rolling Stones post-Exile are?) Don’t be shy about chiming in with hedged responses, as, quite truthfully I’m not even sure this idea is going anywhere or if it’s a total non-starter… it’s just something that’s been nagging at me a bit lately.