Sub-Question of the Week (re: Critically Divisive Musicians)

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.


13 thoughts on “Sub-Question of the Week (re: Critically Divisive Musicians)

  1. Frank Zappa for the majority of his living breathing life … though the critics who still write about his work are generally coming around to his favor now.

  2. Steely Dan – I especially like how you can’t predict who’s on what side of that particular line in the sand.

  3. U2 is inarguable – they really do take the prize for this, probably.

    Zappa I pretty much agree with, though he brings up another question (which I willfully ignored in asking the first question): which critics exactly are we talking about here? Within the rock critic world I’m most familiar with — the sensibility that in one way or another flows out of Creem, Rolling Stone, and the Voice — he was almost unanimously disliked for many years, no? During the ’70s it seemed like there was a mutual hatred between him and the critics. I assume, however, he was fairly revered in other critical venues, esp. the more tech-styled mags like Guitar Player et al. I agree with Barbara, too, posthumously he’s been regarded more favourably by critic-critics. An interesting critical case any way you look at him.

    Lynyrd Skynyrd — hard to say. I’m not familiar enough with the critics response to them. Never thought of them as being particularly disliked, but I’m not sure. And Drive-By-Truckers… even less familiar, but I thought they were very much loved by the critics?

    “Steely Dan – I especially like how you can’t predict who’s on what side of that particular line in the sand.” Care to elaborate, Patrick? Sounds intriguing. I’m a huge SD fan and actually have no idea how the critics by and large felt about them — really only familiar with what Christgau and Marcus had to say about them. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if they had their share of detractors, especially during the punk era.

  4. I’m going to go with the Sex Pistols- critics will often allow that they matttered (w/ varying criteria: influential, important, cultural, relationship to ‘punk,’ physicality, sounds as physicality, style as content, music as irreducible statement etc) but then someone, somewhere, will say they are _the_ band, that they can be privileged above all others & that they should be- & then it’s just a shitstorm of canon (ha) fire idealogy & really heated (& often bad) back & forth over how much they mattered, what mattering means, should mean (bring on the idealogical!), ad nauseam.

    It’s funny top, how heated discourse (which says hey, this is important enough to go the mattresses about it: ergo it’s important) manages to render interest from the subject- in the end you just have to get the fuck away from it fast and probably not fast enough probably changed your conception of said band forever…

    Same argument probably can be applied (if less frequently) to critical
    darlings like oh I don’t know, Nirvana? Others.

    Divisive moments in a band’s catalogue might be a place to look at as well- the fracturing of supporters into some sort of collective betrayed, usually more incisive than the original dislike: now we know divisive.

    + any & all ‘funk.’ V. little room for play there, apparently.

  5. Looking back over the last ten years, and ignoring any of the aforementioned bands, two immediately come to mind: The Strokes and Lil Wayne.

  6. Prince, for sure. So many went overboard on his rehashed Little Richard, Hendrix, Sly Stone personna; I guess since I lived through all those acts (except Little Richard) what was all the fuss?

    I loved it when Elvis C. (one of the best performer/critics ala Peter Buck) called him a “bit of an imposter” on late night teevee during the height of Purple Rain mania. Audience kind of gasped when he said that.

  7. Strokes make a hell of a lot of sense, probably Lil Wayne too (probably a lot of commercial rappers work here, come to think of it).

    Curious about the Pistols — among actual critics at the time, I mean. I’m unaware of many bad reviews they received, but I’m sure if you look beyond the Voice-RS-Creem axis you could find them… perhaps in the dailies?

    Which reminds me: maybe one of the best early examples is first album Ramones. My all-time favourite print ad is for their second album, which consists of nothing but quotes from reviews of the first album. 3/4 of them I’d say are glowing, the other 1/4 are extremely negative. A lot of people certainly didn’t know what to make of them. (By the time of the third album, of course, they were enshrined as a critics fave.)

    Don’t know about Prince, Porky — the question is really about the response of critics, and I just don’t think he got many bad reviews during the period you mention.

    Surprised no one’s mentioned Radiohead (though do they get many bad “reviews” or just a lot of dissing on chat boards and stuff? Guess you could ask the same question of the Strokes or M.I.A.).

  8. In addition to slicing into sub-careers, you could also examine the artists by way of pre- and post-backlash. Of course, the backlash phenomenon always seemed to tell you more about the critics themselves rather than the artists….

  9. What was all the fuss about Prince? Well, he wrote damn good songs and performed then even damner well. That’s a start. Plus, unlike Costello, he managed to keep it up for more than five years. But yeah, Scott’s right in that Prince wasn’t that critically divisive. Especially circa ’80-’84.

    And I remember reading that Ramones ad during a microfiche-aided trip through some old RS back-issues. My favorite: “Merde. Je deteste le disque.”

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