A critic answers his critics on Bruno Mars review
Updated 11:43 AM , July 31, 2014
Bruno Mars fans don’t mess around. The fallout from my review of Mars’ July 1 show in the First Niagara Center came fast and furious, and I suppose I should have seen it coming. That I didn’t primarily came down to the fact that I’d given Mars a middling review, not a wholly negative one.
I found his show to be solid, if not particularly inspired. I noted his talent, but felt that he and his cohorts appeared to be on autopilot, running through the motions in a prescripted show that, from reports I’d read, took on an almost identical shape in other cities on the tour.
And I poked a bit of fun at the sartorial code followed by Mars and his band – a uniform, really, comprised of Capri pants and loafers with no socks, and in the case of Mars, a Hawaiian shirt. I don’t normally take much note of how performers dress, but in mega-pop productions, fashion is often presented as being equally as important as the music itself, so this felt like fair game.
This did not sit well with an abundance of Mars fans, hundreds of whom penned letters expressing a general disgust with this critic. Very few of these took on the standard “I’ll agree to disagree with you” tone, with the majority expressing what amounted to moral outrage. Part of a critic’s job is to spur discourse, in my belief. Another part of a critic’s job is to take verbal abuse from readers who find themselves in disagreement. This can be good fun, and is sometimes educational.
The Mars fallout deviated from the norm somewhat, however. There seemed to be, in much of it, the outlining of a slightly troubling premise, one based on the notion that only a gushing, slobbering, fawning review would have been acceptable. Any criticism of Mars, it seems, was not to be tolerated.
When ticket prices are as high as they routinely are these days, this attitude is somewhat understandable. If you dropped $300 to make a date night out of Mars’ Buffalo show, got all psyched up for it, and intended to make an event of the special evening, well, you needed it to be great. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was great, however. A critic’s review of a concert is not a review of anyone’s experience other than the critic’s. It is not, if it happens to be somewhat critical, attempting to be critical of the great time you had at the show.
Returning from a vacation that commenced immediately after I filed my Mars review, I started sorting through the virtual stacks of emails, tweets and social media posts, and whittling them down to a few dozen representative notes. These boasted recurring themes that were a touch troubling in their uniformity. Here are the most popular of those themes, with my own responses to the issues they raise.
1. “All you did was write your own opinion.”
I was, I’ll admit, a little bit surprised that so many letters echoed a version of this statement. Since what a critic is paid to do is offer his or her opinion, and back it up based on expertise they’ve amassed through experience, or not, this one hardly seems worth spending much time on. And yet, what it suggests is a certain disconnect, one that may well be a side effect of the blog/tweet/babble on Facebook/everyone and anyone can be a critic present-day culture. “This is so awesome, the best show I’ve ever seen, no one else comes close, (Artist X) is the greatest thing that has ever happened to music!” is not really a review. It sounds more like a blind expression of love, or at least obsession. Which leads us to point No. 2 …
2. “How do you give such a bad review when over 20k people enjoyed the show?”
A critic might note how well the performance was received by the audience. But a critic doesn’t base his critique of the show based on how loud everyone cheered. Again, the gig is not to review your good time, as a fan. The gig is to review the show itself. So, the answer to the above query is simply this: “Very easily.”
3. “Things were looking up for this city till someone like you writes this awful review, and there goes Buffalo!”
The first letter I read suggesting this gave me a good laugh. But then, the same sentiment kept reappearing in letter after letter. I stopped laughing.
The notion that a mildly critical review might put a performer off from returning to a city where he has an obviously devout fan base is patently absurd. So is the notion that a major mainstream pop act coming to town has anything to do with Buffalo’s renaissance. The big mainstream pop acts always come here, whether the region is growing, or otherwise. They’ll keep coming as you long as you pay them to do so. A show like the recent Kerfuffle Festival held at Canalside – a sell-out based on an alternative music crowd showing up to a festival thrown by a new alternative music radio station at a relatively new venue in town – offers a far more accurate portrayal of the current “things are looking up” trend.
4. “A female writer should have reviewed this show. Every woman there was swooning!”
You might have a point there. This does raise the question, though: Would you be shelling out $100 or so to see Bruno Mars if he was ugly? Would his music sound different to you if he wasn’t easy on the eyes? Be honest.
5. “Were you even at the same concert the rest of us were?”
This is the oldest cliché in the critic-bashing book, but actually, maybe, in a sense, I wasn’t.
The burden of attempted objectivity falls on a professional critic. It doesn’t necessarily fall on the fan. I didn’t go to party. As a result, it didn’t matter to me one way or the other whether it was great, mediocre or lousy. The only baggage I brought with me was based on the one time I’d seen Mars previously – at a Univeristy at Buffalo Springfest back before he was a big star, in a show I ultimately found far more engaging than the FNC gig. So I felt free to form an objective opinion.
As ever, I appreciate every person who took the time to read the review and write a letter in response, both negative (the majority) and positive. The discourse is still fun, even when it gets a little nasty. And agreeing to disagree is a time-honored American tradition. Right?