Critical Analysis of Critics and ‘Hits’

Recently I came across this article on The Economist “Ever-increasing choice was supposed to mean the end of the blockbuster. It has had the opposite effect.

With all the year end list flurry that happens mid to late December still on my mind there was a particular paragraph and theory that resonated with me:
In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

What this implies is that consuming more media leads you to be more critical of each piece which in turn leads you to enjoy ‘hits’ less and less over time. If someone was to listen to and rate 1,000 albums in a year you would assume that this person would not likely prefer hit records.

Christopher R. Weingarten, he of @1000TimesYes twitter fame, did just that. In 2009 he listened to and ‘reviewed’ (via 140char tweet) 1,000 albums. His number one? Green Day. This is not to say that an album cannot be both a critical and popular hit but one would expect that if a hit record was actually that good there would be some sort of critical consensus.

Metacritic shows Green Day’s 20th Century Breakdown has an average critical score of 70. Rolling Stone, who provided the highest score for the album, called it the 5th best album of the year.

Does listening to more music make you a better critic? The function of a critic is to discern value and provide reasoned analysis. It would seem then that critical analysis would lead to somewhat of a consensus within your area of interest (leaving room for personal taste and experiences that have influenced preference).

Consuming more, which may make you a great fan, does not necessarily lead to higher standards or to being a better critic.