The Dictatorship of Taste – and James Bond

At the Observer, someone named Neal Gabler laments the death of professional criticism at the hands of the Internet.

Elsewhere on the Observer site, the critics respond.

This whole “The Internet is killing/democratizing criticism” thing isn’t new. In fact, it’s such an old hat that I probably linked to very similar articles and posts back on the old blog.

But there was one thing in the Neal Gabler article that caught my eye, namely his assertion that for all the alleged democratization of criticism, all of those critics still like the same books, movies, TV shows, bands, etc… And they don’t just all like the same five things, each of those same five things is always the best “Insert medium here” ever. Which is just plain impossible, because our cultural output can’t be so fabulous that it produces a timeless masterpiece every other year or so.

My experience matches Gabler’s, for in the past five to eight years or so, Internet criticism has turned into a sort of dictatorship of taste. I think there are a lot more people proclaiming The Wire the best television show ever than have actually watched the program*.

And while all the fawning about The Social Network this fall was annoying, the fawning about Inception, Toy Story 3 and Wall Street 2 this summer was just as annoying. And woe betide anyone who dares to disagree with the majority opinion. Those critics who gave negative reviews to Inception and Toy Story 3 and thus ruined the perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating of both films allegedly got hate mail for the mere crime of daring to have a different opinion on a film.

There is a definite herd mentality to online criticism. Once the verdict of certain influential tastemakers is in, very few people will dare to deviate from that opinion. For example, once Television Without Pity or TV Tropes and for UK shows Charlie Brooker, the Guardian critic, have offered their opinion, this opinion becomes gospel. You can actually track this on occasion. For example, there was one British show that I liked a lot. SFX pretty much slammed the show before it had even debuted and for the first two episodes or so, opinion on the Internet was all over the place. Then Charlie Brooker gave it a negative review and suddenly everybody decided the show was crap and those of us who didn’t agree were ridiculed and attacked.

What the must-reads/views and the must-not-reads/views are, varies according to subculture. In the SFF community, you simply had to read and enjoy The Windup Girl, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Who Fears Death last year. Those same three books showed up on every best of list out there and if you didn’t like them or simply weren’t interested, you were a bad person. Meanwhile, hating Twilight – usually without ever having read it – and looking down on urban fantasy and paranormal romance is pretty much de rigeur in the SFF community. Five years ago, it was equally fashionable to hate Terry Goodkind, Robert Newcomb and Sara Douglass.

Once I got regular Internet access at home, I quickly became caught up in the online SFF community. I got lots of recommendations, bought and read many books and wound up hating almost all of them. With the first couple of books, I thought, “Maybe this one just isn’t my cup of tea.” But then I disliked book after book after book, books which came highly recommended as the best the genre had to offer. And that’s not even counting all of those recommended books I never read, because blurbs, summaries and reviews indicated that I wouldn’t like them. In the end, I still liked those authors I had enjoyed before the Internet (and I had frequently been informed that liking those authors was a sign of bad taste and in one case nigh illiteracy), but had otherwise given up on SF and fantasy altogether. It was only when I stumbled upon science fiction romance, urban fantasy and paranormal romance that I started to rediscover the genre again. Yet according to the dominant SFF tastemakers, most of those books might not even exist. To this day, any recommendations coming from a particular corner of the SFF genre are a “Avoid at all costs” red flag for me**.

On a totally different note, Film composer John Barry, who provided the score to eleven James Bond films and wrote the opening theme of The Persuaders, died aged 77.

John Barry was definitely one of my personal top five favourite film composers and I’ve noted long ago that the classic Bond films were among the best uses of music in film ever. A Bond film scored by John Barry often had only two musical themes, the Bond theme and whatever the title song was. Every other bit of incidental music in the whole film was a variation on those two themes. Some Bond films, most notably On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and also Dr No, had more than two themes, but John Barry only ever needed two.

My personal favourites of his many Bond title songs is not Goldfinger, by the way (though it’s a great piece of music), but it’s a tie between The Living Daylights and A View to a Kill. I’ve also got a soft spot for Live and Let Die, the song that was so good it ended up on the soundtrack of at least three different films. And like pretty much everybody in Germany, I love The Persuaders.

Regarding the Bond films, I believe that their success was more due to the contributions of John Barry, set designer Ken Adams and Maurice Binder who created the distinctive title sequences than to any of the lead actors. Because the Bond franchise survived several actor changes and also terrible scripts (Moonraker? The Man with the Golden Gun?), but it went downhill when Maurice Binder, John Barry and Ken Adams left.

*And of course, the Guardian/Observer were at the forefront of proclaiming The Wire the greatest show on television ever before the bloody thing was even being broadcast in the UK.

**If you knew me back in the day, I’m not referring to you and I’m not accusing you of anything, unless you are one of the approx. three people who actually said mean things to me. I have absolutely no problem with you liking and reading what you like, my tastes are simply different.

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One Response to The Dictatorship of Taste – and James Bond

  1. Monex says:

    Jane Birkin once said that even Serge Gainsbourg was amazed by some of Barrys arrangements and I guess shed know having been married to both of them…While Barrys fame is inextricably entwined with the Bond movies he first came to the attention of the British public in the late 1950s as the singer composer and arranger for The John Barry Seven. Our editorial policy such that it is reflects the interests whimsies and peculiarities of the individual writers.

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