Why are critics not allowed to be rude about Beyoncé?

Bulletproof: Beyoncé performs during her world tour of 2016 - Shutterstock
Bulletproof: Beyoncé performs during her world tour of 2016 - Shutterstock

“[In the Seventies], music criticism was a blood sport,” says veteran critic Jim Farber. “The record companies would pay to send you across the globe to write stories and the writer could come back and type up the most vicious thing imaginable. Even the 1990s had its fair share of put downs. It was just accepted”

In America, legendary critic Lester Bangs once described the “inane” lyrics on Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut album as “like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to [occultist] Aleister Crowley”, while Rolling Stone magazine compared the music on Lou Reed’s divisive 1975 LP Metal Machine Music to “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator”.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the New Musical Express built a reputation for scathing reviews that lasted well into the 2010s, once publishing an article about singer-songwriter Tom Odell (a “poor, misguided wannabe who's fallen into the hands of the music industry equivalent of Hungarian sex traffickers”) that was so harsh, it prompted an angry call to the NME’s offices by Odell’s father.

How things have changed. To browse the review section of NME’s website in 2022 is to witness a constant flurry of fawning four-out-of-five write-ups that tend to frame every other artist as a genius, almost all songs as "cathartic", and shy away from any criticism whatsoever of current superstars such as Beyoncé, Adele, Stormzy, Kendrick Lamar, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift. Beyoncé’s single Break My Soul, released last month, was hailed as “awe-inspiring”, described as a “post-pandemic anthem” and generally greeted as if it was a radical Donna Summers’ floor-filler from 1979 – even though it was more like a disposable jingle played during an ITV2 advert for Love Island.

K-Pop boy group BTS saw their new compilation album, Proof, enthusiastically praised as a “hopeful promise of an even brighter future” by Rolling Stone, even though most of the project felt like it was vomited out by an AI-powered pop-song generator.

So, what has happened? Why are music critics now playing so nice? The answer, as with so many cultural changes today, starts with the internet. Before the world wide web, if you disagreed with a review, you wrote a letter, which may or may not have been published by a magazine’s editor (although there was also the odd occasion when an artist squared up to a critic, such as the time The Stranglers removed French journalist Philippe Manoeuvre’s trousers and gaffer taped him to the Eiffel Tower).

Now, if the Beehive or the Barbz (the respective names for Beyoncé and rap superstar Nicki Minaj’s feverish fans) disagree with a critic, they’re able to tell them directly, in their thousands, via social media.

According to Hannah Ewens, features editor at Rolling Stone magazine’s UK edition, professional critics are not always prepared to weather the online storm. Beyoncé, don’t forget, has 15.5 million devoted followers on Twitter alone.

“We have seen that attacking critics – as well as anyone who says anything negative or perceived as negative – has become standardised fan practice,” says Ewens. “Comments can be very personal and the methods by which you can be reached by stans [or super fans] are plentiful. 

"I’ve had friends in journalism tell me they’ve passed up reviewing [major pop artists] because they don’t have the mental and emotional capacity to bother with the backlash.”

London darling: Adele - Getty
London darling: Adele - Getty

Music journalist Wanna Thompson can testify to the ferocity of such a backlash. When she expressed mild criticism of Minaj back in 2018, she was subjected to a barrage of threats and online abuse, which Minaj herself encouraged through her own combative tweets. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Thompson said of the ordeal.

When I dared to give Kanye West’s 2021 album Donda two stars, I received messages from fans who threatened to end my career.

It also takes a courageous critic to gainsay the political or social messages that often sit at the core of a major star’s music. Beyoncé’s last album, Lemonade, was marketed as much as a feminist call-to-arms as it was a collection of high-quality songs, while the new single is, her fans insist, “anti-capitalist” (even though the track mostly features the repeated lyric “You won’t break my soul”).

Adele’s last album, 30, featured heart-wrenching ballads about her divorce, a subject it felt cruel to criticise.

The perilous finances of music publications is likely to be another factor in the current era of sycophantic music journalism. NME and many others are now exclusively digital and, without a successful subscription model, operate on a shoestring.

This has tipped the power balance into the major label’s favour, according to John Woolf of entertainment company A-List Management. “Titles have to pander to big artists as they need their exclusives to survive,” he explains. “They’re not going to come out and slate a huge artist because it will be detrimental to them as a publication and they’re less likely to be offered those interview opportunities in the future. It means critics feel more of a need to be a helper than to give a real opinion.”

Loyal following: Kanye West - Getty
Loyal following: Kanye West - Getty

Scott Jawson, a high-profile publicist with links to major label Universal Music, says smaller outlets that rely purely on music journalism for revenue are more vulnerable than bigger titles like The Telegraph that cover a whole compendium of subjects.

“These media outlets shy away from criticism in general because it has the potential to negatively impact other aspects of their business,” explains Jawson. “Why risk losing access to an artist, or drawing the ire of their [considerable] fanbase, when it’s more profitable to abstain from criticism altogether?”

The days of a major title having dozens of music critics on staff is also a thing of the past. More and more reviews are written by inexperienced younger writers, perhaps because they’re cheaper to pay or don’t have to be paid at all, while freelance journalists are unlikely to land an article pitch with something that’s overwhelmingly negative.

“More than anything else, a lack of steady and solid income has contributed to, what I jokingly call, the ‘critical positivity bias’,” says Ewens. “If a freelancer pans an album, there’s the looming threat of not being given music biography work by the artist’s  management, or even a label intervening when you’re put forward to interview said artist in the future.” Instead, Ewens says, writers and editors prefer to “harness the positive power of fandoms by writing effusive headlines and copy about [major] artists.”

But not everyone is convinced that music journalism is in a rut. John Robb, bassist and vocalist in post-punk band The Membranes and founder of alternative-music title Louder Than War, says the idea that there was a golden age of music journalism is “usually espoused by those who were in that era, who maybe overrated their importance. After all, the endless bad reviews didn’t stop Led Zeppelin, did they?”

Weathered the storm: Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant - Getty
Weathered the storm: Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant - Getty

He says we need to accept that the role of music critics has fundamentally changed, as writers react in real time along with the audience. “A good music critic doesn’t just type words but looks for new culture [trends], connecting people behind the scenes and attempting to make sense of the rush of new music coming towards them.”

Indeed, Farber tells me he is cautious about being seen as an “old fart”, desperately longing for the music journalism of the past. He says a lot of the major album reviews from the 1970s and 80s haven’t aged well, many relying on shock tactics rather than proper dissection of the music.

“As someone who has written for decades, I believe the music writing by young people in 2022 is in many ways better than ever before. They’re doing great research and they’re very sincere.”

That said, he adds, “there’s still a reluctance to criticise anybody and there isn’t the same freedom, zaniness or feistiness there once was. We’re going through a great social movement of enforced equality; this notion that all men are created equal and there’s beauty in everything we see.

"This might be true, but it’s also true that some pop stars have outrageous levels of power and money and are capable of creating music that lacks originality.”