Friday, February 1, 2013

Dear Mr. Critic, Speak for Your Frakkin' Self

There is thing that critics of the arts do that has bugged me for a long time.  That is when they take some deeply subjective response to a work or experience and project it onto all of their members of the audience.

David Bianculli, the TV critic for NPR (whose commentaries I enjoy), did that this week while reviewing the new FX series, The Americans.  The show is about Russian spies planted in the United States during the 1980s,  under cover as a happily married couple.  Bianculli liked the show, but he took exception to one of the songs selected for the pilot. (You can read all of his comments here.)

"As they set off -- without saying a word to one another as they go through their various spy motions -- we hear on the soundtrack one of the most iconic cues in all of TV history.  It's an homage, certainly, and a song that is true to the '80s era.  But when I heard it, instead of pulling me more deeply into the drama, it made me laugh.  If you were around during the decade when The Americans takes place, it's impossible to hear Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" without thinking of Miami Vice.  Other period music is used more effectively, but that's one that should have been avoided."

Um... it IS possible to hear that song without thinking about Miami Vice.  In fact, I think about that show only when I see grown men wearing pastel colors and loafers without socks.  And that is pretty much never.

I lived in the '80s, and I owned that Phil Collins album, Face Value.  But I never watched that show.  In fact, millions of people did not watch that show.  Sure, millions did, but more millions didn't.

If I associate any music with Crockett and Tubbs that would be Jan Hammer's somewhat cheesy tune that plays over the opening credits.  Can you say keytar?

"In the Air Tonight" was apparently used in the pilot episode (1984) and again in the Miami Vice film  (2006) -- but the film version was a cover by Nonpoint.

I believe this is the scene in question:

More recently, the song has also been used in Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007) and in The Hangover (2009).

That means Bianculli thinks one episode of a television series has burned itself into the collective memory of the United States so deeply that the song has been ruined for all other uses.  That is asking a lot, isn't it?

In other words, the song rattled Bianculli's memory banks in a way I doubt it did for other viewers of The Americans.  But he assumes his experience is shared by all viewers and takes the time to crab about the song selection.

This is a common problem with arts criticism.  So much of it is subjective, but it gets presented as objective fact.  The critic has seen, read, and heard much more than the typical audience member, which means the critic can serve as a useful guide or commentator to compare the work in question with other works; but too many times the critic assumes everyone has seen, read, or heard everything he has and, worse, assumes everyone agrees with his observations.

Now... if someone wants to talk about a really bad soundtrack choice (in my humble opinion) it is "All Along the Watchtower" in the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  It was not only used in the soundtrack, several of the characters sang it in key scenes.  When I thought the show was set in the future, I might have believed Bob Dylan's song had survived for centuries.  Somehow.  But when I realized the show was set in the past, and that the survivors of the Galactica became the ancient ancestors of the human race on Earth?  That means Dylan's song remained intact for a hundred thousand years.

No frakkin' way.

That one song choice nearly ruined the whole series for me (because it was a central plot device toward the end), just as Bianculli says the Phil Collins pulled him out of the viewing experience rather than drew him in.  But I am not willing to say anyone shares my opinion, because I have heard no other complaints about the Dylan song.