- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

Last time I checked, no school existed to train critics in the art of reviewing popular entertainment.

So why do so many critics seem to think — and read — so much alike?

If you're a purveyor, casual or otherwise, of pop culture, you know the drill. Bob Dylan is God. Acoustic albums rock more legitimately than their electrified kin. Artists such as U2 always generate positive reviews, no matter how maladroit their latest offerings. Meryl Streep can saunter onto the set of even the soggiest soap-opera-style film and net accolades — and an Oscar nomination.

It's doubtful the country's entertainment critics gather each January at an undisclosed location to hammer out their takes on the coming year's selections. Yet distinct patterns seem to filter into their commentaries.

Certain entertainment figures will remain forever above reproach. Just try finding a critic to slam Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed or Bonnie Raitt, all of whom have shown chinks in their artistic armor.

"The Simpsons" progenitor Matt Groening is another talent who dupes critics with his glossy, if abbreviated, resume. Mr. Groening earned triumphant reviews when he debuted "Futurama" in 1999, but the program has failed to match "The Simpsons" in satirical strength or cultural cache.

Albums by R.E.M. and U2, two bands whose love affairs with critics have lasted past their ties to mass audiences, continue their downward spirals regardless of the raves.

The weakest Woody Allen film will always generate a few glowing missives from those awestruck by his earlier masterpieces. Watch "Small Time Crooks," his latest, weakest comedy, and look for critics who deem the flick a return to his comedic glory days.

Mr. Dylan has been coasting on his reputation for more than a decade in critical circles. The years have reduced his grating nasal voice into an indecipherable drawl, an instrument barely worthy of his glorious wordplay. Even his hard-core fans concede that his vocal interpretations descend into a whirlpool of sonic muck when he's in concert.

Yet the glowing reviews never are a changin'.

Inconsistency, or worse, hypocrisy, also plagues too many critics.

When a foulmouthed thrash band releases an album full of misogynistic rhymes, the critics deem it hate music. If Eminem or another high-profile rapper does the same, he or she is labeled a prophet, one who speaks from pain and societal isolation.

Like reporters flocking to the same source or news story, critics have a pack mentality that motivates them to stray just so far from the flock.

As a part-time critic at this paper, I often feel a self-imposed pressure to follow that pack. What if my review of Sting's new album, for example, flies in the face of a half-dozen reviews penned by my peers?

Critics also have plenty going against them.

Many readers don't accept critiques of their favorite performers, period. Wide-eyed girls routinely blast critics who dare deem the Backstreet Boys to be anything other then the second coming of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

A colleague of mine was labeled "parasitic" for her negative views on an '80s group lazily attempting a comeback with a "Best of" release. What had she ever created artistically, the reader demanded to know, that gave her the right to air her opinions in public?

Well, you don't have to script a screenplay to know that a film starring Jackie Chan might suffer from anemic dialogue.

Most of my friends resist the siren song of the critic. "I never agree with 'em," they tell me before trudging off to the latest Keanu Reeves debacle.

Yet I still read every review I can. I think each carries a kernel of truth, even if you have to carefully pan out the gold from the silt.

Putting your taste on the line isn't easy — but it's what critics do every time they power up their word processors. Everyone can recall a time when he praised a new show, film or CD, only to hear friends leap to dissimilar conclusions.

But just as hard-nosed reporters keep politicians honest, entertainment critics, in some small way, can help artists from resting on their laurels.

As long as critics don't rest on their own.

Christian Toto is a features writer for The Washington Times.

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