Is it more important for an artist to be embraced by critics or loved by fans?
I pose this question as the first reviews of the Fray's new disc come rolling in — most of them unimpressed shrugs. Rolling Stone gave the record two stars out of five. "The Fray are going for introspection and dramatic sweep but don't rise above bland pleasantries," the reviewer said, then concluded that if the Fray "want to save more lives," the band needs to "put the spleen back in." Entertainment Weekly's assessment was no kinder to the hometown heroes. While it acknowledged that How to Save a Life "had a handful of standouts," it labeled the followup "all blah, all the time: more minor-key melodies, more dreary tempos, more of singer-pianist Isaac Slade's spiceless sore-throat croon." EW's conclusion: "One track is called 'Say When.' How about now?" Blender asserted that "without the help of a plot line or scrubs-clad eye candy" (referencing the Fray's fortuitous television ties on shows like Grey's Anatomy), the songs "tend to wash together into one fierce tidal wave of meh." And the Detroit Free Press offered this: "Summoning earth-moving art on demand was surely a tall order, and while you can't fault the Fray for trying to strike a hot iron, you can excuse the rest of us if we try to stifle a yawn."
Not surprisingly, the fans beg to differ. "Every new song I listen to is better than the last one!" wrote one fan on the band's website. "I don't know how you do it, but you continue to amaze me with your beautiful lyrics! Keep it going."
"I just wanted to say thank you for the beautiful songs," another fan said. "You guys help me understand feelings and emotions that I try to deny. Your songs are universal."
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"I was driving the first time I heard this song — had to pull over because I started crying," posted another. "I'm not an emotional girly by any means, but this song expresses how I've been feeling for the last two years."
Clearly, pundits and civilians are split.
If they're being honest, most musicians would admit they crave validation, particularly from someone whose sensibilities are presumably more refined. So it stings when those folks label their work as boring. But if critics are being honest, they'd admit they tend to engage in a certain amount of rockism, believing their opinion has more merit than that of the unwashed masses. When it comes down to it, though, critics are basically just music fans themselves — granted, fans with a more informed take and a higher level of articulacy than most — but fans, nonetheless.
In the end, Rick Nelson probably said it best: You can't please everyone, so you might as well please yourself.