On semi-rare occasions, you absolutely know when something’s going to be good. You judge a book by its cover because you’ve practically already read it. A new Fiona Apple album, good. 3 Doors Down’s greatest hits, bad.
That said, it’s far too easy to let broad assessments determine what entertainment we pursue and decide how much we liked it before watching/listening/reading. This week Taylor Swift, that smiley little pixie who is like, so oh-my-god grateful, y’all about this award and totally did not expect it, released a new album. It would be easy to broadly dismiss as the singing diaries of a teenage girl who doesn’t realize that she’s in her early 20s. Or, at best, the sort of catchy, disposable pop that Hayden Panettiere’s character has already grown sick of writing and performing on “Nashville.”
In fact, Swift’s well-reviewed “Red” deserves the reviews that say it’s not terrible. It’s considerably better than terrible, something I imagine many people would be more willing to consider and perhaps admit were the album not by Taylor Swift, who already seems like she’s been around forever despite not having been born when “The Little Mermaid” came out. Contrary to belief that may have been fostered by some less-than-stellar awards show performances, Swift can sing just fine, and the hooks on “Red” cannot be denied. Will it force you to admit the way the music conjures images of putting the top down (if you had a convertible) and letting your hair fly in the wind? Probably, despite the lyrics possessing a far less carefree spirit. And even if not all of Swift’s words soar with wisdom, 1. She’s 22 2. They're honest and relatable and 3. Unlike Katy Perry's lyrics, they don’t make you gag.
By the way, that’s a mild reference to “Full House,” a show that began two years before Swift was born.
On the flip side, this week also brings “Cloud Atlas,” a movie that might seem guaranteed to be worth your time. It stars Oscar winners in Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, and it’s co-directed by Chicago natives Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”). It should go without saying, however, that ambition and name recognition doesn’t grant a movie a free pass—“Rock of Ages” should forever stand as proof that huge stars don’t mean a damn with horrible material. The fast-paced “Cloud Atlas” whizzes by pretty quickly for a three-hour epic that makes broad statements about human behavior, but it’s also embarrassing on a writing, acting and thematic level. Anyone who goes in already ready to be wowed may digest the concept of jumping across space and time and casting actors in several different parts as a brilliant experiment; subjectively, I say everything it tries is distracting in the worst way.
Most people, critics included, go into a movie or an album with a somewhat biased opinion. If critics says they anticipate “The Master” with the same excitement as “That’s My Boy,” they're lying. But everyone, whether they write about this stuff or not, should be willing to admit when something is good or isn’t, regardless of if they “want” to like it. Loved the “Twilight” books but shudder at the movies? That’s OK, it doesn’t change how you feel about the book. Heard the Animal Collective record is wonderful but you don't actually hear any songs on there? That's fine; being in the minority doesn't mean you don't get it, you just might have to work harder to defend your perspective.
The thing about opinions is that everyone has one, but in a savvy pop culture world in which many prefer not to go out on a limb and no one wants to be wrong, a discussion of artistic quality isn’t much worth having when minds have been made up in advance.
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