No One – Not Even Beloved Icons – Should Be Immune To Criticism

Rock stars do not need keyboard warriors to defend them from critical comments.

“Well, he would say that”, I can hear you snorting as I mount a defence of criticism. After all, writing opinion pieces about stuff is my bread and butter, so to speak – whatever career I have has been built on the critical examination of the works of others. Nevertheless, I think we need to all step back from the increasingly deranged levels of angry defensiveness that swamp social media when it comes to someone making even the slightest suggestion that certain beloved figures – as chosen by the loudmouthed and self-righteous taste-setters of the internet – can be less than perfect.

Over the last week, thanks to television broadcasts of her appearances at Britain’s blandest music festivals, Debbie Harry has been subject to a fairly small amount of criticism and a huge amount of white-knighting from people who feel the need to defend her honour. I’ll point out here that I’ve loved Debbie Harry and Blondie since 1978, longer than some of her self-appointed defenders have been alive. I’m glad that she is alive, healthy and still out there doing her thing, that the band – admittedly not the band, but still – is still around and I’ll cut her plenty of slack because Blondie was brilliant and she was a rock star par excellence. but I don’t believe that she (or anyone else that I’ve been a huge fan of) is beyond criticism.

The criticism, which is usually wrapped in praise for her as an icon and for the very fact that, at 78, she is still up there doing what she does in the first place, is that Harry’s voice is shot. Well, that seems fair enough. We saw the Isle of Wight performance and truthfully, we were wincing at some of the vocals. We also understood that she was probably not going to be able to hit the notes that she could in 1980. This is not something unique to Harry – it’s true of lots of ‘heritage’ acts and there are various ways to disguise this if a singer chooses to go that route – miming to a backing track (either entirely or just for those difficult-to-reach parts), burying yourself in back-up singers or simply reworking your music so that it more suits your current vocal range, which can often make a performance all the more emotional and affecting because it acknowledges the passing of time and stares mortality in the face. For whatever reasons, she chose not to go by any of those routes, just as she chose to avoid autotuned vocals, and there’s something admirable about that level of naked honesty. Maybe Debbie Harry and Clem Burke are not ready to slow down and still want to rock out, and more power to them for that. No one has to retire if they don’t want to and Harry has more than earned the right to still be out there kicking it like a 20-year-old, no question. Debbie Harry can, frankly, do whatever she wants.

But if you perform publicly – or if you do any sort of creative work for public consumption – then you have to accept that people will express an opinion about it, and there is no upper age limit to that I’m afraid. People express opinions about my work and I’m pretty much a nobody in the grand scheme of things. There is, of course, a major difference between abuse and criticism, and we might all have a line in the sand as to where that begins. If people were mocking and insulting Debbie Harry simply for being old, if they were commenting on her appearance or even her dance moves, that would be absolutely out of order and worth condemning with all vigour. But if she has chosen to go on stage and perform, then the performance – not the person – is open to criticism. After all, people pay money – a lot of money these days – to see live acts and some of them might have reasonable expectations of a certain quality that the performance should adhere to. Not all do, of course, as increasingly it is just about ‘being there’, in the presence of a legend, that matters for a lot of people – the fact that acts who struggled to fill venues in the mid-1980s now play huge arena tours suggests that a large amount of the audience are simply box-ticking nostalgists, keen to catch another legend whose music they barely know while they can. Festivals are keenly aware of this, which is why so many bills are now dominated by performers who are past retirement age, and performers know it too, hence the dominance of bands now playing entire ‘classic album’ sets even if they have recorded new material fairly recently.

The furious online defenders of Debbie Harry no doubt feel that they are heroically putting the critics in their place – a witty put down here, a demand that people shut up there – but they are oddly condescending and, dare I say it, sexist and ageist, as though they feel that she is somehow incapable of defending herself. I rather doubt that she cares one jot about what people say about her, especially when you consider everything that has been written about her over the years – stuff much worse and much more personal than criticising a vocal performance, I can assure you. She is an artist who had attitude and resilience from the start. Yet her online champions seem to treat her as though she is a helpless, doddery old granny who someone has been rude to; that or someone who is untouchable because of who she is and what she’s done. I’ve also seen people suggesting that the criticism is somehow sexist, that male performers of a similar age are not similarly criticised – to which I would say that people only see what they want to see, clearly. Old male rock stars are routinely criticised for having lost it (or for trying to hide the fact that they can no longer deliver behind backing tracks, lip-syncing and so on) – and rightly so in many cases. Male performers at the very same festivals were criticised for being old and past it (or simply for performing music that the Tweeter didn’t like yet somehow felt obliged to watch live on TV).

No one amongst her online champions, notably, seemed to actually be defending her vocals – they just deflected by pointing out her age. “I’d like to see YOU doing that at her age”, they cry. Well, I’d like to see me doing it too. I would’ve liked to see me doing it aged 20, frankly, but that wasn’t to be. The most pathetic and desperate dismissal of criticism is to suggest that if someone can’t do the same thing to the same standard as the very successful professional who has spent a lifetime doing it, they should just shut up. An interesting idea, this – should we apply it to politicians and newspaper columnists too? “I’d like to see YOU be Prime Minister for ten years” and so on? Where do we draw the line, I wonder? For the defenders of social media, it often seems to be one rule for those they like, and another for those they don’t. ‘Be kind’ seemingly only applies when they approve of someone; everyone they don’t like is open game, not just for criticism but for relentless abuse and foul accusation, often tweeted directly at them. We see this in real life too, but the internet is awash with it – bullies who believe themselves to be somehow on the side of the angels, hounding people over a badly-worded comment, a decades-old shitpost, a rumour or an unfounded claim. This, often, from the very same people who then get all defensive over a singer being criticised for giving a sub-par performance to a paying audience.

Whenever someone gets up to ‘entertain’ – a singer, a writer, a filmmaker, an artist, a comedian – then other people will want to express an opinion on it – and that opinion will not always be positive. Sometimes, it will be quite hurtful, and not just to you – I understand that if you are 12 and obsessed with some fleeting celebrity who you believe can do no wrong, even the most nuanced of criticism of that person will feel like a stab in the heart. The fact that grown adults still behave the same way – that people in their 20s or older still act as though they have an actual connection with their favourite star beyond that of consumer and spend their time in petty rivalries and being furiously defensive of someone who doesn’t even know that they exist – just shows what a perpetually juvenile culture we now live in (and how social media encourages this emotional stunting). But if you want to be a performer – if you want the festival slots and the record deals, the red carpets, the adoring fans and the sense of importance – then you need to be able to deal with the fact that not everyone will love you – and some may irrationally dislike you with the same intensity that your fans adore you. I think most creative people are aware that with adulation comes criticism. Sometimes it’s unfair and sometimes it is driven by an irrational dislike because music especially seems to trigger the juvenile tribalist and grumpy old fart in a lot of people. If that sort of criticism – from people who are not even in your fan demographic to begin with and so should not remotely matter to you  – sends you into a tizzy, perhaps this is not the career for you. Despite what the media might have you believe, no one will ever be – or has the right to be – universally loved, and if the slightest criticism from the fringes is going to send you over the edge, maybe you need to rethink what you do. And if you encourage your fans to act as attack dogs and hound, harass and threaten your critics even while you play the victim, then you’re the worst sort of bully and deserve every bit of criticism thrown your way.

And as for fans – stop thinking that it is your job to defend others from the slings and arrows of critical analysis. You might think that it makes you look righteous and it might get you those precious likes, but you’re not fooling anyone into thinking that this is anything other than using someone else as an excuse for your personal need for attention. Rock stars can look after themselves. If accepting a critical opinion different to your own is too much to ask, then at least take a look at yourself before condemning others for expressing one. Unless you’ve never expressed a dislike for anything or anyone and never mocked a performer for, well, anything, then you need to stop calling out others for doing so just because the person in question is someone you like. Otherwise, you’re just a hypocritical cunt, aren’t you?


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  1. I mean this most sincerely: Reprobate’s tag line should read: ‘The Voice Of Reasonabe Common Sense’. I know you’ll squirm at that but listen: you did the intelligent thing and hoisted your opinions into a blog, where you could also choose wallpaper, decor, etc. The social media debacle is a ship of fools. i should now, I live there. It’s a hopeless case to try to reason with us. It’s like bailing water on the sinking Titanic. Just as many others have their thumbs deeply embedded dykes whilst completely underwater. (You see, Rene Cardona or Tony ‘Daisies’ would’ve had a submersible-themed feature before the cameras by now, if 1970s conditions still held sway). Of course I am a Debbie/Blondie obsessive, her big face is looking at me as i type, but one need not abandon one’s critical faculties, nor resort to rudeness – though if others do, hey it’s there way of getting there kicks. ‘Glasto’ is to me dreadful, but fascinatingly so in a weird way, tho I am old and decaying so is that skewering my objective pretence? Enough of my customary shite. If i may be so bold, without being too crawlly-bumlick, I hope – David Flint is far from a nobody, and indeed a storied presence on this world.

  2. Last time I saw Blondie was about 10 years ago and they were amazing … My sister told me that they were awful at Glastonbury, so I didn’t watch it … We are all getting old(er) … Debbie Harry is a amazing woman and has had a hell of a life … Eternal respect

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