Right now is a pretty great time to be a Swiftie. Taylor Swift’s tenth album, Midnights, is flying off shelves and dominating streaming charts. And not just the regular kind of ‘pop music is popular’ dominating, Midnights broke the record for album streams in a week in only its first day, and restored Swift as the most streamed female solo artist across Spotify. It looks set for a sweep of the Billboard top ten and it has even broken the record for vinyl sales. Yet far too many of the fanbase are obsessed with one negative review which wasn’t even that negative to begin with. All of this, and more, goes back to gamer culture.
In gaming, fans are obsessed with Metacritic scores, holding them up as proof positive of a game’s quality even as they dismiss reviewers themselves. The biggest games in town tend to cruise to perfect scores across the board, and I’m sure God of War Ragnarok will be no different. Some of the games not quite on that level tend to struggle, but even the worst triple-A games reliably pick up a few 9s and 8s because, as a medium, we’re incredibly generous. These reliably high scores have bred expectant fans and, as gamer culture becomes a major force in the zeitgeist, other mediums are seeing this obsession develop.
Similarly, blockbuster movies are frequently discussed in terms of their Rotten Tomatoes score, even though this doesn’t denote overall score but instead the amount of critics who gave positive reviews. This hasn’t spread to cinephiles at large yet, who are still more concerned with award show predictions, but with the recent release of Black Adam, several online skirmishes have broken out as fans rush to take sides before they’ve even seen it. On the right, there’s DC or The Rock fans, on the left, there’s haters. Not a critical thought between them. It’s all just about which side wins or loses in this great cultural battle of whether other people whose opinions I don’t care about like a movie I haven’t seen yet.
Let’s get back to Taylor Swift. Another element of critical discourse music stans have borrowed from gaming is demands to see a writer’s credentials. Everyone wants reviews to be unbiased until they’re of your favourite thing, then they want a thumb on the scale by making sure the reviewer is a superfan. I reject that notion, but I’m not above mentioning that, frankly, I probably know more about Taylor Swift than you do. I’ve found it amusing that self-confessed stans who came around to Taylor with 1989 (her fifth album) have been mocking those who joined for Folklore (her eighth), while I’ve been here since I’m Only Me When I’m With You, which was on her debut.
I’m a major Taylor Swift fan, and not just in the way that all white women like her. I have had Midnights on repeat and have bored everyone else at TheGamer with playlists, streaming suggestions (read: demands), Swift facts, and a flurry of all things Taylor. I love her. I have merch, clothing, jewellery, decor, and of course, vinyls from Taylor. I also broadly agree with Pitchfork’s 7.0/10 review, which is the main cause of all this negativity. Jack Antonoff’s sound is a little repetitive and irritating across a whole album (Aaron Dessner for TS11 please). Midnights is good, but it doesn’t have the lyricism of Folklore and Evermore, the narratives of Red, or the vibes of 1989, all of which scored higher on Pitchfork and all of which, when the dust settles, will likely still find themselves above Midnights in most fans’ all-time list.
There are other factors here, sure. Pitchfork used to give away high scores readily, before consciously making itself harder to please. Metacritic is also highly secretive of its formula for how it determines the overall score, meaning we don’t know how much Pitchfork has a greater impact because of its prestige, or a smaller impact because of notoriously low scores. This was always going to be one of the lower reviews, and if you didn’t know that you’re clearly not well informed enough to care this deeply.
For all gamers like to claim their favourite love-to-hate outlets always give trash scores, gaming is far more generous. In fact, the colour code cut offs to determine quality is higher in games because we give praise cheaply – we're still wowed by tech, and hand out multiple perfect scores a year (maybe even a month) to games that rarely deserve them. In this culture, where we’re seeing video games and blockbuster movies reviewed primarily by fans looking for reasons to love them, it can stick in the throat that an outlet can say “yes, this is quite good but it’s missing some elements and has repetitive production: 7/10”, instead of just “OMG Blondie sweep HER MIND 10/10!!!”, but that’s what criticism needs.
All of this overlooks the most important factor that has spread from gaming: caring. Midnights will go down in history as one of the most successful albums of all time and, more importantly, you’re enjoying it. Why do you care what number a journalist you’ve never met scribbles on their review you likely didn’t even read? If Swift were a smaller artist who needed critical acclaim to break through into the mainstream, I’d get it – Rina Sawayama deserves more recognition, for example. But even if Pitchfork gave Midnights a 2.0/10, it’s not like everyone was suddenly going to give up on it.
Despite everything, I think being a stan of something is inherently good. I rein in how much I talk about Taylor Swift to like, 20 percent as much as I want to, and everyone in my life will still say I talk about her far too much. Whether it’s Taylor Swift, or Spider-Man, or God of War, I think it’s very cool to have a thing in your life you know everything about and that regularly brings you joy. But there are so many people like you out there, so many others just as eager to share this. Why are you obsessing over someone outside your circle who feels differently to you?
Would your life be any better if Pitchfork gave Midnights 7.4 to take it above Justin Bieber, or would the next benchmark be whichever Swift album you secretly dislike, or Norman Fucking Rockwell, or Swift’s career high of 9.0? Gaming culture has led the way in conversations across the internet age, but its worst habits are becoming more widespread too. Fans often tell critics they should let people enjoy things, but some fans find enjoyment impossible anyway. Gamers have proven time and time again that for some people, their favourite way to enjoy something is to attack people who don’t.
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