Re-evaluating David Bowie as Critics’ Impact Fades

On October 19, 1995, at the Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas concertgoers offered what, at the time, was a fairly accurate representation of the mid-’90s critical consensus on David Bowie. Bowie shared the bill with Nine Inch Nails, whose frontman Trent Reznor he fiercely admired; he even went so far as to record an album, the grisly and morose Outside, that Reznor himself could have made if someone had only given him a kitten or something.

Bowie’s set immediately followed Reznor’s, and for a few minutes of that set, the Vegas audience was into him—those minutes being the ones when Bowie shared a stage with Reznor, performing his own “Subterraneans” and Reznor’s “Hurt.” Then Reznor left the stage … and once the T&M audience realized he wasn’t coming back, they began pelting Bowie with trash. Ever indifferent to criticism, he played right through the barrage, ending with a rousing version of “Teenage Wildlife” that Vegas scarcely deserved.

I know what you’re going to say: That was at the height of Nine Inch Nails’ popularity with the mosh pit set, and anyone who had followed Reznor would have suffered the same treatment Bowie did. And perhaps that’s true. But consider how the critics of the time—casual observers who weren’t even at the Vegas show and who hadn’t drank all that overpriced, watery concert beer—were treating Bowie in their reviews of Outside: “Forced melodrama,” sniffed Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. Entertainment Weekly’s Ty Burr called it “pompous cyberpunk.”

Now let’s open the lens a bit to take in the reviews for every record Bowie made after 1983’s smash hit Let’s Dance through his rapturously received 2013 comeback album, The Next Day. That includes 1987’s Never Let Me Down (“A bad Anthony Newley imitation,” said Robert Christgau), 1993’s Black Tie White Noise (“Stultifying yet annoying,” wrote Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly) and 1999’s hours… (“All the vitality and energy of a rotting log,” said Ryan Schrieber of Pitchfork). Until The Next Day afforded him a long-overdue critical uptick (“May be the greatest comeback album ever,” gushed Andy Gill in The Independent), Bowie was practically buried in garbage.

What changed in Bowie is a matter of debate. Sure, he made some bad choices in those 30 years (the production of Never Let Me Down is a travesty), but I’d argue that some of the records he made in that time—Black Tie and 2003’s Reality—are every bit as good as Next Day. And Bowie himself probably doesn’t care what the critics think of him; I mean, shit, Christgau graded the classic Heroes a fucking B+. But I can say for certain one thing that has changed in that time: There are a lot fewer professional music critics than there were three decades ago, and their opinion matters much less than it once did.

Consider. When a new album comes out, by Bowie or anyone else, what’s the first thing you do? It used to be that you reached for Spin or the Village Voice to find out what the critics thought of it—a gesture that preceded your purchase of the record almost out of necessity, because the reviews always preceded the records reaching stores. But today, you can hear an entire record—streaming, on Spotify or purchased through iTunes—eons before Entertainment Weekly can chime in.

Such was the case with The Next Day. Bowie streamed the record on iTunes weeks before it was released; the critics heard it at the exact same time we did, at which point their opinions, though welcome, were superfluous. We knew Bowie was back before they could tell us he was. If we looked at the reviews of The Next Day at all, it was only to see if their math corresponded closely with our own. It wasn’t Bowie who became redundant over the course of three decades; it was the critics who were screaming that the times had passed him by, oblivious to their own slide into thin, white irrelevance.

I feel funny writing this, because I still read the music criticism of AV Club and Mojo, and I deeply respect Seven’s own Jarret Keene and City Life’s Mike Prevatt. And I guess that I still write the stuff, if you can call Tour Buzz music critique. (I don’t.) But even I’m wondering what album reviews are in an age when music is so quickly received and digested. If critics had decided to hurl trash at David Bowie this time out, we ourselves would have helped him to throw it back in their faces. It’s a small consolation for Bowie’s 1995 Vegas show, but I hope he’s pleased with it.