Metacritic Has Become a Front Line in the Pop-Culture Wars

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Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Last week, Ariana Grande’s third album, Dangerous Woman, was released to reviews that most people would describe as “generally favorable.” Many critics liked it. Entertainment Weekly gave the album a B-plus; AllMusic gave it four stars out of five. Rolling Stone noted that “Grande may not have settled on a sound, but she’s still an outsized, dangerous talent,” and only gave her three stars out of five.

Still, this was good: A positive but not glowing review from Rolling Stone is hardly a tragedy. And yet 2,700 Ariana Grande fans have signed a petition demanding that the review-aggregation site Metacritic remove the Rolling Stone review from its average. “[T]he review itself remains extremely unprofessional and in no way backs up its low score,” the petition’s author, one Elliot Karsten, of Alexandria, Virginia, writes

Welcome to the hellworld of Metacritic. The popular entertainment site — which collects reviews for TV shows, movies, music, and video games, converts them to “scores” out of 100, and then calculates a “metascore” — is the unfortunate product of an internet filled with overwhelmed consumers, overworked critics, and overdefensive fans. And it has real power over certain industries.

The Metacritic system — which transmutes every review, regardless of its scale, into a score out of 100 — is inherently flawed. Entertainment Weekly’s aforementioned B-plus score becomes an 83, while Rolling Stone’s three out of five more clearly becomes a score of 60. But if we were to translate Rolling Stone’s score into a letter grade, it would be a D-minus, far harsher than its text would indicate. Do you see how this can get messy and distort things? (Metacritic’s system has only been unimpeachably correct in one instance: when it named Spoon the best band of the 2000s.) The film site Rotten Tomatoes is even more aggressive, separating every review into the category of “good” or “bad.”

The Grande petition is ridiculous, but it points to the extent to which sites like Metacritic have warped the internet’s ability to process popular culture. To a certain degree, a single score can be a kind of useful consumer guide, but as certain kinds of culture — music and television, in particular — become easier to obtain without enormous up-front payments, the score becomes less useful as a service. Instead, it stands as a mark of a given object’s quality. Every few years, a film critic ends up on the receiving end of a torrent of complaints — not for leveling a poor critical argument but for ruining a film’s until-then perfect aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, as Armond White did in 2010 for Toy Story 3, and Matt Pais did in 2014 for Boyhood.

Much has been written about how the internet is changing cultural criticism. What was once a one-way conversation from a handful of authoritative voices has spread into an entire, well, web. Cultural consumption online is now largely defined around “fandom” — your participation in a quasi-religious movement centered on the characters or authors of a given work of music or fiction. And part of being involved in an online fandom, whether it’s for video games, pop stars, or comic-book movies, is to be confrontational when things don’t go your way. Sometimes this can be minor, like when a single review causes an average score to dip, and sometimes it can explode, like when the critical rejection of Batman v Superman caused a flare-up in the eternal struggle between die-hard fans and outsider critics. The always-revisable nature of the web gives the impression that fan protests can actually change a judgment. At the very least, they can exert pressure on future critical opinions.

If this all seems silly, it is and it isn’t. Metacritic scores don’t matter to pop stars like Ariana Grande. She will continue to be popular, and she will continue to get paid handsomely. But in the video-game industry, metascores hold a crazy amount of power. As Kotaku reported back in 2013, Obsidian, the developer of Fallout: New Vegas, had contractual terms that stated that if the game received a Metacritic average of 85, the team would receive a $1 million bonus. They fell just short (84 on PC and Xbox, 82 on PlayStation), missing out on a payout that would have amounted to more than $14,000 per team member. Aggregate scores are now useful cudgels in business negotiations too, with publishers extracting more favorable terms out of developers.

This is not to say that aggregate scoring is entirely useless. Last summer, social media and Rotten Tomatoes were arguably more useful tools for predicting a film’s success than previous tracking methods.

But for stans and fanboys alike, the aggregate score has become a useful line of attack because, in a certain sense, they’re right: One bad apple can spoil the bunch. From a marketing standpoint, it’s more compelling to say, “Everyone agrees,” than it is to say, “These three guys had nice words.” Cultural criticism no longer exists in a vacuum; every instance of it feeds into a larger whole. It’s turned pop culture into a quantity and transformed fandom into a game of sabermetrics. This is how being a fan works now. Get used to it.