Star Power

9 May 2014 Fiona Scott-Norman

Star Power

Illustration by Greg Bakes; original photo by Miles Standish

Fiona Scott Norman, Ed#457, April 2014

Is the star-rating system hurting the performing arts?

I wonder whose bright idea it was to add star ratings to theatre and comedy reviews. Some genius. It wasn’t an arts editor, that’s for sure. A hard-bitten type further up the food chain, probably, headhunted from one of Murdoch’s flagship mastheads, brought in to Shake Things Up A Bit. 

On the way home from a hard day cutting the budget for freelance writers and biscuits, he probably passed an appliance store, glanced absently at the latest Fisher & Paykel, and noted that not only did it have a four-star energy rating, but that ‘four stars’ was ‘better’.

And, voila. Simply take informed artistic critique and conflate it with the energy consumption of a New Zealand dishwasher, and the most popular, lazy and muppet-brained attempt to sex up the arts pages was born.

Yes, look, it was fun for a while. But as with most lightbulb moments employed without due consideration of consequences, a few years down the line it sucks like an aeroplane toilet. It’s borderline workable for films, just, in that a film is a finished product and doesn’t have a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ night. But for live performance? Yeek. Not since cane toads were introduced to Queensland has so much damage been wrought on a vulnerable ecosystem.

The only winner from the star-rating system, when applied to the performing arts, is schadenfreude. That’s the feeling you get from reading a review of a show awarded one star, or, baby Jesus save us, half a star. “That must have hurt,” we think, wincing as we pause, transfixed, halfway through our latté. I have a suspicion that these are the only reviews that are ever read now. They’re clickbait.

The UK papers introduced this palaver years earlier than Australia. Back in the late 1990s I remember an Edinburgh Festival where The Scotsman newspaper – the paper of note in Edinburgh, mind – devoted a double-page spread every Monday to all the one- and no-star reviews. It was the print version of putting people in stocks and inviting us to hurl rotten veg and spittle, and, naturally, it was all anyone could talk about. Reviewing had been reframed overnight as a blood sport.

The immediate impact was that those shows were killed stone dead. Some of them probably deserved it – a typical Edinburgh Fringe features close to 2000 shows, and, let’s face it, you have to kiss a lot of frogs etc. But some of those ‘critiques’ were written by journos whose beats were usually gardening or cooking or sport, because at festival time it’s all hands on deck, and their opinion, really, wasn’t worth a bath in hot lard. But, you know, it sold papers and lalala…

A decade-plus later, star ratings are ubiquitous. All that matters, all that registers, is the number of stars. Informed  analysis, good writing, contributing to the dialogue? Fuhgeddaboudit. Punters, usually overwhelmed by choice (there were 491 shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for example), swipe through reviews as though they’re on the dating app Tinder, rejecting anything with fewer than four stars in a blink. Hot or not? There’s no time to paint a word picture with light and shade in five seconds.

A couple of weeks ago, the AFL rolled out nationwide guidelines stating that players up to the age of 10 must play by modified rules. No points, no finals, no ladder. No scoreboards. No match results. No stakes. Even though football is, actually, a competitive sport, it’s now inappropriate for children to be exposed to competitiveness. It’s all about participation and, as AFL national development manager Josh Vanderloo says, giving children “an enjoyment philosophy rather than a winning philosophy’’.

Now, Blind Freddie can see that’s Political Correctness Gone Mad. But, I wonder, with the research in, if competitiveness is considered inappropriate for robust young footy players, why is a competitive rating system tolerated in the arts? Why are we reducing every show to ‘win’ or ‘lose’?

Informed critique used to be a vital part of the creative ecosystem. Now it’s reduced, essentially, to a colosseum-like thumbs up or down; its role has shrunk like an orangutan’s habitat. Everything is out of whack, and we’re discarding artists on the basis that they don’t have a high enough energy rating. And we still don’t have any biscuits.

» Fiona Scott-Norman is a Big Issue columnist.

This article first appeared in Ed#457 of The Big Issue magazine.