The other day, my friend Evin sent me a review of Michael Jackson’s Thriller from the Rolling Stone archive. Thriller is one of the best-selling albums of all time. It features mega-hits such as “Beat It”, “Thriller” and “Billie Jean.” In 2009, shortly after MJ’s death, it was certified 29x multi-platinum. So, I was a bit taken aback to find that this reviewer gave it 4/5 stars. If Thriller can’t achieve a 5-star (or “classic”) rating, what album can?
The truth is that there is no way that Chris Connelly in 1983 could have possibly known what impact Thriller would have. It’s no surprise that the users of Rolling Stone‘s website give much higher ratings; some of them are posting reviews in 2007! Not only can we not predict future events that might contribute to the appeal of an album (for e.g., that Michael Jackson would become such a controversial celebrity, or that “Thriller” would have such a popular and influential music video), but we also cannot predict our future feelings. Dan Gilbert has investigated this phenomenon – termed affective forecasting – extensively, and he writes about it in his book, Stumbling on Happiness. You see, you might think that becoming paralyzed would be horrible, and that you would be depressed for the rest of your life after an accident that took away the use of your legs, but it turns out that people who are paralyzed adapt to their situation, and they end up being just as happy as anyone else. Lottery winners also adapt – after a short period of time, they are just as happy as they ever were, even after winning millions of dollars. Decisions about our future are also irrational. When we want to watch a movie today, we pick a light, funny flick, and we postpone the heavy drama for next week. But when next week rolls around, guess what? We want to watch another funny film. Those of you with Netflix queues have probably experienced this firsthand.
Given our weakness when it comes to predicting our own emotions and behavior in the future, we shouldn’t expect critics to somehow be better at this process. They can tell what they feel about an album now, and maybe they have some instinct about what songs will be more listenable than others in the near future. Really, though, they don’t know what they will feel about an album in one year. And there is no way that they know what will be popular in ten years; if they did, then they should consider entrepreneurship or investing in the stock market.
In sum, I don’t mean to say that critical reviews are never valid in the long-run. And surely, these ultra music enthusiasts have good instincts and a clever way of expressing them. But they are no more right about the future than you are.