There is an art to writing about art. Like any art, The Daily’s reviews have gone through fads and phases over the years: the ’70s style of immense detail, to the ’80s trend of inserting the reader into the story, to the 2000s use of a star ranking system, landing on today’s analysis of the art. In the five decades since The Daily became independent, its reviews have generally become more generous, personal and humorous.
However, one thing that has stayed constant is the importance of these reviews. The role of The Daily’s reviews reaches further than just telling students which movies to watch over the weekend — college newspapers have the ability to spread the work of student artists and lesser-known creators. No matter what time period they were written in, reviews can give smaller artists a genuine, unbiased critique of their art, which is rare for many.
“I just think reviews on a college campus, especially when they’re focusing on the campus community, or even the Palo Alto community, can have a really tangible impact on people’s lives and how far their art gets to reach,” said Kirsten Mettler ’23, The Daily’s executive editor and a review writer herself.
Reviews from the ’70s focused on segmented features of the art, breaking the article up into sections corresponding to parts of the piece. Writers cut straight to the chase in the lede, if not the title itself, and would back up their claim with dense imagery as evidence.
They were not afraid to criticize, either. In one review from 1973, writer Marc Kaye ’74 brutally faulted a production of “King Lear” put on by The Company of the Bay Area. “There might just as well have been a robot out on stage playing Cordelia,” Kaye wrote halfway through the piece.
The 1980s marked a drastic shift in tone, most notably due to the wide use of the “you” and “I” statements accompanied by increased humor. Reviewers started inserting the readers and themselves into the piece, giving it a much more personal feeling — though it did not lack the surplus of imagery as evidence.
In his 1981 review of a Martha and the Muffins concert, writer Bruce Handy ’81 started the piece with a brief overview of the apparently decent concert before interrupting himself in the second paragraph.
“‘Wait!’ you say. ‘OK: sarcasm is easy enough — I want a clever review that says something as well,’” Handy wrote.
Putting the reader’s voice into the story is certainly a way to get the readers’ attention, though it was not as popular as the writer using their own voice.
Stefan Malmoli ’84, for instance, used his personal hatred of Los Angeles to intrigue the reader in his 1983 review of a concert by The Motels, which supposedly made him like the city better. “Instead of a wasteful, decadent and devoid place,” Malmoli ’84 wrote, “I now think of it as an enjoyable, wasteful, decadent and devoid place!”
Many reviewers are inspired to write a review because of how the art affected their lives. Mettler does this at The Daily today. “I went and saw ‘Morbius’ not because I was planning on doing a review. But after I saw it, I was so infuriated by how bad it was that I felt compelled to write the review,” she said.
In terms of style, the 1990s were not significantly different than the ’80s. Reviewers were still employing a more personal approach, though with less humor than the previous decade. The most notable change is in how much real analysis of the art the reviewer included.
Rather than going into great detail about the features of an artwork, writers started diving into what made a piece good or bad. In 1999, Steven Raphael’s ’00 review of Richard Avedon’s novel, “The Sixties,” describes how the book falls short in trying to appeal to the public.
“It feels like the author’s interests lie in the politics of the ’60s, but they were told that a book of photographs about politics would never sell to the general public,” Raphael wrote. “So they added some random shots of musicians, artists and drag queens and tried to pass the book off as something that it’s not.”
Deep analysis is an essential part of review writing today as it allows for the audience — and the reviewer — to be aware of the art in its proper context. Arts & Life contributing writer and desk editor Shreya Komar ’26 learned this as a reviewer.
“[Reviewing is] a little mix of everything — a little opinion, a little news-y, a little Arts & Life. It’s very much a balance between a lot of different sections. It’s given me a lot of perspective when I go and see shows,” Komar said. “Now I think about every aspect of character and sound design and lighting. It’s made me more aware.”
Going into the 2000s and 2010s, reviews grew not just in how they were being written, but also in what they were about. Reviews of television shows, video games and even award shows started popping up, along with graphic ranking systems to show what the reviewer thought of a piece out of five stars.
One article from 2007 ranked the best shows on television for audiences to watch. It was titled, “So it is summer, and you have got cable,” a title that could have appropriately existed only in 2007.
It also became much less common to dig into the flaws of a performance the way older reviews might have. In review of the Ram’s Head’s “Winter One Acts” from 2014, writer Vanessa Ochavillo ’17 describes the show as “stimulating” and then goes on to write about what seemed to be an interesting but poorly produced show.
Today, in the early 2020s, The Daily’s reviews have regained a bit of their edge (see Mettler’s review of “Morbius”). The most important difference, which can be seen in some late 2010s pieces too, has been in situating an art piece in its larger context.
“I try to think beyond the thing I’m reviewing itself,” Mettler said. “Even for something like ‘Morbius,’ I ask myself, what does this say about superhero movies and the idea of mass cinema? And how is it changing the industry and how we interpret art?”
This trend is noticeable in most any recent Daily review. A 2021 review of Joan He’s novel, “The One’s We’re Meant to Find,” by high school staffer Melissa Tariq Rodriguez exemplifies it. “The book transcends the traditional sci-fi genre to become a more relevant commentary on individual agendas, artificial intelligence and the future of our planet,” Rodriguez wrote.
The changes in review writing since the 1970s are reflective of the changes at Stanford, and in the world beyond. Readers can get a sense of the importance of art and what type of art was popular by flipping through old reviews. The role of the reviewer has also changed, from more of a reporter to an active participant in the art form.
“Because of how much media is at our disposal at all times, reviewers can have a lot of impact shaping what people are watching,” said Mettler.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.