This question has been on my mind for a few days…
In our modern age of Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp, iTunes, and other tools that let people easily sample new music, what is the social utility of a scathing review of a band or album, if any?
Here are my thoughts so far on the subject, but this much-longer-than-originally-intended memo is primarily to hear YOUR thoughts and get a discussion going, so after you read all this, please post your opinion in the comment section at the bottom of the page.
Let’s clarify some terms first:
By “negative album review,” I mean a review that is totally scathing or overwhelmingly negative. Let’s say 4/10 or below, if you’re grading on a scale. I am NOT talking about a generally positive review with some critiques – like that Pitchfork review on Father John Misty that he Twitter-rampaged about. I’m talking about when the thesis of the review is essentially, “this music is bad.”
By “negative band profile,” I mean an article that casts a band in a negative light based solely on a qualitative assessment of their music or genre. I am NOT talking about a news story about something offensive or controversial a band did, or even political controversy about their music (i.e. offensive lyrics). I’m talking about when the thesis of the article is essentially “this band isn’t a good band.”
Negative live performance reviews I get to later, so if that’s on your mind please hold your horses.
Ok, let’s begin.
“Yeah? Well, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man…” – The Dude
“This album is crap, and you like it, so what does that say about YOU?”
An overwhelmingly negative album review is essentially saying one of two things:
1) If you have not yet listened to this, don’t bother as it’s a waste of your time for reasons X, Y, Z.
2) If you have already listened to it, and you like it, you’re wrong because of X, Y, Z.
Thing #1 used to matter. It used to be very difficult to hear more than one or two songs on an album without putting down $15 for it. If you had read a scathing album review by a critic whose likes and dislikes tended to align with your own, it might save you from making a purchase that you’d later regret. I see the utility there. But now that process is irrelevant. You can open up Spotify and listen to the whole album yourself, make your own decisions about it, and buy or not buy the album based on that. Why have a reviewer scare people away from listening and judging for themselves?
Meanwhile, thing #2 totally sucks. If you like certain music, you like it, and you should continue liking it until you don’t for whatever reason. That reason shouldn’t be (and generally isn’t) “I read a review that said it was bad for reasons X, Y, Z so now I don’t like it anymore.” I’d say only the very weak-willed and extra-impressionable actually go through that train of thought. That character judgement is implied, however, because the subjective reviewer is pretending they have objectivity thanks to their resume or publication. Very few reviewers ever use the first person. Instead, they speak in unqualified statements and “facts,” backed by the gravity and falsely objective reputation of the publication. It’s not just two people sitting in a room discussing the virtues and weaknesses of an album, eventually agreeing to disagree. It’s an “authority” and an audience. Which lead us to…
The Credibility Argument
Any press publication, whether a magazine, website, or personal blog, lives or dies by their credibility. In most journalism, objectivity is the cornerstone of credibility – the best journalism shows all sides of an issue and reports on the good and the bad. The thing is, with music there is no objectivity. When it comes to music, credibility means something different–something more personal.
Music publications are an important resource people use to access new music. These kinds of publications are most successful when they develop a clear voice and build trust based on their recommendations. Readers keep reading because they’ve found a commonality of taste with the writers. For example, in addition to enjoying Heather Powell Browne’s writing style, I’ve found that most of the new music that Fuel/Friends Blog recommends is right up my alley. Other blogs may be equally well written, but their tastes don’t match up as well with mine so I don’t follow them as closely.
Heather’s arguments about what music she doesn’t like are irrelevant to me. It’s what she chooses to lift up and share with me that matters. Her credibility lies in her consistent quality of writing and the value of her recommendations to me and me alone. She’s subjective, I’m subjective, we’re both happy, and the sky has not fallen.
What if all music publications focused their energy on the music they thought was great and simply did not talk about the music they thought wan’t good?
Easy on a blog level, but where do Rolling Stone and Pitchfork fit into this? Skipping over the conversation about the usefulness of a grading scale when it comes to music, frankly I don’t think there’s any social utility to publishing a lengthy, scathing 2.7-out-of-10 review versus not publishing anything at all. Now, before you bring up grade inflation or say “People want to know what Rolling Stone thinks about this new release,” consider this: The bigger the publication, the more powerful their omissions. Alternatively, they could explain at the top of the page, “Any review below 5.0/2-stars/C+ will not be written.” Or, to be less passive-aggressive about it, there could be a list of that week’s “failing grade” releases at the bottom of the page, with their scores. In all cases, I think they should include a Spotify link to the album and encourage readers to listen for themselves. I see no loss in their credibility if they were to do this. Plus, major publications already omit; Pitchfork doesn’t bother reviewing Jack Johnson’s latest record. So why have the same guy who hated Mumford & Sons review The Head and the Heart? What is gained by 412 words on why it’s a waste of perfectly good vinyl (phrased in absolutes of course)?
“No, you’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole!” – The Dude
Analogous to film or video game reviews?
As I began to consider this question more seriously, I immediately thought of the many negative review written about films and video games which I read on a daily basis. I see negative film or video game reviews as very useful for three main reasons:
- Mainstream feature films and video games cannot be legally sampled, in their entirety, before purchase.
- Going to see a movie in the theater or purchasing and playing a video game is a significant investment of time and money. I want to be warned before I go see something or buy something that I probably won’t like – though I can usually tell if I’ll hate it based on the preview, genre, and marketing.
- There aren’t many feature films available in local theaters at any given time, thus the importance of picking the right film to go see is more significant, especially if you can only go see one movie.
None of those points apply to new recorded music. They do apply, however, to a musician’s live show. As such, I think that negative reviews of a live performance may provide utility… to an extent. Maybe it’s that they have the potential to provide utility if the reviewer focuses on the right things. All the same subjectivity of the music itself is still there. If a reviewer doesn’t care much for the music, that usually becomes the theme of the live review, and it makes it less useful in my eyes. Ideally, a live review can parse out elements of the performance outside of the music itself as topics to critique – such as stage presence, engagement with the audience, technical skill, stage/space production elements, and so forth. For example, it’s rare that you’ll catch me listening to Madonna’s greatest hits, but I saw her live a few years ago and I can tell you it was an amazing show and give many reasons to back that up. On the other hand, if I read that a band I liked was very uncomfortable, recluse, and not engaging in a live performance, I might think twice about spending money on that show because I don’t dig that kind of passive live-music experience. I’d be much happier at home enjoying the record, or at a different show.
Dissing a Band to make a Larger Point
Outside of explicit album reviews, negative writing about a particular band is often used as a tool to make larger, more complex points. Popular and successful bands are super interesting, especially the context of that success and the social elements connected therein. I love reading think-pieces like that. But much of the time, especially when the band is cast in a negative light, the fundamental assumptions at the base of the thesis are flawed or completely subjective. Here’s an example:
THESIS: “Sincerity” is a defining theme in the most popular music coming out of Seattle and it does not represent us well.
REAL THESIS: Macklemore and THATH aren’t that good – it’s dumb and irritating that they are receiving so much national success compared to these other Seattle bands that are so much better.
BRIIING BRIIIIIING! SUBJECTIVITY ALERT! Name any popular and successful band in the history of pop music and I will find you plenty of people who believe in their heart that said band is overrated or just “not that good.” Although the article attempts to use more objective criteria as proof of objective judgement, such as musical innovation, at the end of the day each of those criteria are reasons to like or not like something and it goes both ways. There is plenty of innovative music that I love, and plenty of innovative music that I can’t stand. At the end of the day, overall merit, “good”-ness, and deserving-of-praise-ness is completely subjective. So where does all this trash-talking get us? How does this faux-objective critique in the public forum benefit anyone? Well, it benefits the publication…
Discussion, Revenue, and Entertainment
On a corporate site with lots of daily content, snarky argument-starters seem to get a lot more comments than glowing reviews:
More comments = more page views.
More page views = more advertisement impressions.
More impressions = more revenue.
Perhaps you could make the argument that stimulating discussion in the public sphere is a noble goal in itself. To you, I say, “Noble sire, take thee to the YouTube comment area and return unscathed by what you doth see.” Even in more civilized forums when the core issues are subjective it just becomes a screaming match between the two (or however many) sides.
It must be said, however, that overwhelmingly negative and snarky reviews are strangely entertaining. If you agree with the subjective opinion put forth it makes you feel vindicated and validated. If you disagree, it riles you up. In any case, it’s rare that it does not elicit a response in the reader, and that’s what entertainment is all about, right? Unfortunately, without any social utility, it’s the entertainment equivalent of The Jersey Shore.
But maybe that’s just me being faux-objective and judgmental…
What did I miss and where was I full of it? Can you think of social utility for publishing scathing reviews of albums or bands? Speak your mind in the comments below!