Question: What is the Social Utility of Negative Music Reviews?

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:

http://www.seattleweekly.com/2011-03-02/music/macklemore-the-head-and-the-heart/

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:

The Seattle Weekly article mentioned above has 86 comments.  Two recent scathing posts by the same author (1) (2)  have a few comments each.  Recent positive posts (1) (2) have one or zero comments.

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!

Comments

  1. I don’t think you missed much. I think some of the folks writing reviews are simply trying to be cooler than thou. I had the great good fortune to have access to a ridiculous amount of music back in college. I was programming a small college station. I made every effort to drop the needle(giving away my age) on as much as possible. Good music does exist. Unfortunately, you have to sift through a literal ton of bad music to find it. One’s taste is subjective. I can’t explain why a song sends chills down my spine. But I know what I like. I agree with you about Fuel/Friends. Heather’s taste is amazing. I don’t always like the stuff she shares but I will give it a spin to form my own opinion. Reviewers who trash something because it is popular are only serving to prove how elitist they really are. Bad reviews should be questioned by the editorial staff of print publications. So should glowing ones. Record labels push radio to play an artist. I’m sure they do the same with print. Blogs are another story. It is the responsibility of the blogger to consider the consequences of the message they post for the entire Internet to see. Just one man’s opinion.

  2. Completely agree with everything you said, Matt, and it’s been a question I’ve been contemplating a lot lately as well (due partially to this article, which just drove me insane: http://consequenceofsound.net/2012/06/nod-your-head-knowing-your-elbow-from-an-arpeggio/). I hear far too much about all sorts of negative stuff all day that at the end of it I just am too tired to listen to someone complain about music (usually very poorly, mind you) and would much rather hear about something someone loves and thinks is worth the time of others. It doesn’t mean that always ends well (the discrepancy between the gigabytes worth of music on my hard drive and the stuff that is actually imported into my iTunes is a testament to that), but at the very least I’m willing to take a chance on music I might have otherwise passed up simply based on some nice words by someone- sometimes that’s all it takes to find a new band to love.

    • Hey Adam – on that Consequence of Sound article – IMHO it’s asking some abstractly interesting questions, but not very useful ones. Either a piece of music speaks to you, moves you, or it doesn’t. Music theory is just a tool to explore that unspoken language. My buddies who know a ton of music theory listen to music very differently than me, but they don’t listen to it BETTER than me, not I better than them, but they really love using that theory to explain why something moves or doesn’t move them. They also tend to be into more complex music than I am, because it’s more interesting to them and the tool of theory they love to use. Which is all good. But it’s not better or worse.

      So the question of whether music writers need to be theory-heads to “get on a musician’s level” is irrelevant to me. That said, music critics shouldn’t throw around theory terms that they don’t completely understand, lest they be called out for it.

  3. Even Pitchfork switched over their “track review” section over a year ago to only include tracks they like, phrasing it in their explanatory post, “if it wouldn’t earn at least a seven by our old track review standards, it just won’t make it into our new “tracks” section.”

    • oh cool Aaron, thanks I didn’t know that. Has it generally been considered a success? Do you think expanding that reasoning to albums might happen?

  4. Great points, Matt! Thanks for posting this! I think one point that keeps getting missed is that while albums are much easier to sample now, the real point of music reviews is to help the reader sift through the glut of easy-to-sample albums. That is, so much music is being produced and disseminated that most of the record-buying public is overwhelmed. It’s the same reason that record stores are going under. How can you stock the albums people want to buy when the buying public has such insanely far-reaching tastes. I see the music writers today as being a necessary way to tell me if it’s worth my time to go try out an album or a band. Plus I also see them as publicists. There really aren’t many ways to advertise new music anymore, so music writers are supposed to be breaking the news when something new and great is coming out.

    • Thanks Devon, and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I agree on all points – it’s the job of anyone who publishes anything to the public forum about music to help lift up what they think is great, and that provides a huge service to everyone else.

      The publicist line is a tricky one, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that expanded. Although, as I state above, I think the meaning of “credibility” is different for music than other news sources, the term “Publicist” to me means someone who is on the payroll of a band or label – scary territory for a “news” outlet. Do you mean blogs/publications should be champions of bands they think are fantastic?

  5. Negative music reviews are basically irrelevant. It’s based on a targeted audience. I have a lot of music submissions landing in my inbox — a lot of them are pretty bad — but, you don’t see me writing negative reviews about these albums, because 1.) The blood, sweat, and tears these artists put into making their albums, and I know how it feels to have your hard work negatively criticized, and 2.) I want my site to be seen as a positive and warm place for music fans to visit. I have established trust with my readers by maintaining this philosophy. Also, I’m fairly certain that you won’t find the majority of my readers at a Slipknot or Justin Bieber concert. As for the music I don’t like, I just save those comments and criticisms for personal conversations with friends who I know love me and my personal Facebook wall. However, I will not bash a friend or end a friendship as a result of the music they listen to. Hell, I’ll even sit through it gritting my teeth the whole time. Now, blogs and music sites are a different story. If there is a blog or site I know that promotes the genres I don’t like, then I simply don’t go. Why be bogged down with all that negativity? Why waste the time? And, as a music blogger I have tried to keep up with a lot of sites in order to stay current, but, eventually, ended up deleting those Facebook pages, unfollowing twitter accounts, and just avoiding the site. These sites just don’t interest me. But, there is a flipside. I know of great sites and bloggers who may not have the same taste as I do, but I still promote their site via my social network accounts because they’re positive and I know that my readers like or may like an artist they’re promoting or talking about. So, obviously I feel that negativity has no room in music reviews.;

    • Thanks for commenting April! Just a quick note about your first point: “The blood, sweat, and tears these artists put into making their albums, and I know how it feels to have your hard work negatively criticized”

      I think constructive criticism is totally appropriate and healthy. I don’t enjoy writing much of that, I prefer to focus on the things I’m loving and exploring why I love it (as I know you do to), but I want it stated on the record that I’m not advocating for every music review to reek of sugar plums. Be true, be “Honest and unmerciful,” in your opinion, but if it’s ends up just being a snark piece maybe just don’t hit that big blue publish button.

  6. Great article, Matt. I think about this all the time re: the trajectory of Apes on Tape (the music site I run), but also regarding the role of active music content contributors in general. As people have mentioned above, you’ve very lucidly hit all the bases on this issue. Just a few thoughts from my angle:

    –Negativity Gets Attention: I wish it was not so, but all too often the negative reviews and articles get far more attention than their more friendly or positive counterparts, regardless of the perceived “quality” of writing in the article. For example, I had a wonderful interview with Anthony Gonzalez of M83 that really, imho, demonstrates what a humble and class act guy he is. Traffic wise, I believe a recent article about Courtney Love’s lady parts and a belligerent twitter rant already has more hits. Tabloid logic, I suppose. Another example, I’ve posted many times about Head and the Heart, positive pieces, ranging from preview playlist to new videos. It wasn’t until I posted a mixed–by no means purely negative–review of their Sasquatch 2012 performance that I ever heard a word from them. Apparently, it took that slight negativity to gather their attention, unfortunately. (Luckily, Josiah and I hashed it out and are gettin a beer sometime soon). Just two examples, but you get the trend.
    –The Traffic/Funding Cycle: Following the idea above, the nature of the traffic/impressions/revenue cycle is that outlet managers have to publish and cover what their readers are attracted to. I understand you don’t have to sacrifice your own taste and be a slave to Google Analytics, but once you cross a certain threshold of commitment and devotion, time=money and you do have to pay the bills. So paying attention to what brings in readers is very important and I think that plays into a lot of the “negative” reviews we see frequenting the internet.
    –Negative Album Reviews: With Apes on Tape, I pretty much avoid any album reviews altogether. As you’ve mentioned, with so many streaming services and such easy access to preview music, why do I need to interject my opinion (good or bad) when I can provide readers with a link and let them make the call themselves? Like you said, including or omitting an album in the first place is the content filter acting as somewhat of a review on its own. I just don’t see any utility of publishing very negative reviews when there is such an abundance of quality music out there and a finite amount of time. Maybe to boost the writer’s ego and perceived *tastemaking* role, I suppose.
    –Larger Thought Pieces: As a ground rule, I’ve tried to avoid negative pieces altogether. That being said, I’ve grown to understand that there is a role of being honest and that sometimes includes negativity. Ie: if an amazing band with a stellar track record half-asses a project and it’s very visible, we’re doing ourselves in the music community a disfavor by lying about what’s actually going on. And like that Seattle Weekly Mac/HATH piece, I do think there is an important place for analyzing the bigger picture. Like anything on a grand scale, there will be positive and negative aspects. Great example: Lana Del Rey. LDR by herself is what it is, but analyzing how the music community participated in her rise and prominence is entirely a different issue. The latter is worth focusing on from time to time, even if it’s not always positive.
    –Credibility/Sincerity: As you mentioned, this is a huge factor in any music outlet’s longevity. While I mentioned the attention (+2 rhyme points) about negative articles, I should also note that the single biggest traffic day was when I posted a very positive and elaborate review of Boise’s Treefort Festival. That leads me to believe that it may not necessarily be the negativity drawing readers, but the sincerity. With so much music to wade through, like Dave noted above, it can be difficult to keep up the enthusiasm and honesty when discussing tunes. Perhaps it’s sincerity and honest opinions that we’re truly drawn too, positive or negative. Personally, articles that avoid bs, fluff commentary and cut to the chase resonate much more with me.

    Anyhow, just my two cents. Again, great article. Wrote more than I anticipated because I think this is a very paramount issue. Hope all is well for you, Matt!

  7. Wow man, this article has totally renewed my faith in the internet. You’ve pretty much summed up my mentality when approaching my reviews, not to mention why I started the site to begin with. I’d say the only time negative reviews are worthwhile is in the case of yahtzee Crowshaw who is hilarious in his reviews of video games. Of course that’s not music but still relevant methinks.

  8. I agree with much of what you’ve written, Matt, but I want to play devil’s advocate a little. I think there is a value to talking about why we don’t like something. Despite the fact that we’ll never completely purge the ultimate subjectivity factor from our judgment (nor does that seem particularly desirable anyway), it’s interesting and useful to try to put one’s finger on WHY someone’s artistic voice is contrived, cloying or otherwise distasteful. The example you gave about innovative music you like versus innovative music you can’t stand is telling. I’m interested to know WHY that is, what element is present in the first that makes it compelling, the absence of which makes it intolerable? For me, simply concluding “it’s subjective” doesn’t satisfy my analytic curiosity. While there are lots of reasons to like a certain music (sophisticated, simple, cerebral, visceral) that may be equally valid, I think there’s a value in cultivating taste as a culture, just as much as I feel like there’s a value in cultivating my own tastes.

    I agree that nobody should be shamed for liking what they like, but I think there’s a flip side here which is also icky. There are times when everyone is going on about how great such-and-such band is, and even after repeated attempts to acquire the taste, you just don’t feel it. If the consensus on fandom is extreme enough, you can start to feel crazy or even embarrassed that you don’t ‘get it’. In cases like these, I think it can be extremely affirming to hear another voice ring out, “You know what? I don’t think the Beatles are all that either” (yeah, I said it).

    It occurs to me now that I would also see more of the inverse: when people have a ‘guilty pleasure’, i.e. something which has been ruled to be ‘poor taste’ but in fact has some appealing quality, to honestly and without shame discuss what it is about that work that makes it effective.

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