Negative reviews have been sidelined in an era of commercial pressures and microscenes that celebrate themselves, but criticism is sometimes the only way to reflect the full complexity of music. By Britt Brown
Deep within one particularly memorable rant on Lou Reed’s legendarily unhinged 1978 live album Take No Prisoners, he articulates the artist versus critic antipathy in its basest state: “Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you got a B+ from an asshole in The Village Voice?” Such rancour seems quaint today. The target of Reed’s venom, rock scribe Robert Christgau, wielded considerable influence across the 1970s and 80s, as music criticism grew into a powerful, often provocative practice. Even enlightened liberals Sonic Youth vented wrath at his gatekeeper status; an alternative title of “Kill Yr Idols” was “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin’ Dick”.
But the dialectic between artist and appraiser functions very differently in the 21st century. The decline of print – this month saw The Village Voice finally close its printed edition – combined with the power of social media and corporate partnerships has radically transformed how music is disseminated, discussed and perceived. The profusion of music software and platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud means there has never been more new music pouring into existence than right now, a development both exciting and exhausting. To make an impact in such an ocean requires luck, money or persuasive friends in high places. This, combined with our ability to listen to almost anything at anytime for free, has reshaped the writer’s role from one of assessment to advocacy.
Albums in the contemporary age tend to be either heralded or invisible. The reasoning goes: with so much music to choose from, why exert the brainpower to dismantle something flawed or frustrating when you could just ignore it? It’s a valid argument for writers, and can be good business for certain publishers, too: advertisers prefer to ally their brand with hubs of positivity.
But without debate or dissent music writing becomes monotonous. Even the most vividly described sounds, passionately championed, can land flat when the argument is one-directional. As any music obsessive can attest, understanding what we don’t love shapes us as thoroughly as discovering what we do. Any artist of any substance knows that depth of engagement trumps cursory praise. Hence the justified truism: nearly all artists remember the most cutting critique they’ve been dealt, though few recall the specifics of their accolades.
Of late, however, that’s all there’s been. A recent article regarding positive music coverage in The Wall Street Journal, following another piece on the subject in Crack by Luke Turner of The Quietus, observed that over the past five years, only eight out of 7287 albums on the review-aggregator website Metacritic received a ‘red’ score (indicating a ‘generally unfavourable’ overall response) . Granted, this doesn’t take into account the more esoteric field of music covered in The Wire and elsewhere, but it’s still a concerning statistic. Yes, judgement of art is subjective, but are we truly so conflict-averse it’s become unconscionable to find fault with a set of recordings and say so publicly?
It’s often forgotten that the function of press is not to boost sales, but to document a dialogue sparked by the reception of the work. But the reasons for the trend away from criticism in music writing are numerous and overlapping. As always, financial factors weigh heavily. Many magazines and websites continue to dwindle as ad buyers shift their business to social media, which leads to smaller staffs, less editorial and fiercer competition for the few spotlights that remain. Mainstream publications, forced into survival mode, must cede space to whatever is surging, photogenic, or strategically beneficial. Margins are too narrow to risk offending anyone with deep pockets.
Further down the ladder, however, there’s the issue of music’s overall fractionalisation, which has been radicalised by the internet’s limitless reach. As subgenres, microscenes and virtual communities splinter ever further into insular fan-driven enclaves, critique can begin to lack a purpose. Certain musical forms are deliberately fringe, with self-defined parameters. Criticising their lack of scope is like calling out acid house for being too reliant on 303 bass lines. The smaller the pond, the less vital a need for disruption.
One ramification of this fragmentation is that as cultural spheres become more niche, the boundary between critic and subject blurs, raising the likelihood of professional or personal fallout in the wake of a contentious opinion. The connectivity of social media has made thin skin thinner, because everyone can access every online sentence concerning their activities – and more often than not, they do. This awareness haunts many writers, who err on the side of caution and hunt for a silver lining in any assignment. I’ve sometimes criticised albums in the pages of this magazine, views which have been met with recrimination in one form or another: Twitter outbursts, anonymous letters, personal emails refuting each and every sentence. That a writer might listen to something and not be won over but still choose to articulate their dissatisfaction seems almost unthinkable to many.
The use of numerical ratings or letter grades in many music reviews only compounds the problem. While it may be thought to drive web traffic and inflate click analytics, it’s ultimately too crude and reductive. Ironically, such scoring systems in publications like Pitchfork or Resident Advisor only sustain an illusion of legitimacy by typically staying within a conservative range – extreme highs or lows undercut the premise of editorial balance, and can underline the arbitrary nature of some reviews. By what criterion can a major label rap album with a multi-million dollar budget and an ambient synthesizer LP tracked in a bedroom both be deemed a 7.3? The difference in intent, means and approach is unquantifiable. To soften the absurdity of such ranking dilemmas, some publications render approval as tentative applause and displeasure as light chiding. Conflict avoidance becomes editorial protocol and little receives anything better than an A-minus or worse than a C.
None of this is to say that there’s inherent nobility in a negative review: a review’s merit hinges solely on the writer’s grasp of the material and the context in which it’s presented. But, at its best, criticism reminds you that music has no fixed value. Countless acclaimed albums were scorned or skipped over in their time, and many once successful musicians have now been forgotten. The scales of taste constantly self-correct long after the egos involved dissolve. To be misunderstood in one’s own time is the foundation of many a fascinating legacy. To criticise something is to take it seriously; it is to sense within the art or artist a potential for something greater or deeper or more vibrant. It questions how the creation falls short of itself and its maker, not how it falls short of the critic. To confuse criticism with attack or abuse is to reduce the complexity of art, thought and debate to a dull binary map of allies and enemies, from which later generations will have little to learn