The Wire

In Writing

Collateral Damage: Britt Brown on negative reviews

September 2017

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

The article originally appeared in The Wire 404. Subscribers can read that issue online via Exact Editions.

Comments

Comprehensive and honestly stated.

Reminds me of the following passages where Lou asked what Christgau did in bed...

cogent analysis for increasingly complex times.

Absolutely terrible article 7/10

Excellent read, very interesting and wonderfully written.
Thank you.

I particularly liked Joseph Stannards choleric dismissal of LCD Soundsystems "comeback" album n couldn't help but giggle at his Ad Hominem "Murphy...is a poor person's David Byrne or - perhaps more pertinently - a rich person's Alan Vega".
good stuff...
Negativitys Not Dead ( it just smells funny)

Great piece!
I find myself wondering if the reason why people are less and less interested in music reviews, isn't the fact that for listeners, reviews used to a primordial source of information about an album or artist. You had the actual record, which you hadn't necessarily bought or even seen yet. You had the record seller, if you even talked to him. And you had the concerts, if you were so lucky as to have access to those. But oftentimes the biggest source of information you had about music in general, not just the music you owned and listened to, was the press.
Back when Discogs and social media didn't exist, or simply when the web wasn't quite the colossal source of information it is now, even having the album in your hands, talking to your record seller and going to concerts didn't give you a lot of clues about who or what you were listening to.
Reading music press was one of the most exciting sources of information about music. I used to enjoy reading critics because of what they knew about an artist and their career. Because of this, I enjoyed reading reviews of music I wasn't particularly interested in or didn't intend to listen to. From review to review of successive albums, some even built a whole narrative around an artist. And even if they didn't, I wrote the narrative myself with the low amount of information I had, maybe also supplied with what a fellow fan had told me, which I wasn't always sure were true or not. Music critics also helped you connect the dots between an album, artist, genre and another, between an era and another.
Nowadays, the narrative is written a whole lot differently. Some artists write it themselves through social media (and a lot suck at it). But most of the time, there isn't really a narrative at all. Most of what you've got is journalists (most of whom aren't critics anymore, as you said) simply reporting artists' every slightest action, people on social media briefly commenting, and promo texts.
Now all the album/label info is on Discogs. The artists' face and (part of his) personnality is on social media. And in terms of connecting the dots and reaching a better understanding of music, all you're left with is yourself.

I hope to see the day when constructive criticism makes a return to the discourse about music, but that day will be far off because of the radical shift that you mentioned regarding the ability to access information (in this case, music) from everywhere, anytime, and in incomprehensible quantities.

Right now, a critic is not what is needed as much as a curator. Somebody to help make sense of the absolutely staggering amount of available music.

To give you a simple example from my life, I am a musician and composer. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when I was studying music at a conservatory and wanted to expand my knowledge of say, music from other parts of the world, I could go the music library, find the one album that was recorded in one day, by one guy with one microphone, and that was the music of Mali. I would carefully read the liner notes, listen to the music several times, if I was very lucky, find another album covering a similar regions music, and make my assessment and understanding of this music based on that. If I wanted to pursue it further, I could go to Mali!

Today, if I am interested in the music of Mali, or Africa in general, I can go to some kids blog and find links to nearly ALL of the music every recorded from this region, plus video’s of the musicians playing their music, and probably some information of each musical instrument that is used, to include detailed mechanical drawings so I could build one myself! Of course, I don’t have so many hours in my lifetime to hear it all, but this type of titanic shift in availability is at once an incredible advancement, and a daunting prospect.

Someone with specialized knowledge is needed to sift through all of this and make recommendations in manageable format so that anyone that is interested can begin the path of discovery. Its not a matter of good reviews or bad reviews, but rather a selected, curated compendium. How we take and synthesis all of the information that we have at our fingertips is another topic, but suffice it to say, until our brains evolve to be able to deal with this new reality of unlimited information, the music experts out there need to be the ones that focus for us.

The Wire really distinguishes itself with its negative reviews and should be applauded. Some academic work in Romanticism makes the argument that the opposition between 'creative' and 'critical' work is a false one, and art, often, is the product of the these mutually aggravating forces. Rather than thinking of criticism as the thing that merely nitpicks and insults and limits, we should think of it as a productive force engaging with art, and without which art would be impossible (or much work): a dialogue, rather than a parasitic relationship in which criticism feeds off its host. This idea is very well illustrated in British Romanticism, where the poets were deeply engaged with their critics, railing against them as ignorant, careless philistines while being painfully aware of their influence.

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