Objectivity

The comments boxes tailcoating Stylus reviews have raised some interesting ideas lately; specifically those for Ian Cohen’s recent Editors review, my New Young Pony Club and Simian Mobile Disco reviews, and Alfred’s Interpol review, all predominantly negative reviews of records that certain sections of Stylus’ readership evidently feel should have received positive reviews.

Firstly, I take direct issue with Stylus reviews “ALWAYS” being the most negative on Metacritic as one reader claimed – for a start this is simply not statistically true or even remotely close, but more importantly than this, if one looks at the relative grade curves for film scores and music scores on Metacritic one will notice very quickly that music scores are massively top-heavy, meaning that the majority of music reviews are far more positive than the majority of film reviews.

Now while I have a much greater interest in music than in film, both personally and professionally, and prefer it as an art form generally, I do not accept that music is a consistently better or more qualitatively effective art form than film – I think across most areas of the arts there is probably a similar distribution of brilliant, good, OK, poor and abominable work, whether that be literature, music, film, painting, sculpture or any other area you care to name. Obviously the subjective nature which governs how we judge art means that this is debatable at best and wildly incomprehensible at worst, but in the scheme of things I don’t think it’s too outrageous to posit that there are proportionally as many great albums as films, as many average albums as films, and as many rubbish albums as films.

If we accept this idea of distribution of quality, then obviously the grade curve for music reviews offered by Metacritic becomes problematic because it suggests that music critics aren’t actually critical, and that many of them are far too happy to praise mediocre or bad art for some reason. Why? Possibly because popular music has never experienced the kind of rigorous academic study which film has, meaning it is still viewed as mere entertainment rather than as art, and anything which entertains must necessarily be good because it is effective, no matter how it entertains. Does the subjectivity which governs our interface with music becomes, in the hands of some critics who strive towards objectivity, a projected solipsism which says “someone might like it, so it can’t be that bad”, rather than “I dislike it, so I shall explain why”?

Unfortunately the tools to really get to grips with a record seem to be hugely underdeveloped in many music writers, possibly because there’s such scant tradition of them being used due to the lack of a proper academic approach to pop music (not that that is the only or best approach); an awful lot of people don’t seem to know how or why a record is bad or good, don’t understand how or why they are reacting to a record the way they are, emotionally, aesthetically, culturally or physically. Sometimes this wrestling with uncertainty can read with great poetry and passion, which is a problem because the mythology that has built up around popular music automatically places emphasis on this approach being the right approach, and then everyone follows this lead regardless of their talent or insight. In most cases this seems to lead to asinine fence-sitting or directionless invective, as many music critics end up over-estimating that which they should be criticising, or else hurling abuse at straw men.

This is to say nothing of the insidious nature of the capitalist music industry, careerist writers, lazy writers, nepotism across the media industry as a whole, or any other of a whole slew of issues which can cause poor music writing. Many people are happy to rewrite a press release and call it a ‘review’, just as many people are happy to compose knee-jerk tirades or ad hominem attacks based on received wisdom, because it’s easier than actually engaging with and thinking about a record.

But let’s be honest; most readers of music reviews don’t want engaged thought anyway, or don’t think they want it. Music journalism is often little more than a glorified catalogue, and often a lot less than that too. Dwindling sales and folding magazines are commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic, and one consistent reaction to this is to cut word counts for reviews – how can one say anything more than “this is OK, if you like that sort of thing” in an 80-word capsule review?

People think they want shortcuts to stuff that they can buy or download that will say or do something about or for their lives. Tumbling sales of physical formats suggest that people aren’t willing to pay for these items and services though, which in turn suggests to me that the effectiveness of these items and services is unacceptable. Which is to say that people get burned by bad music and aren’t willing to take financial or emotional risks in the future in case they get burned again. If reviewers dislike, say, Kaiser Chiefs’ latest album and know they wont listen to it again once they’ve reviewed it, but give it a decent score nevertheless because it’s catchy, fits an aesthetic, and is expected to shift substantial units, and people buy it hoping for more than moronic third-hand tunes, bad production, uninspired arrangements and uncomfortably shouted choruses, then it stands to reason that the trust that a reader has in a writer, in a whole publication, and in the music industry in general, should be eroded.

Which is why I’m glad that Stylus reviews probably do average at a lower score than those of other publications, even if they’re not “ALWAYS” the lowest – I think that a lot of the time the writers here are just being more realistic than those elsewhere. I doubt Ian’s planning on putting on the Editors record for pleasure again anytime soon, anymore than I’m intending to play Yours Truly, Angry Mob or the Simian Mobile Disco album; I think they’re poor, even bad, records, and I got nothing positive from listening to them. In fact, knowing that I’ll never listen to Attack Decay Sustain Release or Kaiser Chiefs again actually suggests to me that I should have been harder on them, even if they do superficially fit some kind of remit of what’s acceptable to praise according to some music fans. (Interestingly, Ricky Wilson from Kaiser Chiefs is interviewed in this month’s GQ magazine and, when asked what the worst thing written about him in a review has been, seems to mention my review in a slightly forlorn manner.)

Which brings me to something else; the idea that Stylus approaches ‘pop’ in a different way to how it approaches ‘indie rock’, and further to that, the question of what ‘pop’ and ‘indie rock’ actually are and how they relate to each other, and further to that, the question of whether Stylus has a wider raison d’être or ulterior motive in its reviews policy.

To answer the last question first, because it’s most succinct; we don’t. We can’t afford one in terms of the time and effort involved in establishing one, as much as anything else.

To answer the other questions, I’m gonna need some more time to ruminate and write. And make curry.

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