Good, bad, light, dark, life, and death. These are just a few of the most universally discussed and thematized opposites in human existence. Often, people are presented with the premise that for these conceptual pairs, one cannot exist without the other because the coexistence provides context, deeper understanding and, most importantly, meaning.
Now, assessing music – whether a single track, full album, or an artist’s overall professional evolution – holds nowhere near the gravity of literal life and death. Still, the point aimed to be made here is more about the significance of valuing contrast, as opposed to stacking the different kinds of contrast against one another directly. The topic of good and bad music reviews has resurfaced as of late and personal thoughts of professionals runs the gamut of “The industry needs them back” to, “That’s not what works right now,” and all the way to the other extreme of “We don’t need bad critiques anymore. There’s no point to them.” What though, would happen if the conversation were shifted from the black and white question of yay or nay to being critical and instead, moved to a place of assessing what being critical even means and considering if the problem of overly placating reviews isn’t actually about what’s said but how it’s said, and about whom we are speaking.
Putting aside for the moment, the intricacies and complications of the current music journalism landscape, weight seems to be getting equally distributed among reviews. This, before anything else, is setting up a horribly skewed environment of observation. If someone writes and promotes a “review” that addresses a specific song but, the text, even with added adjectival descriptors, merely describes what’s being presented from start to finish and ends with light turn of phrase predicting future imminent praise or distaste (e.g. “X Band are the perfect piece to top your new playlist!”, that really comes across as less of an independent and individualized assessment of a review and more of an opinionated summation.
Then there are pieces of writing that are nothing but opinion one way or the other but are presented absent much, if any, additional explanation to substantiate the emotion driven position meant to sway others’ feelings. This middle ground of emotive proclamation is likely where the crux of strictly bad reviews are taking flack and sensibly so. Even though people are entitled to their own subjective opinions, a lack of ability or unwillingness to at least attempt to explain oneself makes whatever stance is shared, feel largely more myopic. And if the piece is negative, that would undoubtedly make the recipient of such critique feel personally judged and subsequently defensive. What though, if that same soapbox piece is predominantly positive and singing praises? Well, now imagine a relationship where the person you are with emphatically agrees to and commends everything you do or say; never justifying why they feel the way they do, perhaps beyond saying “because it’s you, that’s
Here is where context born of contrast can make all the difference. What value would such endless praise hold? Does assumption of enjoyment or enjoyment based on something like an artist’s legacy, deserve as much weight in the question of what is labeled as a review? Not being able to frame the reasoning of one’s enjoyment turns continuing series of such praises in an almost blind, automated process and blind proclamation in either emotional direction, is as aimless as driving with no map or sense of one’s location. If the present expectation of the music journalism landscape is that pieces are meant to bolster the excitement around and desire for a song or album and that same approach is given to everyone and everything that gets publicly assessed, then how are listeners supposed to gage what is truly worth devoting their individual time to?
Why people listen to music is an extremely intimate and personal question but the one common denominator is that no matter what is playing, we have to set aside precious minutes to hear it. So if the expectation and ideal is that little to no differentiation is made when clicking through to see what someone has to say about music, (knowing the words and sentiment will be some variance of “it’s good! Go listen,” then the body of choice stays unfathomably large and it can become near impossible to know what best deserves our time. Elitist gatekeeper mentalities don’t need a full-out revival but part of the role to a thorough, thought-provoking review, is to create noticeable texture in the vast landscape of records that flood the world every Friday. Things need to stand out in some way or every week will look like an open, even-leveled abyss that goes on forever in every direction. Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it?
What this leads to, is what seems like the most balanced option to muse over going forward: Focusing on writing that exists to inform and provoke intrigue, while also thinking outside of ourselves. Someone may write a review that ultimately dislikes something and include details to back up their position. But maybe the entire piece doesn’t need visceral language or a strictly failing take. I’ve written less than favorable reviews before; ones that probably belong squarely in the negative criticism bin. But even as I wrote those pieces, I kept in mind a few objectives:
Tempering my language so as not to come across with emotional extremity, while still making my opinion of distaste clear and consistent.
Working my best to find something redeemable and worth noting about the music, sometimes within a less commonly discussed aspect of the work, like the production values, or vocal technique.
If nothing otherwise positive really stood out, making an effort to connect my grievances to a larger aspect of trends in the industry or some topic of broader scope, so as to hopefully still inspire discussion and evaluation of said artist’s work by other listeners, which, in today’s world, means everything.
There are bound to be some who take issue with the things outlined here, since it might come off as me suggesting others censor themselves in some way. That’s true to an extent but in an effort to unearth a way of evaluating music that exists between all these aforementioned, supposedly problematic, types of reviews, self-evaluation and careful consideration might be useful as a tool for progressing and breaking current cycles. Right now, it seems like the majority of the music world approaches a review with the understanding that only one of two outcomes is waiting at the end: “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it.” But in the journey to get to that end point, there’s no reason we can’t consider stepping outside ourselves and the display of solely our own opinions. Even if a song doesn’t thrill you, that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit worth noting in the construction, or the emotional intent, or the subtlety of thematic imagery.
A song or an album might end up not being the one for you but what about contemplating and speaking to the person out there that the music is going to be for and assess with them in mind? I believe this show’s the ability to state opinion on something without making one’s personal taste the beginning and the end of the conversation. Because isn’t that what all of us in this industry are fighting for? The continued interest in, discussion of, and movement toward music and musicians? Don’t let the buck stop with “This is what I think” – even if what you think is good! Amidst love for a band’s work, point out flaws. Ask questions. Express doubt or confusion about a song. One review is one internalization of feelings and one reaction at a specific point in time. But time keeps moving forward and we change as people in that movement so who’s to say that what was once heard as odd and ill-conceived, won’t suddenly fit much better within the much altered life of our future self?