Friday, October 25, 2013

'Generally Favourable'

Ooh, I've been waiting for that Polly Scattergood album to come out.

Last Tuesday, I came across this article about music criticism and how wishy-washy it tends to be. I would have blogged about it straight away, but I was still going hammer and tongs on the Welsh Music Prize shortlist at that point and I decided that it would have to wait. Besides, my thoughts on the matter would surely be all the crisper for having been cooked a little longer.

You see, this is a topic that's quite close to my heart. Not because a slew of vaguely positive reviews is entirely unhelpful when you're searching for your new favourite band (although goodness knows I've bought my share of two-star albums on the back of three- or four-star reviews), but because I as a music reviewer have often found it difficult to raise the critical sword and run an artist through with it.

In his blog post, Sick Mouthy (I think his real name is Nick) suggested several things that might be responsible for the overwhelming abundance of three-star reviews and 'generally favourable' releases:
  • Fear of causing offence ("avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone")
  • Fear of  being "called out for not knowing what you're talking about"
  • Fear of being seen as "a snob".
  • Plain old ignorance (perhaps some critics "don't know what bad art is")
I'd like to think that I wouldn't be bothered if somebody called me a snob, and in a field as subjective as music, I'm not sure ignorance is really a factor (reviews, after all, are just people's opinions, and if a song or an album sounds good to you then you're not at fault for not having learned why that song or album is, in fact, crap). For my part, I think that the crux of the matter lies between those first two points.

Fear of Causing Offence
Let me just make it clear that I am a small, small fish in a big, big pond. I've only ever had reviews published in two places: my own personal blog, and a local music magazine called The Miniature Music Press. Neither outlet was ever at the forefront of criticism, and so when Sick Mouthy talks about "damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side", I relax a little because that's not an issue I've ever had to worry about.

I am, however, deeply concerned about offending the artist. If an album sounds like it's just been farted out in the bathroom - like very little effort went into it whatsoever - then I'm more than happy to lay into the lazy people behind it, but that's seldom the case. Far more frequently, I'll come across an album into which the artist has evidently poured a lot of time, care, and consideration...and I'm just not into it. I'm capable of going deeper into my own opinion, working out why the songs do nothing for me, but actually putting finger to keyboard and telling my readers (however few in number they may be) that this release simply isn't worth their time is something that I never acquired the stomach for. To paint a distinctly lame self-portrait, I don't like being mean about the fruit of someone's creative efforts, no matter how little I care for them.

The problem is exacerbated when writing about local artists, as I often did for the MMP; I doubt the Arcade Fire cared very much when I did my blog about The Suburbs, but if I had written the same piece about a struggling Cardiff band who had all been working nights just to pay for studio time, they would probably have taken it far more personally, and I'd have felt like far more of a dick for having a go at their music. If anything, the bands with PR people and a record company behind them are the ones I'm happy to savage, mainly because they won't give a shit.

Fear of Being Called Out
If music critics seem to be forever at sixes and sevens, perhaps it's because most releases do genuinely have both good and bad points. A bad review can easily be rebuked by pointing to one of the album's good bits; a glowing write-up can be shot down by any hater who's familiar with the album's weakest moments; but a middling review? Pretty much bulletproof, at least until people like Sick Mouthy start blogging about it.

In many ways, mixed reviews are a good thing. Assuming that most albums do have their share of both positive and negative qualities, I want to be equally appraised of both, to be given a balanced view that allows me to make a semi-informed purchasing decision. And when I'm on the other side of the review, I am extremely prone to second-guessing; if I write a very positive review that focuses mainly on an album's merits, I will immediately start to question my opinion and spot weaknesses of which I was previously oblivious. Similarly, on the rare occasions when I do allow myself to really rubbish a record, the appeal of said record will become far more evident after I have hit 'Publish'.

The result (hopefully) is a review that, while slightly non-committal, does give the reader a relatively clear idea of what the album might do for them. And that's good; I think that the main aim of music criticism ought always to be helping people to decide whether or not they should listen to an album, rather than simply finding a slot for that album in The Great List.

The only trouble, then, is the score. If all reviewers were going straight down the middle, then surely Metacritic would be packed with ratings in the fifties rather than the sixties and seventies. Presumably, this means that most music critics would rather focus on the positive side of an album than on the negative, probably because of the aforementioned fear of offending anyone.

It's a shame that Sicky Mouth has, by his own admission, "exactly zero interest in video games". If he did have a gamer streak, he might find Zero Punctuation to be a pretty rewarding watch; Yahtzee Croshaw, the voice behind those yellow videos, is one man who has never been afraid to call 'em as he sees 'em. If our music critics mostly talk about the good bits and only mention the bad bits in passing, Yahtzee is the complete opposite. He routinely spends four of his five minutes administering a verbal beatdown to the game of the week, pausing only occasionally to mention something that, actually, he kind of enjoyed.

This method is pretty brutal, and one can't imagine that Yahtzee has kept many game companies onside over the years (nor that he would really care). But it's a good way of doing things, because when a game comes along that he does genuinely like, the positive review shines all the brighter for not being surrounded by a whole bunch of others.

I'm not mean enough to be music's answer to Yahtzee, so I'll just stick with my 'this was good, that was bad' approach. Perhaps with a 'buy this if you like...' line at the end where the score usually is.

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