The Difficulty of Reviewing Music
Some time in the last 10 years, we all became music reviewers. The barrier to entry for music writing collapsed, and now there's an ever-expanding community of internet blogging (hello!) that, in aggregate, decides which bands sink or float. The Hype Machine turned out not to be such an ironic name. It's created a situation where every review feels like it has stakes, and if all these other folks seem to be getting it wrong, well, you can get in on the game yourself. But there's an inherent weirdness in the age of internet blogging, from the business and process down to the very philosophy of it all. “Dancing about architecture,” it turns out, is the least of our worries. For one, rating systems are weird to define at best, and arbitrary at worst but no one pulls on that thread because then the whole world will unravel. While many writers and editors swear by their rating system, whether it be a 5 star meter or a 100-point scale, there are many who don't want to quantify how they feel about an album in a single number. But because it's what 99% of readers skip to, because it's what Metacritic and Rotten Tomatos aggregate, it's important to click-throughs, page hits and business. Even among reviewers who believe in the nuance of their scores, I have yet to hear a good argument for the difference between a 7.4 and a 7.3. I used to believe that reviewers had a finely tuned, consistent and almost scientific sense of how to measure their feelings, but it turns out it's mostly narrowing down to a number that sits well with your gut. Having an opinion at all is more challenging than you think. Most people who aspire to write about music do so because a certain song or album moves them to. It creates a creative pressure within them that is relieved through blogging. But in the wide world of music reviews, that kind of inspiration isn't always there. In that way, music reviewing functions like all other creative writing: you need ideas. Having tremendous knowledge and exquisite taste certainly helps, but for many it's entirely possible to be assigned an album and feel nothing, to phase out and not know why. That's when it becomes work. The best music reviewers will make it seem like the thesis of their piece was apparent from the moment they dropped the needle, and if they're doing their job, you'll never notice. Everything is really, truly subjective. I know this sounds like it should be obvious, but when the year-end lists come out or when a new artist breaks out to all the buzz, it can seem like there's an objective good and bad, and that it's just a matter of acquiring the right taste to discern something's quality. Behind the scenes, there's always people who hate whatever is the big blog buzz band with a passion, and lifts up whoever is receiving scorn. In a field where emphasis is put on the website brand instead of the individual writer, it can be hard to remember that these are all actually just crazy, knowledgeable and eclectic writers who are lucky enough to be picked for this assignment. It's the reason you should probably hold off on leaving that scathing comment on a review that trashes your favorite band. We're all just fans, and all music has an audience; it's easier to write it off as a mismatch of taste and emotional need rather than an insult to your identity. Additionally, music reviewing is a field where everyone has to make their mistakes in public. It's not just mistakes in the mechanics of writing, like grammar or syntax or the way people love to hyphenate and invent new genres. I'm talking misinterpreting songs, getting facts wrong, deriding an album that will end up being a classic or just writing poorly. It's a field that, today, is comprised mostly of amateurs, although it can happen to everyone from Wordpress newbies to published Pitchfork writers. You don't get better in private and you can't wait until you're good to publish your first piece. Much like stand-up comedy, you won't know where you're weak without an audience. In a perfect world, music reviewing wouldn't be as big of a deal as it is. Scores from the major blogs wouldn't blow up or kill a band, the groupthink of the Hype Machine crowds wouldn't be a marketing tool for manipulation, and we would all stop aiming our snark at each other's think pieces. Ideally, music reviewing in today's free-for-all internet would be about finding good writers that line up with your tastes, instead of tastemaker website brands laying down the judgment. That's practically a hopeless utopian ideal, so perhaps instead, we'll hope for this: as music reviewing morphs into something new, perhaps we'll come to a greater understanding of their function in the culture as guides, not judges.