On criticism

On Tuesday 15 October 2013, on the main ‘new releases’ index page for music on the website Metacritic (a service which aggregates reviews and gives an average score) out of approximately 200 albums listed only 14 scored 60% or less on average. Metacritic assigns colours to scores on a simple traffic light system; 61 or more gets green, which stands for ‘generally favourable’ between 61 and 80, and ‘universal acclaim’ for anything above that; 60 to 41 gets amber, which stands for ‘mixed or average reviews’; 40 or below gets red, which means ‘generally unfavourable’. No album listed on that first page receives an average score in the red. See what I mean by having a look for yourself here.

Now have a look at the same page for movies. Of 26 ‘wide releases now in theatres’, 10 are green, 10 are amber and 6 are red. That’s quite a difference in the general critical landscape from one popular cultural medium to another. Why?

One quick answer might be that films, generally, are worse than music, or that it’s easier to make a bad film than it is a bad record; logistically films need a much larger crew and budget and a longer gestation period, and so there are simply more things that can go wrong over a longer period of time, and result in a poor end product. Good films, great films, stand proud above the rest of the landscape even more. Perhaps that’s the case and all there is too it. But I’m not so sure I believe it. I think there are plenty of average and, yes, even bad records.

I’ve been perplexed and irritated by this dichotomy between film criticism and music criticism for the best part of two decades; as a teenager I was irritated no end by the propensity, when publications marked albums out of five, for the vast majority of releases to receive 3/5. To me this score always read like a shrugged ‘meh’ of indifference, a ‘quite good if you like that type of thing’ avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about, or, worse, for being a snob.

Of course music and films are not analogous, and you can’t directly compare the two with any worth anymore than you can compare a pizza to a curry; there are good and bad examples of each, but if you fancy a pizza a curry isn’t going to scratch that culinary itch and vice versa. (Of course there’s fusion cuisine the way there’s multimedia art, but let’s not go there right now.) Thus it makes sense that the criticism-topography (for want of a better phrase to describe the undulations, or not, of the landscape resulting from the marks doled out by our cultural gatekeepers in newspapers and magazines and online) of each would be different. I’m sure the criticism-topography of video games is equally different again, but as I have almost exactly zero interest in video games I’m going to leave that area well alone for fear of looking like an idiot. I studied film and critical theory at university, and I wrote, and still do write, music criticism. I also love both forms. Those are my credentials. (The failure of popular music theory and criticism to be accepted as an academic discipline like film theory and criticism has long been a bugbear, too, and I see it as part of the overall problem I’m addressing here.)

That sea of green in the criticism-topography for music strikes me as strong evidence that music critics aren’t the gatekeepers they might like to think they are; you can’t be a gatekeeper if you never call out bad art, surely. But why do music critics seldom call out bad art? I’ve read what seemed to me to be hatchet jobs of reviews, semi-excoriating their subjects, which then awarded 3/5 or 6/10 once you got to the bottom, never going for critical equivalent of the jugular. I’ve mentally urged critics on to ‘finish him!’ when reading reviews of records (see? My video games references are 20 years out of date), hoping to see a 3/10 or a 1/5 (or, for the decimally inclined pedants out there, a 2.7/10.0; please read that clause in the scathing tone of voice with which it was intended), wincing to myself when another ‘generally favourable’ score gets given instead, obviating any point that may have been imparted through the subtleties, or not, of the actual words above the rating.

There might be two reasons for this failure to savage bad art by music critics (well, there might be a million reasons, but two seem logical to me); either critics don’t know what bad art is for whatever reason (lack of technical knowledge; lack of confidence; lack of critical faculties; lack of contextual knowledge), or else they’re afraid to say when they see it, for whatever reason. The industries of music and of journalism are both faltering; the later in particular is in dreadful health, and people are desperate to survive. If that means 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, then so be it, perhaps. Except that the dwindling readership is still dwindling, in terms of willingness to pay for criticism (and almost every other type of content), so this tactic, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t working. I wonder if the readership is dwindling precisely because of the criticism-topography; if you’ve been repeatedly mis-sold products by weak and apathetic or inept criticism, then you stop trusting it. If Vauxhall sell you a duff car you find another manufacturer. If Melody Maker sell you a suite of duff records, you find another conduit that you feel you can trust, which may not be another magazine at all, but a website, or a streaming service, or whatever comes next. Undervaluing the criticism, letting anyone do it, leads to a lack of criticism, leads to a further undervaluing of the criticism. A vicious circle.

There’s a lot of talk this week about the value of the critic. Some of it is very good. Here’s Simon Price writing at The Quietus about The Independent dropping its own arts coverage in favour of a Metacritic-like aggregation of other people’s opinions. Here’s Neil Kulkarni being interviewed about boring reviews, lazy criticism, and keeping the hell out of London. Both pieces are well worth reading, and seem, to me, to be pointing in vaguely the same direction.

Price finishes his piece by saying that “a world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves”, which I agree with whole-heartedly. But I fear that we’ve been leaving music broadly uncriticised for far too long already. That sea of green is testament to our lack of critical spine, or to the fact that a babble of semi-conflicting voices seldom manage to form a coherent consensus. There’s too much of it, and not enough of it is any good. One of my main motivations as a critic was to encourage musicians to make better art, so there would be more stuff that I wanted to listen to myself; a selfish impulse, granted. I was guilty of hatchet jobs and of over-praise too. But I wrote, always, from the point of view of a fan; most of the records I’ve ever written about I’ve paid money for, one way or another, which I felt gave me a worthwhile and different perspective to some (not, at all, that people who get sent records for free can’t have valid opinions; but they’ll always have a different perspective).

What’s criticism for? I’ve never cared about it as an art form, like some do; but is it just to help us determine wheat from chaff? Is it to help us understand what wheat and chaff are, in order to encourage the wheat and discourage the chaff? Is it to help us realise what wheat and chaff are for? I don’t know, and the problem, I suspect, is that neither does anyone else. Least of all the people who might be reading and writing the stuff.

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10 responses to “On criticism

  1. Another possible reason for the film/music divide. Most movies get reviewed by most critics, while most records get reviewed by a handful of interested critics who already are favourable toward the artist or genre. So the film aggregate on metacritic is a truer reflection of the ‘worth’ of the film while the aggregate for a record is the collective opinion of a group of ‘fans.’ My quick thought after a quick read.

    • Yeah, that idea come across clear and strong in discussions on Twitter, too. I think also freelance fees are worth considering; rates are so low now, if they exist at all, that people can’t afford to commit an appropriate amount of time, necessarily. So we get hobbyist criticism. Which can be brilliant, obviously, but not always.

  2. Another (related) possibility: There are vastly more albums released each week than their are films, because the barrier to entry is so much lower. So in film, virtually every flick is on the receiving end of some critical assessment, leading to a balanced distribution of thumbs-up and thumbs-down. In music though, with so much more to sort through, we see the successes both high-profile and low-profile (as critics seek to elevate easily-missable finds), but only the high-profile failures (as the low-profile failures are simply ignored in favor of stuff more “worth” writing about).

    In a sense, film criticism and music criticism seem to have different critical missions — much of the music critic’s (perceived) job is simply to shine a spotlight on the good stuff. Of course, I don’t have anything to back this up other than my own suspicions

  3. Another point: as we devalue the art so do we devalue the criticism. Is music more devalued than movies? Are the positive reviews a way of revaluing the art?

  4. Great conversation to start. Thanks. In addition to your wonderings and those of readers, I also wonder about the tendency to want shallow sound grabs for everything from international politics to music albums. I guess I’m referring to the implications of a Twitter society where anything that cannot be said in 140 characters (or whatever the limit is) is not worth the effort of reading.
    Slightly different but related… I recently joined a few ‘vinyl’ groups on Facebook and have been amused and exasperated by the endless flow of non-critical, disengaged ‘show and tell’. A pic of a mediocre Dire Straits album gets as many ‘Likes’ as Mahavishnu’s Birds of Fire. What sort of culture is that?
    Finally, for interest, I’m posting tomorrow on Lou Reed and not participating in the hagiography. Wondering whether I’ll need a trench to hide in.

  5. PS. Thanks for the link to the Simon Price piece. Outstanding!

  6. A few more ideas. One, watching a movie is more of an “active” act – when you’re watching a movie, you’re there in the theater or on the couch, you’re not doing anything else. Listening to music is more “passive” – you could be driving, writing something, working, whatever. So truly bad movies could make one think they really have wasted their time. You wouldn’t go back and watch it again. Music however, even if the album is bad, you’d take another spin, just got writing purposes.

    Two, I think a good track or two can “save” (elevate it from say 2/10 to 5/10) an album much better than a good scene could save a movie. You can’t really take a good scene in a movie out of context the way you could a good song on a bad album.

  7. It is getting ridiculous. http://www.metacritic.com/browse/albums/release-date/new-releases/date I’m starting to fall into the “avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about” camp. It seems to be fear, pure and simple. Take a stand, people!

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