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Why we need bad reviews

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Monday, Jul 6, 2009

Nope, I don’t mean badly-written reviews, though there’s plenty of them online, and offline too (don’t kid yourself).  What I mean is that we need negative ones.  Sometimes.

The thought occurred to me after seeing this tweet from Accujazz in late May: “What do you think? Do bad reviews of jazz CDs help or hurt the art form? Why do you think jazz critics and bloggers are so hesitant to trash”

Around the same time, ace writer Anne Midgette was thinking the same thing in a Washington Post column.  “Loving music, to a critic, cannot simply mean bestowing praise. In fact, I think one of the biggest problems in the classical music field is that there’s too much praise. There’s an idea that our field is so small and beleaguered that we have to band together and all like everything all the time.”
Wise words indeed and a similar sentiment to what Accujazz was thinking.  Is jazz also a field that’s become “small and beleaguered” that it needs to be saved from itself?  I don’t remember hearing any writer or musician say anything like that but you have to wonder sometimes when you read pubs/mags/columns sometimes.  Part of the impetus was Tom Hull’s Consumer Guide for the Village Voice.  Like Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide (which it’s modeled after), Hull lists a bunch of notable albums that he likes and then throws a few little pies at some stinkers at the end.  Christgau himself used to mix in positive and negative reviews in his guide until he got tired of trashing albums and wasting his time on stinkers so around 1990, he changed the format of his Guide to concentrate on the records he liked.  As he always did, he reserved a list of REALLY crappy records for Thanksgiving time and his annual ‘Turkey Shoot’ column.  Though it was always a popular feature, he admitted that he always hated doing it.

I can definitely sympathize with this sentiment.  When I pitch reviews to editors, I tend to chose music & artists that I’m inclined to like or find something interesting in.  I keep thinking “why should I waste my time continually listening to and writing about garbage?”  I know it’s fun sometimes to get a good zinger in but it’s not for me. 

But Midgette does have a good point.  Even if you’re not fond of giving a thumbs down to an album, song or performance, you owe it to readers to speak truthfully about music and give an honest opinion about it, even if it’s negative.

Even then, I think there’s a context for it.  Let’s say that a famous artist puts a new record out and your publication has to weigh in on it.  A really negative review might imperil future cover stories or interviews but should that stop a pub/mag from being honest?  Some would might say ‘yes’ if only because they wanna maintain a cozy relationship with the artist.  Others, like MOJO (disclaimer: I write for them sometimes), will actually run an interview with an artist side-by-side with a bad review.  That’s kinda gutsy though artists know that a pub like that will come back for more coverage with them regardless so it serves them well in the end, even if it doesn’t in the short term.

How about less well-known entities and bad reviews?  For anyone who gets records sent to them by labels or trowels through MySpace enough, one sad obvious fact is clear- there’s a lotta crappy music out there.  There’s a lot of good music still out there but that’s another story.  Anyway, as you go through these hopeful acts, you’ll be looking for good ones to spread the word about.  But what about the bad ones?  Should you spit on them and make fun of them?  Any honest writer would tell you that they’re probably tempted to do that but what’s the point?  Why would you elevate a really bad unknown act and tell the world how bad they are?  It looks like you’re being mean and picking on them for no good reason.  As a writer, what are you trying to achieve when you do that except to show what a goddamn jerk you are?  That’s why most writers usually pass on this type of criticism.

What do you think?  How important is it to have bad reviews, at least sometimes?

(I also briefly discussed this topic based on a SXSW panel last March)

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