The bias toward positive reviews

by Rob Horning

24 November 2008


Tyler Cowen linked to Peter Suderman’s post at Culture 11, “In Praise of Negative Reviews,” a response to Joe Queenan’s funny essay about useless, gushy book reviews and awkward amounts of unearned praise. Suderman observes that when it comes to incoherent praise,

the critical medium that suffers most is pop music criticism, which skews toward generally positive reviews of most everything, no matter how bland or terrible. Scan the sidebar of Metacritic’s music page. Nearly all of the review averages are positive or very positive, and almost none of them are straightforward pans. In fact, right now I don’t see a single album with a review average that gets a score categorized “generally negative reviews.” Contrast this with the movies page, which contains more than a dozen films with low averages. Even the limited release indies — the “artsy” films — are often given low marks.
Is contemporary pop music really that much better than contemporary mainstream filmmaking? I think not. Instead, it’s just that the music reviewing culture has developed in such a way that most everything scores a “pretty good” or a “not bad.” (Witness Idolator’s ongoing mocking of Rolling Stone for the rock mag’s tendency to give pretty much anything a three-star review on its five-star scale.) There are a handful outlets like Pitchfork and The Village Voice which regularly publish tough music criticism, but these are the exceptions.

Suderman has no real explanations for the surfeit of positive reviews. I had some theories back when I was writing more music reviews and was trying figure out why anyone bothered. Unlike films, many many records get released, and just noticing one and running a review of it already marks it as significant. The substance of the review itself is almost beside the point. Acknowledging its existence is already an admission that it’s “pretty good,” so it would be strange for the review to suggest otherwise.

In general, it’s hard coming up with compelling descriptions of music, and with readily accessible sound files, reviewers are competing with the songs themselves, which are easier to sample for oneself than ever. Many review editors try to compensate for this by urging writers to craft tightly wound prose explosions with lots of active verbs and implausible metaphors. The poetic quality of the review has to make up for its inability to beat the music, which basically speaks for itself. Generally, explaining whether the record is good or not is secondary to the writer’s making the reader laugh or think, Wow, that was cleverly phrased. And if all else fails, reviewers can work a variation on the formula of “sounds like artist A plus artist B doing some crazy thing”: e.g., “sounds like Bob Dylan making a pass at Joan Armatrading while landing a helicopter in a minefield.” (Here’s a good example from Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy: “It’s like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out Of The Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.”) These descriptive conglomerates typically come across as positive but don’t really help readers, unless they have a clairvoyant capacity to get on the reviewer’s wavelength.

When I first started reviewing music, I used to receive boxes of discs from a fledgling website and had to write 150 words reviews of everything in the box. On top of that, I had to single out at least one out of every 10, if I remember correctly, for 300-word recommendations that would receive more prominent play on the site. I used to think this was a terrible way to go about things, because often there weren’t any CDs that warranted recommendation, and I didn’t think reviewers should be rewarded with prominent placement for shilling for bands. But it wasn’t hard to figure out the logic for this way of doing things. When people read CD reviews, they want to find out about something they should go listen to. They don’t want this: “Hey, here’s something you never heard of. Take a few minutes to read about why you were far better off that way.”

It might amuse some readers to see well-established artists attacked, but who wants to read negative reviews of stuff they haven’t heard of? There’s no point, and the reviewer just comes across as mean. I certainly felt this way about myself when I was writing the negative reviews. It seemed dumb for me to be discouraging these performers, who had no chance of making it, really, no matter what I wrote about them. It’s no fun pissing on people’s dreams. In fact, it made more sense to try to champion all bands, so I could potentially claim some of the glory for helping one of them make it. (I was too cynical to think that actual musical talent had anything to do with future success; success in popular culture has mostly to do with promotion and relentless networking.)

Readers often want hype, not evaluation, because it gives pop culture a sure-fire context, whereas a review that traces musical influences and parses lyrics only helps a select few readers. Besides, there are no established criteria for what’s good beyond popularity or fidelity to genre expectations. Maybe Suderman thinks it’s possible that music reviews could be objective evaluations of quality, as defined by some unimpeachable universal standards, but I don’t believe these exist for pop music (or for much of anything in culture—aesthetic criteria are political creations). The pop music people consume is typically a tribal thing or a means to participate in the zeitgeist, and it’s hard as a reviewer to shape the zeitgeist from the margins. But that doesn’t stop many of them from trying.

The idea that I would simply write up a fair evaluation of a record was of course out of the question. My taste is pretty eclectic and idiosyncratic. That was by design. I took pride in the idiosyncrasy because I used to think it made me special, unclassifiable. So my opinion was of no use as a guide for people with more “average” tastes, and I sometimes went out of my way to be contrarian. Most reviewers are similarly in it for the self-definition, seeking to prove to themselves that their tastes are unique or trying to secure tangible proof of their influence on the world. The parasitic positive review is as much a will to power as the nihilistic negative one. And I think pop-music reviewers generally have a disproportionate amount of respect for musicians and want to mystify what musicians do, turn it into magic. This justifies the amount of time they spend under the musicians’ thrall, thinking about the musician’s efforts instead of making efforts of their own.


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