Accentuate the Positive: Why Music Critics Write So Many Favorable Reviews

Is there a more loathed creature out there than the music critic? Despite ranking somewhere between politician and lawyer in the public consciousness, the conflation of the Internet’s girth has seen the sheer volume of critics expand seismically. This, in and of itself, does not implicitly suggest a growth in demand, but the correlating rise in the layman’s musical knowledge (thanks to the bottomless resource of the Internet) suggests that music criticism is a desirable vice, like celebrity tabloids, gambling, or drugs. We dislike the idea of it, but we simply cannot tear ourselves away from the bottomless pit of consumption (in this instance, information and media consumption).

The critics themselves share a portion of the fault in their poor public opinion, of course. The traditional music press in its heyday so seamlessly transformed itself into a placard for record labels and big box stores — churning out consumer reviews rather than focusing on relevant conversations about art in the age of access — that it hardly seems surprising that a new journal folds every couple of weeks. Nose-elevating cultural analysts have been quick to point out, with more than a hint of schadenfreude, that consumer reviews make little sense in an era when you can just stream or download the album yourself before purchasing (if the actual buying of music is even considered at all). The conversation, they say, needs to go further than a friendly recommendation.

On the younger end of the diametric, online critics are perhaps guilty extending the long tail of hipsterdom into impenetrably esoteric ends, allowing no gateway for the ignorant or uninitiated to fully enjoy a piece of music writing without feeling like they’re being talked down to. Music writing from this lot often involves a certain deal of grandstanding by writers who live to find the most obscurely (ir)relevant reference point or salivate at the opportunity to demonstrate their acumen by painting targets on what they see as the illegitimate status quo or an imposed hierarchy (this often means deterritorializing a hierarchy erected from hype that is itself constructed by a tiny milieu of online music critic peers).

Yet for all their cantankerousness, music critics often come across as quite chipper with regards to their personal collections. Pick up any magazine or peruse the scoreboard over at Metacritic and you’ll find that the vast majority of reviews tend to score on the better side of average. Now, flip over to the film side of Metacritic and you’ll notice a healthy patch of red pixels. Are the infamously fussy lot of music critics really more positive and forgiving than film critics? If not, what might explain this gap (which often emerges as something of a credibility gap in the discussion regarding this — dare I say it — poptimism/ pop-ulism)?

It’d be easy to say that music criticism is a broken system, perpetually in fight- or flight-mode, engaged in either rebellion or surrender to the forces that shift and shape sound. Writers try desperately not to get swept up by the throes of fashion and fancy, yet they remain unfocused when there’s no discernible zeitgeist, as there hasn’t been for about 15 years or so (at least one that your average soccer mom could name-check). Napster and YouTube may have expanded our breadth, but little has guided us in how to piece it all together or to put it into any kind of historical or social context other than what our ears can piece together.

That’s not to say that music criticism today lacks depth or insight compared to film criticism, which itself often consists of little more than a plot summary and a couple of gussied-up quotes for the poster. In fact, in the blogosphere music theory can, at its densest, make Derrida read like Highlights magazine. But the constant open-mindedness, generally thought to be a merit of liberal intellectual thought, can also breed a constant dilettantism. Film critics can get away with ignoring a director’s, actor’s, or screenwriter’s prior work, or those pieces being produced in tandem by their peers. Music, on the other hand, always both contains and demands a context. Each artist is an auteur and each record is part of a movement. The momentum of an album chugs away like a locomotive. It’s constantly moving towards a new sound or away from a previous sound. It can venture from a city of raw energy into the village of “commercialism”, or it can exit the global party into the uninhabited isolation of “experimentalism”. And if a writer jumps onto this moving train without knowing full well what he or she is getting into or where he or she is going, the locals and lifers already aboard might not take kindly to his or her fancy words.

Secondary to the expectations inherent in the music are the expectations of the writing. There’s no greater sin in the music community that to sound like you have no idea what you’re talking about (which most of us don’t). Wrongly attributed songs, ill-prescribed genres, and cliché evocations are the stock and trade of the kind of dilettantism described above and it’d be foolish to expect those who judge professionally not to be judged themselves in kind. Yet, the alternative to this kind of naive pluralism is a kind of bland specialism wherein critics remain wedded to a genre, become baffled by outside forces reigning in on this genre, or wrongly accuse all other musical modes of sounding the same. Whereas the readers of film criticism tend to be an assortment of aficionados and irregular popcorn holders, there is no doubt that it is those well-versed in the minutiae of recorded sound who dominate the conversation in music criticism, particularly online.

Thus, the pressure is on to be “on”. This often means staying in one’s comfort zone, even if said music isn’t particularly “comfortable”. Noise writers may be able to opine at length on the contrasts of Sickness and Bastard Noise albums, while metal writers might passionately detail the shifts between Converge albums, but to each of them, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears are mirror images of each other. Conversely, Bieber and Spears defenders might find all metal and noise purposefully obfuscating, and reject their entire avant-hard aesthetic.

Even if each reviewer was likely to trash their pop/anti-pop counterpart, there’s little chance they’d afford themselves the opportunity to. With such an amazing breadth of music available at any given time, music critics select only albums they want to spend time with. When the pressure is on to stay up with current trends in your corresponding field, there’s precious little time to waste on what’s viewed as outside gratuities, particularly since music writers tend to do their assignments pro bono these days. Hence, to a certain extent, music writers know what they’re getting and know what to expect. Like listeners, they can even stream or download music before the promo copy comes in. The result of this insular culture of criticdom is a breadth of mostly positive reviews. After all, what kind of sadist would review something they knew in advance from online streams that they were going to hate?

As someone who writes a column on electronic music for this site and whose interests tend to focus on the broad range of subgenres that comprise that tag, I’ve suffered through a whole host of rock critics stumbling over themselves in reviews of electronic works because the writers lack any reference points beyond the most well-known names from the genre. Simultaneously, as my knowledge base grows, I get embarrassed when I look back at old reviews and note weak analogies that seem to speak more to my own inexperience than to anything at all about the music being discussed. There’s an unspoken competition between music writers that suggests that you will never know as much as the next guy, that all the connections your might draw will always be incomplete.

In film, there are myriad places where a movie can fail: lousy acting, an ugly mise en scene, a crappy soundtrack, poor lighting, a rotten or confusing script, a lackluster buildup, a hackneyed ending, a boring set of characters, a dated sensibility, a wrong pace, or any other number of factors. Any one of these things can be the death knell for the entire narrative. A good script might become intolerable with poor direction and poignant words might trip up through the wrong actor’s mouth. It’s far harder to redeem a film that fails than an album that makes mistakes. Even terrible albums can have two or three songs that you must hear, elevating a review ranking up a couple points.

As a (mostly) narrative art form, film has the benefit of existing for itself. As far as film criticism is concerned, movies don’t have to exist in relation to anything else. Each film can be a new beginning, a singularity. Though it helps, a film critic need not be a genre historian to properly critique a horror film or an animated film. The “rules” for these films become self-evident, whereas in music the mind must make abstract connections based on sound alone. The album need not have a plot, nor flow in any kind of traditional manner. Its merits may include consistency or diversity, perfect execution of a formula or total inventiveness, but overall the album just needs a decipherable aesthetic to be a success. Music criticism is a desperate attempt to ossify a subjective intuition into words, to make an analytical science out of an immersive “cool media”.

Film criticism is an attempt to wrap one’s head around what’s on the screen. It uses the language of everyday experience. Music, despite the millions of words written about it over the years, lacks this kind of language. The author of music criticism must then bring part of himself into the piece. Every music review contains a bit of fantasy at best and a bit of bullshit at worst. The author is expected to not only justify the album’s existence, but to justify the need to write about it in the first place. Is it any wonder then that such an intensely personal (and often defensive) writing tends to veer towards positivism?