Editor's Choice

The bias toward positive reviews

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image