Thursday, 26 May 2011

Decoding Music Criticism

As a non-musician it can be daunting to write album reviews where you don’t a) come across as an ignorant tosspot, b) offend musicians by failing to appreciate their nine-inch cocks, c) offend fans by slamming their favourite artists, d) offend bands by slamming their talents, e) offend the friends of bands by slamming their friends’ talents, f) pissing off critics-of-critics who know how to write a much better review than you.

So what is the point of the music reviewer? What separates the Lester Bangses from the Tony Blackburns? Here are some posits.


1) A poorly disguised PR exercise, where the reviewer quotes the bumlicky spiel found in press releases.

2) An info pump where the whole review repeats facts from an artist’s website or boring band trivia.

3) An excuse to discuss oneself at length and the crap new haemorrhoid cream that doesn’t really do much except make the cheeks squeak. *

4) An excuse to demonstrate the writer’s brilliance for future work at Pop Bitch and a stint buffing Alex Petridis’s shoes. **

5) Centred around the band, not the album or single up for review.


1) It should try and evoke the music’s nuances, bring sounds to life with words.

2) It should present a fair assessment of the record as a whole, dwelling on the peaks and lows in particular, with as much precise musical and lyrical analysis as possible (or tolerable).

3) It should describe an immediate personal reaction to a record. You can tell within a few songs whether an album will kick arse or flop into mediocrity, and the reader will have a similar reaction.

4) It should be a good piece of writing. If you love an album, you become a salesman, you want people to share the bliss. If you loathe it, you want to make people shed tears of pain. To do this, you need to rope the reader in, shake them out their indifferent stupor and get some reaction. God knows there’s too much dreck out there to wade through.

5) Opinionated. Or definite. Criticism is an highwire emotional act. The critic pronounces judgement on another’s artistic talents, up there for all to see. They must stand their ground. Like Tom Petty, or a Pictish King.


Music criticism isn’t viewed as a legitimate form of artistic expression. It’s viewed as a means of psychically sucking the brilliance from musicians who are the proper artists and geniuses. No one reads reviews for aesthetic pleasure, except in the cases of journos who’ve graduated from hacks to personalities. So for the humble online critic, it breaks down like this:

Bands don’t respect critics unless they give them a good review, but they don’t want to be seen to care about the reviews, so they don’t make a point of acknowledging that review or reviewer, but allow the praise to puff up their egos all the same. In the case of bad reviews, bands will add reviewers to their mental shitlists, recruit friends to troll them in comments, and pretend the reviews mean nothing to them because they’re like struggling artists, man. (Unlike reviewers, who aren’t, like, struggling writers or anything).

In the case of readers, they want reviews that reflect their personal feelings about the music, and if they don’t, the reviewer is at fault, and they become critics-of-the-critics. They will make a point of returning again and again to troll the reviewer, even on reviews they agree with, since the law of internet is no one is ever wrong and the individual is always right.

Reviewers are people who love music who are bursting with opinions no one cares about. They like music most sane people wouldn’t listen to with their ears lobbed off. They need somewhere to go to share this passion that the world shrugs with bored shoulders. They may well be hostile towards musicians, but musicians are the ones getting laid on a semi-regular basis, so you can understand the conflict.


Dylanesque – This is music that either involves a) electric guitars, b) acoustic guitars, c) folk songs, d) clever words, e) blues licks, f) surreal words, or g) anything else to do with music. It’s a great catch-all placeholder when nothing else springs to mind.

Sonics – No one really knows what sonics are, but it does have a proper meaning in music theory, so it’s another great bluff word. The general OED definition is “relating to audible sound,” meaning it could refer to absolutely anything at all in a song. (Maybe not lyrics).

Tour de force – A classic. A much beloved cliché in all forms of journalism. It means, essentially, “very good—no, like, really good,” but in French and stuff.

Fresh from . . . such-and-such tour – Great way to begin a review when the brain isn’t working. Name the tour, followed by the album number, something vaguely interesting about the lead singer, then get on with the blah-blah.


* This makes me a Tony Blackburn, since I often discuss both my haemorrhoids and bunions in reviews.

** I also do this. Call me Tony.

1 comment: