Friday, August 16, 2013

And in the End...

(Honks horn) "Ten years, man! Ten! Where have you been for ten years?!"* 

Well, I've been here. I started this blog in November of 2003. Friends were always asking me, "How's the new CD by blank?" I was a music obsessive who loved to write, so I decided CD reviews would be the best way to answer that.

Over the past 9 years and 10 months I have written 400 separate blog entries on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds, nearly 300 of which were album reviews. I created a spinoff site dedicated to pop music films (Baby, I'm a Star; worth exploring sometime if I do say so). I got together with some friends and made lists of our favorite songs from the last four decades (and all of them, by the way, have way more visits than this main site). When I look back at what I've done, I'm really proud.

But it's no secret that my production on this blog has slowed way down. There are logistical reasons for this, as I explained in my last post, but it's more than just family and a waning interest in seeking out new artists. I started 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds to write CD reviews, and in the years that I've been doing that, I've developed a very contentious relationship with the idea of "reviewing" art.

If you'll notice, the last time I wrote a review of a newly released album was in August of 2011 (It was "Weird Al"'s Alpocalypse, which I reviewed only to stay up-to-date on a project that involved reviewing all of his albums). The last new album reviews before that were one each in February, March and April of 2010. In fact, the last time I consistently wrote about new music was early 2009. That's more than four years ago. In that time, I've focused mostly on research-heavy pieces about older music (in the form of every-album reviewed projects on The Monkees, XTC, "Weird Al") and my Rock Bottom and Rock Solid entires.

Like I said, there are outside factors at play in the decline of my posting frequency, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the change in my reviewing habits happened around the time I wrote my epic So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Critic series. In those essays, I bitterly railed against the pomposity, self-loathing, and negativity of rock music criticism. It may have seemed like that vitriol came from nowhere, but a careful look through my posts shows that I've been struggling with it almost since the start.

My review of The Exploding Hearts' album Guitar Romantic, written in November 2003 (the month I started the blog), began thusly: "There are three things about CD reviews that I dislike." The three things were 1) use of the second person, 2) comparisons to other artists, and 3) overreaching to connect the record to a larger social context. The joke was that I went on to do those exact three things in my review. But the groundwork for my dissatisfaction was laid out, and it only built up from there.

In the following summer (June 2004), I spent half of my review of The Delays' Faded Seaside Glamour having a two-part existential crisis. One part of it involved the limited vocabulary of rock criticism, namely the overreliance on artist comparisons I mentioned earlier. The other was about the pitfalls of constantly seeking out new artists to follow (a prescient concern given my current feelings that it's rarely worth my time). I ended these musings with a resolution to write reviews that focused on my own personal reaction to the music, mixed with some history of the band/recording. Looking back, this was my attempt to deal with my misgivings. And it worked for awhile, though I didn't necessarily stick to my resolution.

That fall, I took critic Jody Rosen to task for his (in my opinion) unnecessarily harsh review of The Thrills' second album Let's Bottle Bohemia. My big issue with his criticism is that he seemed to be reviewing his perception of the intention behind the music rather than the music itself. Things were quiet for the next couple of years, though it's worth noting that my output dropped by half during this time. But in April 2007 my issues resurfaced. Similar to what happened with Rosen, I took to task two different critic's reviews of Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather. In this case I felt both reviewers approached the album with chips on their shoulders. One didn't even attempt to hide the fact that he hated the band. The other claimed to be a fan at one time, but thinks they sold out by having a hit song (a typical rock snob complaint).

That fall, in looking at Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight, I once again returned to that idea of artist comparisons, railing against the practice (which critics employed even more than usual in their reviews of this particular album) by purposefully writing a review without doing it. Then the next month I finally broke. In response to a particularly nasty Pitchfork review of Matt Pond PA's Last Light, I wrote a point-by-point takedown of the reviewer's complaints. Among the issues: The aforementioned "innate hatred of the artist you're reviewing", a misplaced emphasis on relevance, a pretentious questioning of who actually listens to the band, a suggestion that the band shouldn't exist, and, yes, lazy comparisons to other artists.

It stops there, but in 2008 the blog made a big shift. The posts started looking backwards rather than forward (I started the Rock Bottom series, the 12 By... lists, and The Beatles album reviews). I sprinkled new reviews in sporadically, but much less than before. The next year came So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Critic. I suppose my hope at the time was that the form of music reviewing could be elevated, after all, most music criticism isn't inherently lazy or pompous. I was describing an ideal, not that I would necessarily be the one to carry it out.

In the last few years my attitude hasn't improved. The problems I wrote about were fixable, but not only have I continued to see the same mistakes made, my problems have grown deeper. There's the usual stuff:  Reviewers parrot each other's opinions, creating the illusion of objective truth in  personal reactions to an album. The reviews are written on deadline, leading to superficial snap judgements. Print reviews are woefully short (Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone reviews are often less than three sentences), putting a premium on quippy dismissals and an overemphasis on the final grade. Negativity rules the day (e.g. New music is compared unfavorably with past work, unless it sounds too much like past work, then it's pegged as lacking innovation). But there's also the question of why album reviews even exist (that's a teaser; I'll get there soon).

At this point my feelings about most music reviews are similar to my feelings about the daily comics page: Both make me viscerally angry in their vapidity and wasted potential. Is it any wonder I don't want to be part of that anymore?

In one of the rare well-written reviews I've read lately, Ryan Dombal's piece on Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City, I learned that the band's lead singer, Ezra Koenig, had a blog when he was in college. One of his posts was a takedown of critic Robert Christgau, specifically his illogical hatred of Billy Joel's music (an issue close to my heart). The whole entry is worth reading, especially when you consider this is coming from someone who would go on to have his albums reviewed by Christgau, but the parts that stuck out to me were as follows:
- "Grading albums like homework is lame." 
- "Here's the big question: Is there any point in negative criticism? I can see the point in positive criticism. There is just too much art out there. It is helpful to hear about cool, new art from someone you trust. It encourages you to check it out. Presumably, after checking it out you will decide for yourself if you like it. Negative criticism will only prevent you from checking it out and thus deciding for yourself."
I'll get to Koenig's first point, but his second where I want to start. Now I don't really agree with him, but he does being up a valid point. Going back briefly to my own personal tour through the past, in April of 2006 I revisited an album I thought I loved: Phish's Billy Breathes. In relistening 10 years after its release, I found that my ardor for the album had cooled considerably. And this isn't an isolated phenomenon. I've found recently that many of the albums I thought I loved I really don't.

For music criticism to be reliable, it has to hold up most of the time, doesn't it? I'd think so. This led me to take a look at the man in the mirror. I went back through every review I've written. I recorded the grade and then recorded what level I'd put it at, in accordance with my newly revealed tiers of album quality. I assumed that if I gave something an A (plus, plain, or minus) that it would likely fall into the top tier. B's would go into tiers 2 and 3. And C and below would be a bottom-dwelling tier 4 album.

I didn't give out a crazy amount of A's, only about a third of the time. Considering that I tend to want to write about things I like, this is not that much. But when I look now, only 38% of those A's I gave still hold today. So well over half of those albums I once adored fell to tier 2 or lower. The B's, which I gave half of the time, held better, with about 78% of the albums staying at that level (and a handful gaining status over time). Of the C's and D's I handed out (I never gave an F), all held.

Conclusion? I was clearly overly generous as a reviewer. This is no surprise to me. I'm the person who has difficulty admitting a movie I've just watched was terrible. I have to get over the fact that I spent time and money on a bad choice before I can admit that to myself. This is where Koenig's ideal doesn't quite hold up. I can play hype man for an album that catches my eye, but if I can't guarantee I'll still feel that way down the road, what good was my positive criticism? I suppose he would say all I did was give other people the opportunity to see if they felt the same, but PR man is not the role I thought I was playing.

One might say my downgrading of albums over time is simply a matter of refined taste and higher standards, but that's sort of self-serving. I think the real issue is the fact that I simply didn't spend enough time with the albums before rendering judgement. Really, how many listens does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of an album? How long before I can decide that it's a truly worthwhile piece of art? I can be infatuated after a handful of listens, but what besides time will tell me if that infatuation is actually love? People tend to cynically think of love as something that overwhelms in the beginning and then diminishes gradually over time. But true love strengthens and deepens over time.

This is where I think the business side of music criticism often fails. A critic listens to an album a couple of times and writes their review to have it posted or published in a timely manner. It's not feasible to wait the two or three years it might take to truly know where you stand on an album (This is why so many critics are initially negative about an established artist's new work; they simply haven't spent as much time with the new work as they have the older stuff). So the writer becomes a servant of disposable culture. Now, as I wrote in my last piece on my changing listening habits, I don't believe every album has to stand the test of time. There's room for quick crushes and disposability, but, again, that's not how I want to spend my writing time.

As for Koenig's questioning of negative criticism, I'd argue that there is value in a negative review when it's clearly substantiated and comes from the right place. Take Sasha Frere-Jones piece on Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail. He's harsh, but not mean, and his criticism serves a higher purpose, namely calling out Jay Z for wasting his talent and influence on what Frere-Jones sees as underachieving vapidity. Is this going to cloud some people's judgement of the album? Maybe. But maybe there are cases where that needs to happen. And I was never going to buy the record in the first place, so as a reader I just got to sit back and enjoy Frere-Jones' beatdown.

However, there are plenty of reasons not to indulge in negative criticism, and many reviewers don't make any distinction. A partial list: You hate the artist, you hate the genre, you hate popular artists, you define yourself by what you don't like instead of what you do like, you believe every artist goes into an inevitable decline, or you had unrealistic expectations. Even so, I understand why critics go negative. It's the better bet, as the 100% negativity rate in my own reviews will attest. It's rarer for hatred to turn to love, if only because you're unlikely to continue to give an album listening opportunities if you've already decided you don't like it.

And while I agree with Koenig's essential point that you should make your own decision about works of art, I don't believe that negative criticism necessarily gets in the way of that. If you are so put off by a review of an album that you don't even bother to listen to its song samples, then I question how serious you were about buying it in the first place. If you do listen for yourself and find that the writer's criticisms are gnawing at you, then that would tell me that the criticisms were valid. If it doesn't bother you, then there's no harm done. Example: The Onion AV Club's Kyle Ryan gave Jimmy Eat World's latest album, Damage, a middling review, finding some bright spots but ultimately labeling it anonymous and unmemorable. Now, I've loved and followed Jimmy Eat World for 16 years, so there was no way I wasn't going to listen for myself. When I did, I had Ryan's criticisms in mind at first, yes, but ultimately I found they didn't apply for me. I'm also the person whose favorite David Bowie album is considered his worst.

All that said, I still sympathize with Koenig's point. I discovered a clear downside to negative criticism when a couple of Twin Cities artists (Vicious Vicious and The Honeydogs) reposted my reviews of their albums on their websites. Both reviews were positive, but both also contained flippant dismissals of the artists' past work. Knowing that both artists had read my words took away the distance of "celebrity" one associates with recording artists. And knowing that I might have hurt the feelings of the artists with my casual, unconsidered assessments was not a good feeling. In both cases, I apologized (one personally, one publicly). This is in no way to say that one needs to be starstruck and deferential, but starting from a place of basic human decency can't be a bad thing.

And now back, finally, to Koenig's point about grading. Here I totally agree with him. This isn't school; artists aren't students. The only reason to have a letter grade is to serve as a tool for recommendation. If you don't believe that's what music criticism is primarily for, as I don't, then it's pointless. A part of me would love to go back through all my reviews and remove the grades. However, I'm not going to do it. For one, it's a slippery slope toward doing other revisions. Then the next thing you know I'm George Lucas' fucking up the original Star Wars trilogy. Some things should just be left to stand, perceived flaws and all.

The bottom line is that I have come to believe that rock criticism should be more literary analysis than book review. It should focus on discovery, information, and personal experience, not assessment. And a good review should never be the primary reason someone buys an album, even if every critic in the world rhapsodizes over it (there are lots of factors at play as to why this might happen; actual quality is only one of them). Reaction to any given work of art is highly personal and subjective. I'm fully convinced that any given album can be considered a masterpiece to someone out there given the right condition. And that feeling is, more often than not, nontransferable. We see this in our inconsistent reactions to others' recommendations. Jonathan Lethem, a writer I greatly admire, rapturously talked up a band called The Winterpills. I sought them out because of his descriptions. I listened with an open heart and I was thoroughly bored. Lethem may not have explicitly given a recommendation, but I took it as one anyway, and it didn't work out. Not that there isn't value in reading about something someone really loves; there's a certain beauty in that sort of writing. The problem is that often writer and reader present and perceive, respectively, opinions as facts.

Maybe, then, we should read good music criticism for the sake of good music criticism. And avoid the rest of it.

And that's why I gave up new music reviews. That's what I was subconsciously trying to get at with the blog's turn toward nostalgia pieces. The shift allowed me to take on the role of impartial outside observer (Rock Solid, Rock Bottom) or write about records I'd spent years with, so I didn't have to worry about misrepresenting them.

Unfortunately, at this point, all of my nostalgia series are completed. I have no big ideas on the horizon besides completing  the My Favorite Albums sidebar. So, it's likely to be quiet around here for awhile. I'm not going to do make a big deal and call it "retirement" like an attention-seeking actor or athlete, because I don't like the finality of that.

On their final album, The Beatles wrote their own epitaph: "And in the end / the love you take / I equal to the love you make." Then an accidental bonus track about the Queen of England (Her Majesty) messed that up. And then Let It Be came out. Music reviews may not be my thing anymore, but I'm sure I've still got some hidden bonus tracks and old session tapes in me.

*(A pat on the back to anyone who can correctly identify the quote without using a search engine.)

2 comments:

Nik said...

Have quite enjoyed your thoughtful posts, sporadic as they might've been in recent times. Good luck with the future!

Uncle E said...

I'm with Nik, and especially your "think pieces", such as this. You're a terrific writer and I hope you don't give that up entirely.