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So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 7

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of I read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

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Lesson 7: Three the Hard Way

We're nearing the end of this feature, and thus lesson 7 features three mini-lessons that serve as a catch-all. One could be a very serviceable music critic mastering only lessons 1 - 6, but the three tidbits presented here (along with the forthcoming Lesson 8) are that little something extra - the pineapple on the cottage cheese, if you will - allowing you to be in total command of your craft.

Let's take them one-by-one.

A) Policy of Truth

You should inherently know the following information, but I feel obliged to spell it out for your anyway, because everything else you do is based on this principle. I'm bolding and centering it for dramatic effect:

There is no such thing as subjectivity.

When the below-average to average reader approaches a music review, he or she is likely to take the critic's words as gospel. The above-average reader approaches a music review with the idea that the critic's words are simply one opinion among many. That's why you should always write to the below-average or average reader.

Once in awhile you may feel you are on shaky ground, that your experiences and thoughts about music may not be universal. But, you may say, perhaps everyone doesn't own the complete works of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefhart, every existing Neil Young bootleg, and all the Nuggets compilations. Push that feeling away. Hit it with a shovel and bury it deep. You are not writing for those people.

What do I do about those above-average readers, you might ask. If I state everything as undeniable fact, won't they think that I'm a condescending blowhard? Won't they eventually discount me completely, or read my work with the singular goal of refuting anything they possibly can? Well, forget those worries. If you put your head down and ignore these types, you'll be fine. The key is to never apologize or concede a point. Eventually, you'll be so convincing, you'll even believe yourself.

So if you just aren't feeling Jay-Z's new album, don't be all milquetoast about it and say something like, "I found the album difficult to get into for reasons x, y, and z." Instead, say, "The Blueprint 3 is so certainly Jay-Z's weakest solo album, you'll be tempted to wonder if Kingdom Come was somehow underrated" as Ian Cohen did in his Pitchfork review. His statement doesn't allow anyone to a) believe that The Blueprint 3 might be good or b) that Jay-Z might have a worse album.

Likewise, you should always avoid "I" statements and NEVER admit your bias. Lester Bangs, rock critic blueprint, didn't quite have this down. He usually didn't shy away from making his opinions appear universal and unarguable, but in his review of Public Image Ltd.'s Second Edition album he calls it "one of the best records I've heard since, oh, say, maybe White Light / White Heat." The use of "I've heard" in that makes it clear that this is simply Bangs' subjective opinion, which is exactly what we don't want the reader to think.

As for admitting bias, well, it's sort of the inverse of Lesson 4. In that lesson you learned to unapologetically embrace your innate hatred of certain bands. Well, you should also embrace bands you love and give everything they do overly-inflated accolades disguised as gospel truth. And never, never admit you're a fan. So when Nick Hornby, the novelist who briefly moonlighted as rock critic for the New Yorker, says that Radiohead's Kid A "relies heavily on our passionate interest in every twist and turn of the band's career, no matter how trivial or pretentious," it is pulling back the curtain a little too much.

B) Pretzel Logic

Supertramp aside, music isn't logical. Therefore, critics don't abide by logic either. This means that whatever rating system you use (1-5 stars, letter grades, 10 point scale) need not be anything but intuitive and subject-to-your-whims. Forget having a clear set of criteria for achieving various ratings. It's simply not necessary.

To whit, consider the AllMusic Guide. It's a trusted source for album ratings. They use the 1-5 star scale. One star, I'm assuming, being a piece of garbage, while a five star album is a classic. The Guide's guru is Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music-reviewing machine. The organization does employ other writers, but tends to assign the same writer to review an artist's entire oeuvre. This, you might think, leads to some sort of internal consistency. So if you looked at, say, Prince's body of work, you'd be able to look at the ratings and see a clear dichotomy.

So when we look at 1985's Around the World In a Day, which Erlewine gives 3 1/2 stars and says, "The problem is, only a handful of the songs have much substance outside of their detailed production and intoxicating performances, and the album has a creepy sense of paranoia that is eventually its undoing" then we can expect that anything lower than 3 1/2 must be pretty darn bad, right? I mean, if only a few songs have substance and the album is ultimately undone, those aren't good things. So let's look at New Power Soul, which got 2 stars, and about which Erlewine writes: "New Power Soul is a tight, focused record, filled with energetic funk workouts and classy, seductive ballads. It's paced to entertain, just like one of his legendary concerts, and there's no shortage of well-crafted songs. The problem is, nothing stands out and makes itself known." I suppose that one might say that, to Erlewine a lack of substance is a lesser sin than nothing standing out, but is that distinction worth 1 and a half stars? Who knows or cares? Remember the lesson and throw logic out the window.

That's certainly what Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber does in his review of Radiohead's Amnesiac album. Based on his review, Schreiber only likes four songs on the album, and sums it up as "a thinly-veiled b-sides compilation." What sort of rating (on a 10 point scale) might you expect for an album like that, especially considering Pitchfork is notoriously stingy with their accolades? A 6, maybe a 6.6432 at the outside? Nope, Schreiber gave it a 9.

So, when you rate albums or songs, remember David Byrne's advice: "Stop making sense!"

C) Double Vision

If you take only one thing away from this entire series of lessons, let it be this: Double albums should always be single albums.

The double album debuted in 1966 with Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and it was novel enough to get a free pass for a brief while. The honeymoon was over by 1968's The Beatles, which was considered by the New York Times to be "more than half-full of profound mediocrities." This was a good start, but the newspaper had yet to master the second part of reviewing a double album. Not only should you say that it's "padded with filler" but you should also suggest that had the artist chosen to self-edit and release the best songs as a single album it would have resulted in a far superior final product.

Even albums released simultaneously are not exempt. Take Springsteen's 1992 releases Human Touch and Lucky Town. They were separate records and should have been treated as such, but it didn't stop our intrepid brethren. Anthony DeCurtis (Rolling Stone) wrote in his review of the latter that, "Without question, the aesthetic and thematic aims of Human Touch and Lucky Town would have been better realized by a single, more carefully shaped collection that eliminated their half-dozen or so least essential songs." William Ruhlman of the AllMusic Guide said Springsteen "might have been better off pulling a couple of the stronger songs from the earlier album [Human Touch], adding them to the later one [Lucky Town], and shelving the rest."

A couple of more modern examples:

In 2006 the Red Hot Chili Peppers released the double album Stadium Arcadium. A survey of available reviews of the album reveals a healthy number of critics following their obligation (also, the percentage of reviewers mentioning the fact that the group once wore socks over their penises is astronomical). Good ol' Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, "it's hard not to feel that it's the band's responsibility to take this very good repetitive album and mold it into something sharper and more effective." Raoul Hernandez of the Austin Chronicle remarked that, "The Clash crammed eight more cuts on their 2-CD Sandinista!, greatness with the mediocrity left untrimmed. Given the razor's edge, Stadium Arcadium might have been London Calling." Good grasp of Lesson 2 there, Raoul. Jeff Vrabel of PopMatters simply begins his review thusly: "The following is a message from The Society of Music Fans for the Elimination of Double-Disc Releases."

Other reviewers put a modern spin on the criticism. Michel Endleman, Tim Chester, and David Marchese all suggest that listeners download the best songs and use their MP3 player to create their own single disc version. Way to roll with the times, fellas!

Jay-Z's 2002 double disc The Blueprint 2 met the same criticism. editorial reviewer Dalton Higgins doesn't blame Jay-Z, but the genre itself: "Do you want in on hip-hop's dirty little secret? Well, not even rap's greatest icons have been able to pull of a memorable, fast-forward-free double disc." Marc Hill, from PopMatters, said it as clearly as a person can: "If Jay-Z had taken the top 12 songs from the two discs and made a single album, this could have been another classic."

Jay-Z, though, tried to get the last laugh on us critics here. He actually listened to us and released a condensed, single disc version called The Blueprint 2.1. The result? Critics were still unhappy. Try to parse out Rollie Pemberton's Pitchfork response to these developments: "So, for the classic bloated double-album prototype, the filler helps more than it hinders, as evidenced by the spectacular failure of the condensed version. Truly, Carter's vision of the streets had to stretch out over two discs, if only to handle the spectrum of influence he's drawn from and continues to create." It's a valiant attempt to try to justify the failure of the critics' suggestions, but in the end Pemberton undermines our fundamental stance, which is that double albums are never justifiable.

I hope you can justify coming back next week for our final lesson, Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word, where we'll learn about the greatest sin a rock critic can commit. See you soon!


Alex said…
A ten-part series that only contains 8 lessons?! Talk about padding!

Paul V. Allen said…
It's called showmanship.

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