Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Disappearance of the Negative Review

Once again, the Wall Street Journal comes up with an interesting article on the arts. This time "What Happened to the Negative Music Review?"
If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.
Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.
Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.
The writer, Neil Shah, makes an attempt to analyze what is going on:
A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.
“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”
I've talked about this here on the Music Salon a lot. Trends in social and mass media tend to favor the stars:
Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other. 
Sure, in a context where music is really just entertainment, serious criticism is simply out of place. Negativity strikes the wrong note and doesn't help to increase sales! The lack of negative reviews is a reflection of the tectonic shift in music from the profound to the trivial. This is taking place not only in the pop world but also in the classical world. Here, have a look at this Deutsche Grammophon commercial (they call it a "trailer") for a new Yuja Wang album:

Now That's Entertainment!

I think that there are some underlying cultural trends that feed into this. For one thing, as I have been saying lately, the lack of aesthetics gives critics no tools or techniques to base their criticism on. In a context where everyone believes that taste is completely subjective and relative, just what does a music critic offer? After all, your judgment is just as good as his, right? My series of posts on aesthetics is an attempt to restore the place of aesthetics, but hey, a whole lot of other people are going to have to pitch in! The other trend that is eliminating critical judgment is commercialization. Music as a serious art form is being largely replaced by music as a shallow entertainment. To me, this is even more worrying than the disappearance of aesthetics (though I suspect these two things are linked). So if music is just another cultural "product" then talk about it either furthers the sale of the product or it doesn't.

One argument that is sometimes used is the argument from consumer protection. Just as a restaurant review can caution you from patronizing a particular restaurant due to quality or health issues, so, it is proposed, a capable music reviewer can steer you away from wasting your money on crap. This is the implied rationale in this excerpt from the WSJ article:
Music fans can try out new albums on streaming services such as YouTube or Spotify, so often music critics aren’t as necessary as consumer guides. In the age of Twitter , and review aggregators, individual reviews by elite critics may matter less.
But this fails to identify one important historical function of music critics: the introduction of new important artists to the public, as Robert Schumann did when he wrote about Chopin in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Another important function was to develop and shape public taste as critics like George Bernard Shaw illustrate:
Shaw's collected musical criticism, published in three volumes, runs to more than 2,700 pages.[248] It covers the British musical scene from 1876 to 1950, but the core of the collection dates from his six years as music critic of The Star and The World in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In his view music criticism should be interesting to everyone rather than just the musical élite, and he wrote for the non-specialist, avoiding technical jargon—"Mesopotamian words like 'the dominant of D major'".[n 27] He was fiercely partisan in his columns, promoting the music of Wagner and decrying that of Brahms and those British composers such as Stanford and Parry whom he saw as Brahmsian.[67][250] He campaigned against the prevailing fashion for performances of Handel oratorios with huge amateur choirs and inflated orchestration, calling for "a chorus of twenty capable artists".[251] He railed against opera productions unrealistically staged or sung in languages the audience did not speak.[252]
--from the Wikipedia article

Bernard Shaw was working in a different context where his goal was to open out the world of high musical art to a wider public, hence his avoidance of technical vocabulary. The task today is rather different, I think. It is more to perhaps reintroduce the distinctions between art and entertainment. I'm not sure I have the answer, though.

I think that the tell-tale clue in the next to last quote above are the words "elite critics." Anything "elite" is anathema because it is probably racist, sexist and post-colonial! Our little infatuation with social justice continues to exact a heavy price, I'm afraid.

I've always been rather fond of the skillful critical demolition. One of my favorite passages in Kingsley Amis' novel Lucky Jim was the one where he praises a fellow boarding house guest by remarking on his ability to silently look around at his surroundings with an air of utter dismissal and contempt. Yes, I'm afraid we have been underrating the power, not to mention the entertainment value, of ridicule and negative criticism. I used to do the occasional post devoted to what I called "catty micro-reviews", perhaps I should do some more. Here is a sample.


Marc said...

How did the letter M take you to Ciara (even with Nicki?)

Bryan Townsend said...

Probably "Minaj"