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Sonic Boom: Critical Masses

Seems like everyone's a critic. Oh wait. They are.


Some of the now-useless rock rags Mike used to read. Note the scowling Manc found on numerous covers here.

Some of the now-useless rock rags Mike used to read. Note the scowling Manc found on numerous covers here.

When I was coming of age—we’re talking senior year of high school here, all throughout college and a fair bit beyond; let’s call this timeframe “the ’90s”—I read numerous magazines specifically for their record reviews: Spin, NME, Rolling Stone, Mojo, Alternative Press, Melody Maker, Magnet…the list goes on. Really. And on, and on. And I would purchase and read each one of these magazines as soon as they hit stands. I would not necessarily head straight for the record reviews, but make no mistake, it was the record reviews I was there for: Everything else was some form of filler.

Today, of course, magazines are almost entirely useless, and that’s doubly true when it comes to their record reviews. With the advent of Amazon, MySpace, Lala, Last.fm, Pandora, iTunes and (especially) file-sharing, consumers are able to listen to much more music than ever before, and are able to get that music much faster and much cheaper.


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Therefore, listeners have become increasingly reliant on Web sources—where deadlines are more flexible and space is limitless—for their critical content. The very best example of these sources, in my opinion, is Pitchfork.com, which has become essential daily reading for music snobs. Alongside the dozens of other features they offer, Pitchfork reviews five albums a day, five days a week, for a conservative total of approximately 100 album reviews per month. The site’s writers are sharp, witty, well-versed in their subject matter, and their reviews run from roughly 400 to 1,000 words apiece: much more space than is dedicated for record reviews at any other music publication that I know of. Perhaps most importantly, since the site’s inception in 1996, Pitchfork’s editors have established an exacting, methodical, almost pedantic scoring system for the records they review—a system that can act as an incredibly reliable buyer’s guide, assuming that’s why one reads record reviews.

The other end of the spectrum, though, is the murky world of “citizen journalism.” The Web has democratized criticism, to the extent that, today, anyone who wants to be a critic, can be. And not just a critic, but a critic with a worldwide forum. Like a record? Rate it on Amazon. Write a review. Share your thoughts. Gush. Elaborate. Rant. Speak. Your. Mind. Spelling is optional. Grammar counts for nothing. And a critical background is wholly unnecessary. Perhaps, indeed, it is beside the point.

In fact, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal called “On the Internet, Everyone’s a Critic But They’re Not Very Critical,” by Geoffrey A. Fowler and Joseph De Avila, “One of the Web’s little secrets is that when consumers write online reviews, they tend to leave positive ratings: The average grade for things online is about 4.3 stars out of five.”

So you know, that is an unusually high score. By contrast, of the approximately 900 records reviewed by Pitchfork since the beginning of 2009, only nine—NINE—have scored that high or higher (“that high” being an 8.6 out of 10, the equivalent of 4.3 out of five, on Pitchfork’s 10.0-point scale). Furthermore, each of those nine—NINE—records has been granted the site’s lofty and influential Best New Music designation. It’s not fair to extrapolate, but just stating the obvious: Using those numbers, the average customer-critic would literally deem just about everything Best New Music. To give another example, on criticism aggregator Metacritic.com, a score of 86 would equate to “universal acclaim,” i.e., the very highest designation offered by the site. And, in a very real sense, that’s what customer online reviews are: universal acclaim.

It goes without saying that this milieu presents a skewed vision of art; however, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. It used to be that critics acted as gatekeepers, but critics increasingly follow the lead of fans; paid journalists tend to rely on unpaid bloggers to identify exciting new records, new bands, new trends. That’s not to downplay the role of criticism—speaking as a music obsessive, the opinions that matter most to me are the ones I trust, the ones who take this business seriously, who have a reputation, whose ears are well-trained, who know how to write, and who can put into a much larger context an individual piece of work by an individual artist.

But then, sometimes I want to read the gushing of hysterical fans. Sometimes I want to know the feelings of the people who dedicate their lives to one band, or one scene, the people who feel a responsibility to review a piece of work online, because their opinion has nuances and understandings that paid critics can’t know. Sometimes, if I’m trying to understand a record, I’ll read the reviews written by the pros, and then I’ll go to Amazon and iTunes and message boards and see what the fans think. As someone who goes into every new record hoping to fall in love, I want to hear from the people who are already in love, because they know something important, something essential, something secret.

Indeed, back in the aforementioned day—the ’90s, that is, a decade during which I was mostly a student, someone whose opinion was rarely considered relevant, regardless of how strong it may have been—after reading all those magazines and record reviews, I would keep my own ratings of my records. So I get it: the enthusiasm and passion and pure subjective awe that jolts to life every customer review. And while all those misspelled words and biased opinions may not qualify as criticism, there is something to be found in that wilderness, something to be heard in that din, something that actually sounds like truth.

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