“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” - Frank Zappa
I haven’t been able to positively ascertain whether the above quote is actually Zappa’s or not, but I damn well hope it is. It has been my guiding principle on avoiding record reviews for so long and just a few weeks ago I broke that particular duck when Whiteboard Journal decided to venture into critically assessing and grading locally produced records.
As stated earlier, I tend to avoid judging other people’s artistic work (one which I might not be able to do myself) yet record reviews form the sort of ‘promised land’ for most music journalists/bloggers. Hell, that’s what makes famous music journalists, well, famous. Iconic music critics like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau and Harry Allen have honed their fame by praising or slating records in the most amusing manners they can think of. Lester Bangs, for example, notoriously trashed MC5’s Kick Out The Jams upon its release in 1968 (only for the record to receive critical fame decades later).
So what is the actual point of a review? And what is it that makes a review, a good one? Are writers supposed to strive for severely slating a record for the sheer popularity of doing so?
After all, it has worked for so many (I include hipster blogs such as Pitchfork into this category). I for one argue otherwise and feel that reviews are best put to use in order to expose artists who are less likely to receive broad attention. A kind of music curator, if you will.
But what is subjectivity when it comes to reviewing other people’s music? Does a reviewer simply judge the music on the merits itself, or take the whole context into consideration? For example, how would you score an album that generally sounds good but sounds like it came straight out of the 70s? Or indeed, would an album containing standard catchy retro pop-tracks outscore an experimental album, which ‘pushes the envelope’ yet is perhaps slightly harder to love?
And what if the music you’re reviewing happens to fall under the ‘many shades of crap’ category (Justin Bieber or Peter Pan anyone?)? Do you decline reviewing it out flat for avoiding negativity or is that defeating the purpose of the exercise? Should you only stick to albums you’re already more likely to enjoy? If you do decide to review an artist you’re almost certain to tear apart, is that fair considering musical tastes are always subjective?