Think Piece: The Problematic Nature of Modern Music Reviews

by Dustin

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I haven’t written a think piece in a long time, but as Rajin and myself have continued to develop Extraordinary Nobodies — both in terms of the content we wish to produce and our individual skills as writers — there is something that’s sort of been nagging at me to discuss. While it’s a topic that is hard to write about without sounding holier-than-thou, I do feel a certain degree of disappointment in the lack of respect shown by many media figures toward the pieces of music they choose to review. I don’t mean this purely in the sense of slamming artists’ work for being unenjoyable either. I see it as more of a multifaceted problem, with symptoms spawning from the disease of clickbait driven publication motives. The focus has shifted from writing well fleshed out musical discussions to serving up Hot-N-Ready style one listen think pieces masquerading themselves as album reviews. It’s insulting. Not only to the artist, but to the art itself, the reader, and ultimately to the craft of critical assessment.

Eight years ago, the now deceased Scott Miller wrote a book in which he pondered some of the issues he saw with music critics. In a particular section, he stated that he believes a good critic should be able laud an artist for their musical work while separately acknowledging moral objections without confusing the two; moreover, he seemed to express that he felt as if this was something many struggled to achieve. Moving into the present, I would argue that this has become an increasingly troublesome trait of music media, particularly in the realm of hip-hop. Kanye West is, unfortunately, a prime example of this in action. I’ll preface this by saying, I am absolutely not defending Kanye as a human being. He has done and said things that I find deplorable. They do not line up with where I stand as a person; however, I find it equally disgusting that those who have chosen to analyze his work opt to spend more time focused on his antics rather than the music. Not only does it indignify the reader by tricking them, but it draws attention to questionable behavior without offering any degree of meaningful insight as to why it should be looked down upon. There is a ton of room to have constructive conversation about why the things (and I’m using him again purely due to it being relatively recent) Kanye West does are harmful. With that in mind, it’s not going to be accomplished within a review that is effectively saying “this album is bad because Kanye is bad.” Either focus on the music, or focus on the moral issues of the individual and present it appropriately.

That’s not to say that I subscribe to the idea that the social context of a release should be ignored entirely. Some of the greatest hip-hop critics of all time focused heavily on race, gender, political unrest, and other nuanced socioeconomic troubles. What set them apart is that they looked at the music in relation to these things, rather than rating the value of an album based purely on an artist’s personal beliefs.

A lot of this circles back around to sloppy writing in general, though. With the way we consume media through the internet, there is an expectation for everything to be instantaneous, easily digestible, and attention grabbing. It sucks. It feels as if it has become commonplace to read reviews which miss even the most obvious of concepts, never mind anything below surface level. There’s no care or respect given to the art, and it’s all in the name of having the article out before other publications. I get it. Most rely almost entirely on advertiser revenue to stay afloat, and higher traffic means higher profit. Sadly, this has lead to the gradual degradation of a craft that once held in much higher regard than it is now. There was a time when writers such as Greg Tate made a conscious effort to ensure that their pieces held up to music they were discussing. They drew inspiration not only from journalists, but from poets and other talented penmen. Words were deliberate and laboured over, not simply churned out on a whim to meet a deadline and quota. While this may sound like romanticising the past (and to a degree it is), I simply long for a place in media where articles can be valued based on their content and not on their swiftness to reach publishment.

There isn’t an easy solution to these issues that I can offer up, but I think being aware of the media we’re consuming is the first step toward improvement. While the current climate is likely always going to value rapid and disposable writing, as a reader you have the ability to make your voice heard. Offering feedback can go a long way. A huge part of my growth has been tied to people making suggestions and offering constructive criticism on my work. It drives me. It drives us. Showing that support to the authors who are giving you the type of material you want to read is what keeps them going. In the same vein, if we start ignoring outlets notorious for releasing low-effort high-volume commentary it will effectively cut off their blood supply. Will it be enough to permanently fix to realm of music critiquing? Probably not, but it’s a starting point toward affording artists the type of consideration their endeavors deserve.

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