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 Ben Pratt

Modern Day Music Criticism Sucks

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Modern Day Music Criticism Sucks: Told Through a Review of Manchester Orchestra’s Simple Math, Brand New’s The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me and a Bunch of Other Stuff (Or Why I Will Never Get a Job at Pitchfork)

By Benjamin Pratt

I often wonder whether music critics look back at their work and and think, “Did I really say that? I must have been on crack. What was I talking about? Sgt. Peppers is a great and timeless album.”

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? It’s something that us music writers don’t have the luxury of living with (unless you have stayed in this unrewarding and underpaid excuse for a crust long enough to have seen a bunch of The Grateful Dead’s back catalogue remastered and re-released earlier this year so you finally got the chance to give Jerry Garcia another go, and not under the influence of copious amounts of LSD this time ’round). But it’s something I’m sure every critic would love to have. Especially the douche at Pitchfork who wrote, “Manchester Orchestra simply plod instead of groove” about the American four-piece alternative rock band, and that one guy at PASTE Magazine who said that absolutely nothing they do is original, stating, “the Atlanta quintet are plagiarising their way through rock history, lifting from Bright Eyes’ hyper-literate folk one minute and Nirvana’s tuneful alt-grunge the next” in his review about their new album, Simple Math.

These people wish they had hindsight. (I would hope.) These people wish their editors weren’t so far up their arse on deadlines so they had some more time to, you know, actually criticise or pass an opinion on the music (not the band) instead of pumping out thoughtless, passionless, half-arsed 250 word reviews, all so their thoughts can be heard before an album is released to the public. Here is where I feel a majority of modern day music journalism sucks, and why I feel it is my responsibility to do those editors a favour and retract all the negative Simple Math reviews that were posted in haste on their websites/magazines, through reviewing the album myself, with hindsight and a number of listens in mind. But first, you must understand how I currently see music journalism becoming no different than a reprinted press release.

On one side, I understand the why it is important to have up-to-the-minute reviews and thoughts of all the latest albums by critics who spend their entire day listening to new music with only half an ear – sometimes society is just too stupid to make up their own minds so they rely on those with (assumingly) more credibility and somewhat of an idea of what “the right thing to be listening to” is to inform them on what record they should spend their spare $18 a week on. However, it’s far too often I find myself sitting on the net reading music websites or laying on my bedroom floor with Blonde On Blonde spinnin’ at 33rpm, flicking through magazines reading these reviews, thinking that the connection between listener and musician is being lost by some 100 word synopsis that should only be welcomed in music if each record were some 12-page children’s picture book and it was the description blurb on the back, under the ugly picture of the old, boring and plain-looking author.

Granted, there are some amazing reviews and music writing going around. Many of which (which do stand the test of time) can be found here on Collapse Board and other music websites and forums, even some independent magazines. But let’s face it, $12 music rags only manage to provide 100-word (with the occasional 200-300 word) record reviews so they can fit 53 reviews in 10 pages (most evident in SPIN Magazine‘s June and July 2011 issues), perhaps the most well-known music press sold out years ago (remember when they used to be the enemy?), street press is becoming more and more filled with their “not wanting to offend anybody” talk and nationally-distributed and regarded music magazines have turned into paper-thin circle-jerk bullshit, all because (I think, anyway) writers do not have the chance to become connected with the music.They don’t have a chance to truly listen and feel the music. They may be too afraid to say what they actually think or feel because some dude on the other side of the world has an ability to anonymously comment the article on his iPod while he rides the bus to school.

Well, that ain’t why I write, it ain’t no regular 9 to 5-er, it’s a chance for me to express how the music makes me feel (or not feel), how it makes me think (or not think) and where it takes me (or doesn’t take me). Something of an art that I think has been lost over the years through society becoming more and more disposable. We don’t appreciate the classics any more, man. We read a record review one day and then read another the next day, forgetting about the previous, no matter how great the album may have the potential to impress (or not impress, for that matter). Society is so disposable and consumer-driven, we are always looking for what’s next, forcing music publications and editors to keep up or be left behind, sometimes hindering quality, and at times, credibility, but more often than not, any type of personality or identity whatsoever.

(continues overleaf)

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24 Responses to Modern Day Music Criticism Sucks

  1. Everett True September 8, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Also this:

    Most music critics are reading other music critics to find out what they should like. I think when anybody sits down to review a record these days, they look at all the other reviews that are online, particularly Pitchfork, and they look at 8 different reviews and go “oh, ok, alright now I’ll do my review”. I’m sure that’s what happens. Absolutely certain. And nobody’s thinking for themselves. Somebody must be. Somewhere.

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  3. Tom September 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    “[Brand New] are constantly pushing the boundaries on their perception of what music should sound like and what it should be about.”

    Get a grip. They and Manchester Orchestra are both bargain bindie also-rans, and there’s no call to sook over an album you like getting an average score on Pitchfork anyways. (And, so that my comment might be published for once, I’ll note that neither band has any women in it and that’s a priori bad.)

  4. Joseph Kyle September 9, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    I’m kind of the opposite. If I read a review of a record I like, and it says what I would say, then, well, I don’t write about it. After all, what I’ve said has already been said,, I ain’t parroting anyone.

  5. Aaron Curran September 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Joseph of course you’re parroting someone, the problem is you might not even know it. This is the internet. Anyone says anything and occasionally that’s everything.

    Everett, if you google others to find out what their views are, you’ll parrot them; if you don’t, you’ll unknowingly copy adjectives and phrases that have already been used by them to describe something similar.

    This is because we are human and musicians often aren’t that different.

  6. Everett True September 9, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Aaron, you’re addressing a point I haven’t actually made.

  7. Aaron Curran September 9, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    That is because it is Friday night and I am drinking wine. I’m not sure how your name got typed, that point was also for Joseph …er, sorry

    Off to see the Lighthouse Keepers now but will be back to this thread. Benjamin’s raised some interesting points but if the main one is that the internet is really, really fast and writers need to talk a few weeks/months to mull over stuff before they comment, then I’m not sure how their position differs from the last century or so of newspaper writing.

  8. TheLastHeretic September 9, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    ‘I’ll note that neither band has any women in it and that’s a priori bad’

    A bit like Nirvana or Crass or The Flamming Lips or BeefHeart and His Magic Band or The Sonics or any number of reasonable groups without a female member.

  9. TheLastHeretic September 9, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Not that I’m defending Bland New or anything

  10. Everett True September 9, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Ben, if you’re looking for writers who really really engage with their subject, you need to read Lucy Cage.

    These two pieces particularly spring to mind


  11. TheLastHeretic September 9, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    How do you know that in three years time you won’t look back and regret giving Brand New good press here, Ben? Maybe you should wait a couple of decades before you even mention a band so you can be really sure that you opinion is actually your opinion. For instance I didn’t like R.H.C.P when I first heard them. Then i really liked them. Now, all of their output makes me feel faintly queezy.

  12. Everett True September 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    A bit like Nirvana or Crass or The Flamming Lips or BeefHeart and His Magic Band or The Sonics or any number of reasonable groups without a female member.

    What the fuck? Since when did Crass not have female members? They were anarcho-feminists for fuck’s sake. Their greatest fucking album – their third, Penis Envy, if anyone’s taking notes – has Eve Libertine, and Joy de Vivre all over it. Um … I’m guessing you haven’t heard that one, right? Or ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’. Or Stations Of The Crass. Or ‘Reality Asylum’. Or ‘Bloody Revolutions’. Or Christ The Album. Or Yes Sir, I Will

  13. TheLastHeretic September 9, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    Sorry Everett. I actually know some of the guys from Crass. I just thought it might wind you up.

  14. TheLastHeretic September 9, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Now I feel bad.

  15. Benjamin Pratt September 9, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Remember when Pitchfork wrote this in 1999 to what is only regarded now as one of the most influential albums in punk rock?


    Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy fame, you know them, yea?) said, “There should be a How To Be a Pop-Punk Kid starter kit with bands like Get Up Kids, so kids would know whose shoulders bands like us are standing on. Fall Out Boy would not be a band if it were not for The Get Up Kids”

    But I guess Pete must be wrong because Pitchfork seems to disagree.

    The irony behind this entire piece is in 10 years I will probably look back and laugh and think, “Holy fuck, man. Was I on crack when I wrote this? Manchester Orchestra fucking stink.”

    At the end of the day I don’t care if someone likes a record or not (is not one of the main aspects to what we do, opinion?)

    I just don’t think it is fair on the reader, nor the musician, to read some 150 word review that gives no information about the album or how it makes you feel. That’s all.

  16. Benjamin Pratt September 9, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    I’ll get on that tomorrow Everett. I’ve had too many beers to be reading (let alone commenting) anything.

  17. TheLastHeretic September 9, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Nah, I’m with you Ben, I was just being facetious. It’s totally true to say that you don’t always like great things on the first listen. The skim-review is pretty ridiculous, disingenuous, and maybe even a little malicious to the artist.

    I wonder, do literary reviewers tend to be more balanced? Don’t they tend to offer negatives and positives, some balance of the reasons why the work is successful or a failure?

    Otherwise it seems like a bit of a youTube approach to reviewing. You know the “This songs shit and the singer looks like a dick you faggots,” sort of attitude.

  18. Scott Creney September 9, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    I quit reading after the 2nd paragraph when Ben calls Manchester Orchestra a four-piece, then one sentence later prints a quote saying they are a quintet. Cure flashbacks, sorry. I’m sure the rest of it is great, though.

    I wanted to comment on the Pitchfork link though. It reminds me of a time when Pitchfork was brutal, funny, unafraid, and didn’t take everything so goddamned seriously. Seriously, ET you should read Ben’s link if you have time.

    Just read a little bit more. Feel I should point out that reviews are timed to coincide with an album’s release so the record company can make as much money as possible. Since these magazines/websites depend on record company advertising $$$ for their survival, you bet your ass they’re going to publish the review when they’re supposed to. In fact, Pitchfork will always run their most prestigious reviews on a Monday (the day before a record comes out) or Tuesday (the day it comes out) to maximize attention. And because mp3 are so goddamned easy to access, record labels worry about making albums available to writers more than a couple of weeks before the record comes out for fear that it will leak to the general public and then nobody will buy the goddamned thing. So most writers simply don’t have the time you’re asking them to take in order to form a relationship with a record. Furthermore, an editor would NEVER allow a writer to review something that came out two months ago, especially since they probably already had someone review it (THAT, by the way, is what live reviews are for–they give you a chance to evaluate a record that’s already been out).

    Collapse Board is an exception to this because nobody gives CB any money.

    And yes, it would be nice to see more people write from their heart. But, you know, most people think the way to get ahead in life is to suck up to the powerful and demonstrate their willingness to obey all the rules. That’s the case anywhere, not just in music writing.

  19. Wallace Wylie September 10, 2011 at 8:15 am

    I’m not sure what to make of this really. I can guarantee that given six months living in a top hotel free of charge with unlimited bar tab and free daily massages, on the condition that I listened to anything by The Get Up Kids and gave an honest review, I would still say I hated it. Just because something is influential, that doesn’t make it good or worthy of anybody’s time. Also, backing up your opinion on music by using a Pete Wentz quote is like backing up your opinion democracy by quoting Mussonlini.

  20. Wallace Wylie September 10, 2011 at 8:17 am

    And I would probably give an album called “The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me” a bad review just on principle.

  21. hannah golightly September 10, 2011 at 9:16 am

    yeah. We need a good dose of personal bias instead of industrial bias. And not putting out for the drinks that they bias.

  22. Joseph Kyle September 10, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Ah, but you cannot parrot someone if you have not read their opinion. Your opinion may be in line with what others think, or may follow a general trend, but if you haven’t sought out others’ opinions on the subject, you can’t be accused of “parroting” them, as you haven’t exposed yourself to their thoughts.

  23. Joseph Kyle September 10, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    I guess what I meant to say is that when I set about reviewing something, I don’t want to muddy up my thoughts about what I am about to review. Obviously, I know that there may be others who share my opinion or my thoughts, and I realize that what I write may be similar to what others say. I just choose to ignore reviews until after I’ve said my piece.

  24. Jack September 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm


    Somewhere in that five pages of self-aggrandizing wank was two pages of tightly written, well-argued copy.

    A few opinions:

    1. In this era of mountains of music available at a mouseclick, first impressions count. If an album doesn’t pique my interest on the first listen, it’s not a good album. Repeated listens won’t change that.

    2. How much does a journalist get paid for each album review? If it’s less than $20 then spending any more than an hour writing the review is not a profitable use of their time (and this is factoring in the $25 you save getting the album for free… though all music is kinda free now to a greater or lesser degree so all you’re really getting is a beer coaster)

    3. Same as I don’t have six hours to repeatedly listen to the same disc, as a reader I don’t have six hours to read your bloated copy. I’d rather read 250 words that make the point than 1000 words of masturbatory waffle.

    4. Similarly did you really need FIVE FUCKING PAGES to state your case? Or was that just so you could drop in loads of drug banter (Hunter S Thompson called: you’re not him!), references of bands no one likes just so we all know how hip you are and otherwise injecting yourself all over the piece. Dude, no-one cares about you. Learn to edit.

    5. Vis the point above: asserting that if you ran a review but didn’t spend two weeks getting to know an album you would be risking your “credibility as a source of educated opinion and knowledge”. Newsflash, dude. You take yourself way too seriously.

    6. I’m reading this on the internet. If I was curious about Romilar, I’d open wikipedia in another window. I don’t need a footnote. But given the context, most people could guess it was more ‘hey look, I’m so edgy! Here’s yet more chemical banter!’.

    7. You mentioned your magazine was distributed nationally but didn’t say what it was called. I’m curious to see if the rest of your writing is as direly in need of a diet and a lesson in perspective but due to your self-promotion fail I have no idea where to look.

    Given that I love brevity of writing, I feel bad for dropping these seven points on you… until I remember that I’m still four pages short of the piece I’m replying to.

    By the way. I’ve seen Brand New. The guitarist wore his hood up the whole show. I don’t care how good they are on record, you only do that if you’re a) Sunn o))) or b) a complete and utter tool.

    Peace out.

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