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Why Music Critics Suck

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By Kelly McClure

I once turned a music review in to an editor where I described the assigned album as sounding like a fart sandwich. When she sent it back to me, with a notation in red that said “this is funny, but it doesn’t tell us what the music sounds like”, to me that translated as “I poop my pants for a living and have no idea what I’m talking about, ever”. That’s because I’m (among other things) a music critic, and therefore, an asshole.

Have you ever watched one of those episodes of Oprah where she brings on a reformed burglar to teach people how to safeguard their homes against potential break-ins? Well, this is basically like that, only I’m protecting you from music reviews. I’ve been writing about music for, oh, I don’t know, forever (see how smug?) and I will be honest in letting you know that when I sit down to type out a 150-200 word review, my primary goal is to show the reader how funny, cool, and clever I am. If they also come away with a rough idea of what an album (that I’ve already had for four months before it became officially available for purchase) sounds like, then whatever, I guess that’s cool too.

Here’s an exercise, pick up any magazine or newspaper you have laying around your home and flip to the reviews section. I’ll do it with you. Take a few minutes to read it over. I’m using a review of Wounded Rhymes, the new Lykke Li album, that I found in the March issue of Mojo as my example. In the first sentence of this review the writer describes Li as a “mousy voiced singer gurgling girlishly”. My first reaction to this is that I sort of want to punch this reviewer in the face and make HIM gurgle girlishly, and my second is … confusion. I own this album and listen to it quite often. When I think of the word “gurgling” I think of someone choking on their phlegm in mid-sentence and then trying to clear their throat while gasping for breath at the same time; Lykke Li sounds nothing like this, therefore, this review sucks. Right? My eyes scanned the rest it, just to give the guy a fair shot, and I picked up the phrase “cavernous tribal drums” and had to close the magazine and slide it away from me. Get a grip.

Another thing I pick up on more and more when it comes to music reviews is that the person writing the review seems like they had a negative attitude about the music before they even heard it. I’m guilty of the same and can testify that when I push play on an unfamiliar album with the intent to review it, I’m very much coming from the standpoint that if I’m not completely THRILLED within the first 30 seconds, I’m not gonna have anything good to say about it. It may or may not be a well-known fact that, for the most part, magazines won’t run bad reviews, so if you’re in a band and you’re kicking yourself because you’ve sent out dozens of promos and haven’t landed a print review, be thankful that some assy critic chose to spare you by not writing about you at all.

It can be assumed, or I guess hoped for, that someone who writes music reviews got into doing so because of their love for music. It’s like if you carry around a book in your bag all the time, eventually someone will tell you something like, “You should be a librarian if you like books so much!” And if you spend all your money on CDs and shows, people will tell you, “You should be a music critic!” What unfortunately happens along the line is that time spent turning a critical ear towards music makes a person forget, or become jaded towards, what they enjoyed about it in the first place. Critics, because they’re afforded an outlet to do so, bleed their own baggage and emotional ties to music into the review, but you don’t really see this as often in other types of reviews like maybe book or movie reviews. Imagine reading a product review for a Dyson vacuum on Amazon where, after the first sentence, the writer goes into describing that they had just gone through a terrible divorce and decided to treat themselves with something flashy and expensive, yet practical, by buying the vacuum of their dreams, and how, for its maiden use, they sucked up their platinum wedding band from the shag carpet in their foyer. This would seem hilarious and wildly inappropriate for a review, much less a highly ineffective way of describing the actual functionality of the product itself. And yet if I started a CD review with, “Every time I hear this album I’m reminded of the first time I barfed malt liquor out of my nose” that would probably be fine.

I personally can barely find it within myself to care about the memories and feelings of my closest friends, yet alone some critic who lives god knows where and looks like god knows what.  Don’t tell me how an album makes you “feel”, you jerkstore, just tell me how much it costs and I’ll figure out the rest.

Oh, but if you read a review that I’ve written, you can totally trust my opinion because I’m an expert and have really good taste and stuff. I mean, I lived in New York for a few years so … you know.

17 Responses to Why Music Critics Suck

  1. Ken March 24, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Personally I think emotionally scouring reviews of home appliances would be awesome. This week, Jenny Diski looks at how the new Sunbeam breadmaker responds to the destruction of ritual in family life.

  2. darragh March 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Haha this was indeed great

  3. Tim Footman March 24, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Once, in a review of a Belle and Sebastian gig, I suggested that it might have been more fun if the Queen Mother (who had died a few days before) had joined the band on stage, playing the bongos.

    Am I a bad person?

  4. Shan Welham March 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Never understood the editors who said “how does it make you feel?”

    Yeah, that’s a track from Air. This is what this CD you gave me to review sounds like.

    But, how does it make you feel?

    You’re right, Kelly. When I read a music review, I want to know what it sounds like, what’s unique or the same and why and whether you, as the critic who is willingly exposed to shitloads of music, would be listening to it again. From there I decide whether I want to hear it. Only then will I care about feelings.

  5. Eric M. Van March 25, 2011 at 1:41 am

    Are you familiar with Mission to Burma? They sound like being tag teamed by Dakota Fanning and Miranda Cosgrove.

  6. cmj March 25, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Maybe your editor had seen the movie This is Spinal Tap, or at least heard the most famous two word review of all-time – “Shit sandwich,” – and realized your replacing the word “shit” with “fart” didn’t really add anything substantive.

    Really, I don’t get the point of this article. You don’t think music reviews should be descriptive of the music, you don’t think they should discuss the emotive content, you don’t think writers should inject personal narrative, you think it should simply be the price of the CD? I mean, I get that you are being tongue in cheek, but what should a good music review be?

    This just comes across as bratty, lacking of any cogent point other than “music reviews are bad,” and frankly not very well written.

  7. Lucy Cage March 25, 2011 at 8:28 am

    “Really, I don’t get the point of this article.” Aw, shame; I thought it was very funny. I don’t think it’s meant to be a manifesto, cmj.

    (And now I’d like to apologise for using the phrase “subterranean caverns” in my own Lykke Li review. Tsk.)

  8. ash March 25, 2011 at 8:41 am

    I like how the writer used personal experience and narrative to judge critics who use personal experiences and narrative when they review albums. Not only is this rant poorly written, but illogical to boot.

  9. Everett True March 25, 2011 at 8:45 am

    I like how the writer used personal experience and narrative to judge critics who use personal experiences and narrative when they review albums.

    Er. I think that was the point. It’s called humour, folk.

  10. Jr March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Maybe you have a bad view of music critics because you’re a critic and an asshole. And, apparently, not a great writer.

  11. Everett True March 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    (from Facebook)

    Blue Straggler
    Every time I read Collapse Board I’m reminded of the first time I barfed malt liquor out of my nose

    Laurie Henzel
    Ha ha, this is hilarious! and very true.

  12. ME ME March 25, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    why did i get disappointed when i found out it was a girl that wrote this?

  13. cmj March 26, 2011 at 1:05 am

    If the only point of this article was to be funny, it took a fatal header right around the time “I poop my pants for a living and have no idea what I’m talking about, ever,” made it’s way from brain to keypad. I think it’s much more likely that MS. McClure was trying to be humorous while making some salient points about the art and craft of music writing. To my taste, this post was lacking in salience (see my previous comment regarding what music reviews SHOULD say) and the attempts at humor were rather base, unoriginal and sadly ham-fisted. The jokes that derive from gross-out humor (puke, poop, farts, etc.) are just embarrassing. Can a fart joke be done well? Absolutely. Thomas Pynchon can write a fart joke that’ll blow your hair back. But typically their brilliance comes from being couched in magnificent linguistic play, so when the lowbrow yucks are approached, it’s an unexpected twist. Here, McClure set the bar low at the outset.

    But far be it from me to attack someone for failing at humor. I myself have struggled to write humorously, and have routinely fallen flat on my pecker. But in writing with such a snotty, holier-than-though tone, I believe Ms. McClure opened herself up for real criticism.

    I was not familiar with McClure’s writing before being referred to this post, but after reading it, I decided to look her up. I was thoroughly deflated to see she’s an Associate Editor at Bust Magazine. I love Bust Magazine. I sincerely hope this post is not indicative of her oeuvre. If it is, my regard for Bust just plummeted.

  14. Sender March 30, 2011 at 12:34 am

    I agree, the main purpose of a record critic, as I see it, is to be a consumer advocate. To achieve this task, the critic simply writes: “Minimal filler, 45 minutes, $15.” I then mail out for the CD from Columbia House and wait excitedly. When I have the CD in my five disc changer, I listen carefully to those 45 minutes and determine for myself whether there is “minimum filler,” and if it is so, then the critic becomes a “trusted source” and I might, for example, consider purchasing a leftfield choice on his word, like PJ Harvey or Moby’s “Play”, classics about which I would otherwise never have heard.

    Instead, we have critics writing for places like Thrownspoons and Monaural Putty who are just being clever for its own sake as part of some hipster-ironic stance, who just to be edgy will trash a genuinely important album like the Verve Pipe’s “Villains” while praising the latest Supergrass/whatever side project. Maybe if we hadn’t raised a whole generation of self-involved brats with their Dooms and their Marilyn Mansons we wouldn’t have the music world being run by people who think some “subjective feeling” should pass for a consumer report on the value of a CD relative to others in its price category.

    How am I going to get the most music minutes on a long drive if I can’t be assured of five long-playing CDs with minimal filler? My changer, like all multiple disc changers, is in the trunk, so if I want to change music I have to do it on the shoulder of I-10 and frankly that just isn’t going to happen, so I need record critics to do the job for which I the consumer hired them. Otherwise we the silent majority will stop listening to music. We will go join a secret gulch and stop the music engine of the world.

  15. styg January 23, 2012 at 10:20 am

    It’s all Pauline Kael’s fault. She ruined popular critical discourse forever.

    Up to you whether I meant that literally or ironically.

  16. Crystal Walters May 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    I think the real point is that it seems absolutely ludicrous to assign qualitative reviews to what is largely a subjective art form.

  17. duud July 29, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    @Me Me I didn’t realize it was girl. That seems cool to me cuz girls usually aren’t all that funny. 😉

    I thought this review of reviewers was far more entertaining than the vast majority of serious reviews, which seem mostly like a waste of time, other than the fact that they are an ad for whatever is being reviewed. Why not *listen to the music* instead of reading what someone else thinks? Wouldn’t listening to a bit be far easier, quicker, and far more useful than trying to decipher someone else’s egotistical opinion, which may be the polar opposite of what you think?

    I found this article, btw, because I was googling critics are assholes! Because, you know, they often are!

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