by Matt Klassen
Frank Ippolito states and then restates: “The [albums] that get written about are the ones worth writing about.”
As I was letting that “sink into my noggin for a second,” it became obvious there was an unwritten implication to his claim: bad albums are not worth writing about.
Let me restate: let’s ignore bad music and hope it goes away.
To understand why I disagree, (besides the ridiculous subjectivity and dismissiveness of what’s “worth writing about”) we have to first come to an understanding on the role of the critic. Why do we write about music or art or culture? Why do we read about it? There’s a misconception that music blogs like YabYum or Pitchfork or Rolling Stone are something like a Yelp for music. You can log on, read a review and then make a choice on how to spend your time and money. That’s certainly a facet of media criticism, but it’s not the raison d’etre. Clearly, if album reviews correlated to album sales the Billboard charts would look a lot different.
What about the artists? Musicians make up a large portion of YabYum’s audience. Bands are demanding reviews. The back catalog of pending submissions is long enough to merit an postscript of affirmation from the Editor. They’re clamoring for…what? Validation? Repudiation? Exposure? Yes! All of the above; I definitely was when my band released our records – anything to salve my crippling insecurity.
Is that what the critic is? A baby bottle for colic artists? Or conversely is a proper evisceration of an album just a mercy killing, like Travis putting Old Yeller out of his misery? That’s still not the crux of it.
There’s a school of thought in critical and cultural theory called The New Criticism. It has its critics (oh, the irony!), but there’s a lot of value in its ideas; one of which is an emphasis on close-reading. Another is an eschewal of the cultural, historical and personal context of the work and examining it self-referentially. In other words, analyze the art, not the artist. I’m not an absolutist about it, but you may have noticed that my reviews contain very few comparisons.
Anyway, another important aspect of the New Criticism was summed up by the cultural theorist Terence Hawkes in his book Structuralism and Semiotics. In it he writes:
The critic creates the finished work by his reading of it, and does not remain simply the inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product. Thus the critic need not humbly efface himself before the work and submit to its demands: on the contrary, he actively constructs its meaning. He makes the work exist.
In a sense, this means that an uncriticised album is an unfinished album. It’s a songwriter singing in an empty room. It’s a tree falling in the forest with nobody around to hear: it does not make a sound.
Now, this isn’t to say that until your song has a write-up in a music publication it has no meaning. Criticism happens whenever a listener actively engages with the song. There’s a dialogue of emotions and ideas. There’s conflict. That’s why there’s a difference between hearing a song and listening to it. Our culture is slowly forgetting how to do this.
When was the last time you listened to music while you weren’t doing something else? You weren’t driving, or doing homework, or working out. I’ll rephrase: when was the last time you actively listened to music instead of passively, “inertly” consuming it? The ubiquity of music has made it background noise. I’m an advocate of close-listening. As a music-creator, that’s all I want: somebody to listen, not just hear; somebody to sing back to me – even if it’s just an unspoken thought, even if it is a public drawing and quartering in front of the entire scene. I’ll take that over the silence any day.
Criticism in print is a crucial part of the canto and respondu of cultural production. In proper practice, it provides a literate surrogate voice for the culture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been unable to articulate my thoughts about an album until I’ve read a review. “That’s it!” I thought. “That’s exactly what I was trying to say I just didn’t know how to say it.” Even when I vehemently disagree with a review, if it’s well-reasoned it forces me to be equally well-reasoned in my disagreement. That’s all part of the circular process of criticism through which we create our culture. YabYum gives me a megaphone to shout my ideas at many more interested ears than if I were to stand on my front porch and scream. But with that platform comes a responsibility to provide an authoritative perspective. My credibility is the only currency I have with which to buy your attention for as long as it takes to read really fucking long articles like this one. I probably do not have that much credibility. “Time is money: get to the point, asshole!”
So if ignored art is dead art, that still doesn’t explain why bad music merits close-listening. Why should Matt Klassen, Frank Ippolito and YabYum deign to waste digital ink on your shitty album? Again: besides the inherent subjectivity of shittiness, there are two main reasons why it’s worth reviewing bad albums.
The first has everything to do with credibility, which I touched on earlier. How does a reviewer as an individual or a publication as a whole build the kind of credibility that makes you trust our opinion and more importantly, keep coming back to read more and click more?
If it’s purely based on whether our taste aligns with yours, we’re doomed to be read by an increasingly niche and insular audience. One bad review of your favorite band or one good review of U2 and we’re suddenly haters or Bono-blowers and we’re instantly irrelevant or reviled. But if we’ve established a reputation for being fair and well-reasoned, we can be either broad or controversial without sacrificing your trust. Part of that comes with giving more-or-less equal ink to great music and awful music. I’m not advocating some sort of arbitrary quota. But when I only ever read “positive” reviews from a writer or magazine – or (importantly) vice versa – I lose faith in the objectivity of the writer. I start to wonder if he or she is buddies with the bass player. Artists: we are not your friend. We are the enemy. We will not mercifully ignore your half-assed EP. We will not reward mediocrity, we will burn it at the stake in the town square.
In fact, that’s basically the second reason. The amount of music we have to choose from is overwhelming. We don’t have to talk about your children or your children’s children; we’ve already crossed the threshold. We now have more music than we have time to listen to it. We’re at the point where be it actively or passively, each of us must choose whether we have time to listen to the Beatles or the Beach Boys or Elvis et al. If you only listened to music from the 20th century, you’d still have too much to hear even with voracious ears. And yet we have more bands now than ever before. Anyone with a computer can create and distribute an album to a global audience the size of which would make John Lennon jealous.
That’s the problem we find ourselves in at YabYum, with the submission pile growing and never shrinking. But it’s also our job to hold artists to a higher standard. It’s not harmless to record a bad album with cliche lyrics or trite melodies or poor production quality. We’ve got enough noise as it is! Artists: your parents and your friends and your grand-pop will encourage you even if you’re not very good. We are not them. We must discourage you for greater good. If you get a chip on your shoulder then we’ve done our job. Hopefully you will get better. It’s all subjective anyway.
That’s why I say that both hating and liking is easy. It’s as easy as double-tapping an Instagram photo and scrolling on, never to see it again. It’s as easy as summarily deleting “Songs of Innocence” from your iTunes library because fuck Bono. You don’t need his self-righteous charity. Real criticism is very, very hard. It demands your time and, more importantly, your attention. Real criticism will never be purely Positive or Negative, as if a review was a blood type. It will be reasoned and nuanced. It will not be “constructive.” It will be deconstructive: it will tear apart every lyric and every note, like taking apart a clock to see how it works.
It’s true: giving an album a fair review requires listening to it closely over and over again. Ideally, a critic won’t have made up his or her mind on whether it’s shitty or not until after listening to it several times. At that point, you might as well just write the damn review, right? If it’s that hard to write 500 words on an album you don’t like, you might be in the wrong line of work.
To read the start of the conversation, check out “Be Careful What You Wish For”!