The Deal with Music Reviews

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Editorials

Photo from by "asgw"

First published on The Daily Dodger

“The Foo Fighters confront the ghost of Kurt [Cobain]” writes David Fricke in a review of the newest Foo Fighters album Wasting Light from an April 2011 edition of Rolling Stone Magazine. Throughout the article, Fricke touches on the lyrical and musical themes of the album, rarely stating a blatant opinion that could explain his 4/5 star or “excellent” rating. The closest the writer comes to doing so is “with eleven tracks of fuzz-box brawn, mosh-pit-hurrah choruses and iron horse momentum, Wasting Light is the best Foos album since the first two.” However, various questions come to mind: does the fuzz-box brawn make the album good? Was the album not granted five stars because it is worse than the band’s first two? Do the lyrical references to Kurt Cobain add or detract from the album? Of course, it is important to recall that these reviews are not necessarily directed at readers unfamiliar with the artists work. Fricke may assume that his readers will more or less understand the points he is making without having to intricately explain himself. Furthermore, his word choice indeed gives the review a positive feeling and thus the reader believes Wasting Light to be a quality product.

Dave Grohl, frontman of the Foos, is known for his exuberant performances (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Other prestigious music-related publications such as Spin Magazine and Pitchfork Media, an online magazine lightly pepper their reviews with hints of bias, like reviews of Rolling Stone. When asked about this pattern, journalist, baker and yoga instructor Simon Apter, who has written for NPR, (formerly National Public Radio) The Nation, Sports Illustrated and many other publications says, “the more fancy the magazine, the more formal their articles and standards will be. Some magazines are more open to personal voice. But people who have been working [in journalism] for a long time have a sense about what they want: they want what’s good [because] what’s good SELLS. Journalism is a business.”

David Kaminsky, a freelance writer from New York City who has written multiple award-winning commercials and advertisements, receives reviews in the most literal sense of the word. He understands that they should act as mostly unbiased overviews of the album. Kaminsky explains: “readers should not be influenced in their opinion of the album solely based upon the review.” They must contemplate the reviewer’s discussion of the album and decide for themselves whether the album is good.

Ryan Kearney, formerly of Pitchfork Media opposes David. He considers all music reviews somewhat biased by nature. “It cannot be considered criticism otherwise,” Kearney concludes. Of course, ‘review’ is an incredibly broad term and is subject to countless variations.

Online bloggers and vloggers (video bloggers) find ways rant to for hours on end about their personal preferences and observations.  However, some vloggers such as Sami Jarroush of the Rock it Out! Blog and Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop do more than simply complain about or compliment an album.

from Rock it Out! Blog

Says Jarroush “I feel that if you are a true fan of a band, you should be able to recognize when your favorite band does good work and not so good work.” Essentially, the vlogger is not afraid to criticize or compliment when necessary. His review of Radiohead’s King of Limbs is thus not overwhelmed by opinion, but does explain his rating of Thom and Co.’s most recent LP (long play record).

Similarly, Fantano, coined “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd” constantly posts album reviews that resemble the style of a professional review layered with clear opinions regarding the album’s style, the overall sound, the lyrical themes and whatever else he considers important. One must realize that vlogger is not only reviewing the music with words but also with expression, as he or she utilizes video. When reviewing the Beastie Boy’s first single, Make Some Noise, off their new LP, The Hotsauce Committee Part 2, Fantano describes the track as having “some extremely buzzing, distorted synthesizers, big, fat, massive bass frequencies, these crisp drums…and that’s not the only track that’s just a plethora of different sounds.”

Fantano reviewing 'Hotsauce' (screen shot from The Needle Drop)

Fantano’s excited, boyish facial expressions and constant hand gestures further emphasize his love for the ‘B-Boys’ release. Throughout large chunks of the video, Fantano avoids actually saying words such as “good,” “bad,” “annoying,” “great,” “well-done,” etcetera. There is something to be said about the ability to send a vibe to the subscribers without having to blatantly state one’s opinion and both Jarroush and Fantano possess such a talent. Furthermore, many other everyday people publish “Customer Reviews” to the iTunes store. These short posts are often equally if not more helpful than the ‘iTunes Notes,’ blurbs submitted by hired professionals using a similar format to that of Spin, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork reviews. As Sami Jarroush perfectly put it, a die-hard fan can often be the best judge of an album.

This logic also applies to the writers of comments of videos on Youtube. On the page of Justin Bieber’s “One Time” video, users debate the quality and impact on society of young Justin’s songs. Robertangeles0427 says “I bet you [J. Beibz] have a voice recorder inside your throat that has a 14-year old girl voice am I right?” On the other hand, true Bieber fans or self-dubbed “Beleibers” such as BelieberSarah1 declares that “Calling him FAKE won’t make you REAL, Calling him DUMB won’t make you SMART, Calling him WEAK won’t make you STRONG, Calling him UGLY won’t make you BEAUTIFUL, Calling him MEAN won’t make you NICE, Calling him GAY won’t make you STRAIGHT, Calling him RUDE won’t make you POLITE So why bother? He is a true inspiration for people who think they can’t follow their dream! All the haters should just be quiet! THUMBS UP IF YOU AGREE!”

Beiber performing in 2010 (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s these kinds of comments that shape an artist and are in fact quite helpful to those looking to purchase new music. So, when reading a review, keep an open mind because as Starre Vartan of Eco-Chick articulates, capturing the essence and emotionality of music in words proves difficult. “Reviews are personal,” says Vartan. “It’s important to find someone whose review you trust. I’ve felt disappointed in the past when I’ve disagreed with a reviewer with whom I usually agree. But the point of a review isn’t to appeal to everyone,” she decides.

So, don’t be afraid to refer to various reviews and take risks. If you don’t like the music, stop listening.

  1. Seth says:

    Love that last irony, with all the analyisis of reviewers, you’re the only one that counts for you. Intended?

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