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On Criticism: When Feelings Aren't Enough

By Amir Nezar | 30 August 2005

Writing critically about internet music criticism on a site devoted to music criticism is always a touchy move, the kind of first thrust that often results in a thousand counter-thrusts involving allegations of hypocrisy, pretentiousness, arrogance, and self-indulgence. Well, what the hell, I'll go with it anyway. A CMG reader could probably tell I've been building up this head of steam for a few weeks now, and I'll be damned if I don't finely channel it here.

If you look at criticism-compilation sites like Metacritic.com at face value, the combined ratings on those sites yields a highly suspect range of evaluation for artists and their albums. An album that one site proclaims as the undisputed best album of the year (or whose rating would indicate an equivalent sentiment) often winds up with a lukewarm combined judgment, and sometimes, an album that two or three sites condemn winds up being, according to the collective critical mind, one of the best of the year. How the hell can anyone be sure, then, that any album at all is worth their attention? Where does that confusion come from?

As tends to be the case with democracy in general (and especially new mediums within it), the internet, the "ultimate democratic medium" (for those privileged enough to have internet, anyway), is not about quality control.

It's one of those big delusions that keeps the wheel turning: that the ideal behind democracy and the democratic medium means that everyone has equal entitlement, equal say, and therefore (the error we love to make), equal claims to being right. The result is -- in no small part -- anti-objectivity. It's made a change from healthy skepticism of "undeniable truth" to a downright loathing of the possibility that anything could be objective. It's the cheap, easy, and above all, selfish way of saying "I can't be proved wrong." This idea matters to internet music criticism. The basic translation of the last three paragraphs is, "It's all subjective, anyway," and that notion is the single most harmful anti-intellectual force anywhere, music criticism or otherwise. The question becomes "If someone tells me 2+2=5, can I really accept that -- or more importantly, should I really accept that?"

Ironically, the same music critics who would bash the Bush administration for pulling that trick have a worrisome tendency to say, "Well, it's all relative anyway," when it comes to the requisite review of the week. George Orwell, I think we need an intervention. "But music isn't mathematics," says the dilettante would-be critic. My ass it isn't. Of all the arts, music is actually the most precisely mathematical. Yet we critics get a chill running down our spines when someone dares to claim there's an objective way to gauge musical quality.

In the online world, bad music criticism results from accepting the opinions of people who can write halfway decently --- but not even remotely analytically --- as valid. By "writing analytically" I mean something very simple: making assertions and backing them up with cogent argument. Edouard Hanslick's (On the Musically Beautiful) worry and mine (though I wouldn't pretend to be at Hanslick's level) are essentially the same: people accept mere assertions, along with a pre-packaged "everything's subjective" argument, and are spoon-fed nonsense.

The problem doesn't even have much to do with the Big Names like Rolling Stone. They reserve so few words per review that all they can do is make baseless assertions (they don't have space for anything else) and rely on their assumed authority as sufficient reason for trusting their opinions.

No, the problem -- as blogs proliferate and virtually everyone endows himself or herself with imagined commentarial authority -- is that the very people who should provide an alternative to the Big Names' mode of mere assertion are doing anything but. We all cheered when Jon Stewart mocked "Crossfire" for creating a forum where unsubstantiated opinions were thrown about and where coherent argument was, at best, an afterthought. But online music critics are no different when they say "it feels like [insert bandname here] just aren't trying," or "such-and-such band's songs just don't work." A good reader and critic should ask, "Why?" If the reviewer isn't offering an implicit or explicit answer in his or her review to that question, he or she simply shouldn't be trusted.

Common sense, right? It's amazing how often a very basic precept of evaluation -- "back up what you say" -- gets lost online in the practice of evaluating music. Most often, reviewers spend their time supposedly reviewing music by talking about history. Reviews from even reputable online publications often spend in excess of 60% of the review detailing years of history before even beginning to get to evaluation. But history, context, origins -- these should inform an evaluation of the music itself, not constitute it. Sure, history can be important, and all music follows in certain traditions, newer or older -- but we do a disservice to the artists we review when we substitute obsession with music history for a fair look at what they've produced, regardless what tradition it falls into. Most often, endless history-obsession serves as a sly substitute for analytical capacity in the reviewer; he or she may not even know what a time-signature is, or what chords they're hearing, or what composition is, but if they can distract you with enough tangential information, they can skirt those issues.

Perhaps even worse are those instances when reviewers spend paragraphs detailing how the music "feels," offering little to no justification for these perceptions. That kind of reviewing does serious damage to the credibility of online music criticism precisely by trading in terms grounded in almost pure subjectivity. They make the job of evaluation inane and inconsequential. You ask them, is this album good, and they say "Well, I feel like it's good, but really, who's to say?" Which begs the question: "Why are you reviewing music, then?"

Fundamentally, there is an objective fact in music criticism: that all of us are dealing with the same music. It follows the same chord patterns, time-signatures, contains the same lyrics, comes out of the speakers the exact same way, regardless of who's listening to it (I'm ignoring details like the volume of the music or anomalies in hearing, of course). Whether or not those objective aspects result in any particular subjective emotional experience is something different altogether -- but then the reviewer would have to say "it's structurally good, but it just doesn't resonate with me, because [whatever reason]." Music criticism ought to be first concerned with the objective fact, the music itself, and secondly whether or not its relation to other things (history, tradition, cliché, etc.) makes it better or worse. But above both of these things, reviewers must account for why they are passing a certain judgment. Otherwise, in the words of one aesthetician, "we merely gibber."

So here's the really touchy thing: music fandom is not the same thing as music criticism. When I've called out reviewers in other publications for making baseless assertions I have honest-to-god heard a response that goes, "Well, experiencing music is a subjective thing," and I have responded every time with the question, "Is Britney Spears a great music artist?" Because being a music fan is not being a music critic. If you don't understand some basic things about how music is made, and what that tradition of composition is, then I'll tell you very frankly: I don't think you should be doing this job. Bloggers can go on all they want about the hot new artist or some band they hate, without offering any justification, because they're unaccountable individuals, unassociated with a community of people who consider reviewing a serious thing. But when established music critics tread those waters, it's harmful. Being a fan involves liking a performer or artist. But being a reviewer involves knowing why, and more specifically, having a reason for recommending or condemning an artist to others, and making that reason clear to his or her readers.

The reason online music criticism often turns into such a morass of confusing opinions is that so many of the people throwing out those opinions are qualified to be fans, but not critics. And online, when so much of this criticism is unpaid, and with such ease, accountability goes out the window. Online music criticism becomes a vastly bigger "Crossfire" table. Half the time, critics hardly even consider where their critical voice is coming from.

I said that when an established music publication doesn't hold itself accountable to certain standards, it's harmful. Why? Because others depend on it. Whether you read this as a critic or as a devotee of online music criticism, confused criticism does damage --- to the artists whose album sales depend at least in some part upon reviews, and to the critical community's credibility. Call it old-fashioned, but the reason I could even begin to get into independent music had much to do with being able to trust the publications I read online. With so many print publications so ruefully irresponsible about reviewing, the function of online criticism is hugely valuable, and also one in need of quality control.

You may not agree with a reviewer's particular standards, but the important thing is that the reviewer has clearly-delineated, backed-up standards that aren't rooted in purely subjective terms like "feeling." Essentially, for any given reviewer, integrity depends on having standards that are verifiable outside of that reviewer. Feelings are just not enough; until we recognize that we stand to having at least inter-subjective reasons for our opinions, we're no better than that "dick" from Crossfire. And readers should hold us to that.