The Nature Of Reviewing Records
I've been reviewing records for almost 15 years. That's 15 years of getting records in the mail, listening to them, occasionally lauding but usually panning them ... and then selling them. I have sold more records than most people will ever own, usually by at least one order of magnitude.
As I was migrating content over the past several weeks, I've looked at some of the old reviews that I wrote and wondered why I ever would have thought that they were funny, clever or insightful. All too frequently, they simply seemed to indicate that I had listened to too many records for too many hours in a row and had nothing of any value to add to any discussion about any of them. While it's true that this was frequently the case because the records in question contained nothing worth discussing, it has also led me to a deeper questioning and subsequent understanding of the reviewing process.
Of all the critics I've read, Lester Bangs seemed to be the most honest, simply because he would revisit records and write about them again. He would reevaluate an album from months before and admit when he had misjudged a record. And in the era when he was writing reviews, it was possible to do that.
For the most part, that isn't so practical now. Deadlines demand faster turnaround and there's rarely sufficient time to get enough distance from a record to obtain any sort of perspective. Reviewers effectively have to develop and pass snap judgments on creative works because the magazine has to go to press, because an editor needs the review months in advance. And most reviewers never have the opportunity or bother to revisit records in print to find out if they still feel the same. And this is completely overlooking whether a magazine leaves the review intact without changing a rating. Or whether other influences play a part in how the record is regarded (and as a corollary to that statement, in a year when Ryan Adams, Red House Painters, the Blind Boys Of Alabama, the Pernice Brothers, The International Noise Conspiracy, Fugazi and Prefuse 73 appeared on Rolling Stone critics' best of lists, Adrian Zupp is obviously clueless).
Instead, reviewers (and I'm afraid I must include myself in this group) tend to focus on guest musicians, unusual anecdotes about the recording (which are usually culled from press releases) and other pointless information which has everything to do with quickly filling space to meet those deadlines while still seeming informed ... and absolutely nothing to do with the stuff that's actually on the disc. Honestly, does anyone besides the newest shit-talking scenester care if a member of, for example, Pavement played with a member of, just as another example, a member of Sonic Youth? Is that really of any use to anyone besides completists and discographers? Does it really tell you anything about whether the guitar tones or effects are interesting enough to warrant hearing? Does it provide you with any information about whether you'll find the lyrical content interesting, whether you agree with it or not?
The simple answer is no. But what more do you really get from most reviews beyond knowing that someone who used to play in Handsome joined up with a former member of Texas Is The Reason in someone else's band? What tells us that there might be something on that record that will move us to feel something we would not otherwise have felt, that we might be exposed to a new idea which we have not previously heard expressed, that we might hear something which could even save our lives and help us see the next dawn?
In most cases, that information is absent. In the first example, the most relevant details that I could think to share about a Free Kitten 7" were that Kim Gordon appeared on it and that Steve West (formerly of Pavement) played drums on a song. In the second example, I can admit that I never reviewed the first Jets To Brazil album, so I can be forgiven for not lauding the sympathy and tenderness that infuse a song like "Conrad" or the liberatory suggestions contained in "Morning New Disease."
These are the sorts of things that reviewers typically don't get to revisit. We rarely, if ever, have the chance to reconsider reviews we wrote under deadline to see if we still feel the same. We almost never have the opportunity to write about an album we never covered in the first place.
I suppose this is why I still have a copy of Teenage Fanclub's "Bandwagonesque," an album that I initially didn't think too highly of, yet sold Tin Machine's "Tin Machine II," an album that I once thought was brilliant and a staggering artistic achievement. This is probably why I kept Saint Etienne's "Foxbase Alpha" around while selling every Mother Love Bone disc that ever came into my possession.
Great albums have certain qualities about them that distinguish them from the merely good records and these qualities are nearly impossible to identify for any specific record in the time available to write a review because they require time to appreciate. While it's true that some great records are instantaneously recognizable, most meander down unmapped paths and take the listener on a musical journey that may be quite difficult. They are rarely easy to enjoy at their outset and frequently pose questions which are not easy to answer. In many cases, it's difficult to tell whether it's brilliant and purposeful exploration or pointless fucking around which would need a map to figure out where it's going.
I struggled with Saint Etienne's "Foxbase Alpha" for several years, appreciating the pop sensibilities while struggling with the more avant-garde elements. Likewise, I struggled with the Manic Street Preachers' "The Holy Bible" for a similar length of time. Its bitter melodies and grating riffs simply sounded like hell to my ears; while a handful of songs held my interest with something resembling hooks and melodies, most of them simply hurt. These days, I think any music fan would be hard-pressed to argue that any other MSP album is the equal, much less the better, of that record.
For the most part, these are signs that a record is ahead of its time, that you (and quite likely the culture at large) simply aren't ready for it. However, when facing a deadline, wrestling with that idea isn't a practical option. Thus, we dismiss albums that will prove to be the foundation of entire styles of music as unlistenable crap and write the next review. We simply don't have time to do anything else.
The process usually goes something like this:
- An album comes in.
- An editor determines whether it will be reviewed.
- That album is assigned to a writer, who may or may not have the musical background necessary to understand a disc but is then given a deadline to meet.
- The writer puts the album in the stack of review materials and gets back to work on stories due immediately.
If the writer is extremely dedicated and conscientious, the album will be heard several times - in the car on the way to work, at work, on the way home, in a portable player at the gym. However, most reviewers have a fair number of reviews to write. After all, it's not as though one review for a major music magazine will pay the bills for a month. Even if the magazine pays $1 per word (and very few do and it takes literally years of struggling as a writer to reach that level of pay), most reviews still only run 200-300 words and then there are taxes ... and most magazines don't pay. They simply allow reviewers to keep the discs ... and don't ask questions about what happens to them.
In my freelance days, I was paid $10 for 400-word articles involving interviews, transcription and writing. It boiled down to the equivalent of sweatshop labor, because interviewing someone took at least 30 minutes, transcribing them could take hours, shaping the interview into a story and writing the article took still more time. When it was all said and done, I made somewhere in the neighborhood of tens of cents per hour. Reviews paid less, which is why most reviewers don't spend as much time on them and sell the discs after the review is done. They need to pay rent.
During my tenure as arts editor of a daily newspaper, I commissioned reviews. Since we were all busy focusing on feature pieces, I paid for many reviews which never ran, but were good to have on hand. We used them to fill space if a story ran short and we had a few extra column inches to fill or if a writer needed some time off but still needed to get paid. And otherwise, those reviews never saw the light of day. In that environment, reviews were little more than filler and I wrote as many of them as anyone else did, covering critical darlings like Senser, School Of Fish and the aforementioned Tin Machine.
I was talking with a former editor of mine about this the other night and he pointed out a change which occurred, apparently when the dot-com era because painfully real but before it imploded, taking the entire fucking stock market with it and leaving little behind but over-paid and under-experienced employees with unrealistic expections. That change was simply the recasting of journalists and writers as content providers. Writing was less about experience and understanding and perspective; the Web effectively transformed the paradigm from quality to quantity and instructed writers to generate copy - poorly written, poorly researched, uninformed and underwhelming copy.
And in such an environment, how can we really be expected to recognize how groundbreaking an album is? And furthermore, how can you trust a professional reviewer now that you have that knowledge?
Reviewing has, fundamentally, become an ugly, cheap, dirty, tawdry and unwholesome profession. Carefully considering the merits of an artistic work, reflecting upon them and evaluating their worth is no longer part of its nature, and only in exceptional circumstances does that occur. Instead, reviewers usually shoot from the hip, spraying bullets like a critical drive-by and never looking back to see whether innocent victims are bleeding in the street.