[I write for DottedMusic.com every Wednesday on music technology, marketing, and lifestyle. The following is an article that I've written for Dotted Music, which I will republish on Musebox on a 5-7 day delay. This article also appeared on Ultimate-Guitar.com]
Don’t forget to rate [insert album/movie] at the bottom of your article. It’s one command, by an editor I worked for, that irked me with no avail.
It’s funny how everything in this world can be boiled down to the traditional academic system that emblazons a permanent number on your head. I’ve felt the embarrassment of wearing a Scarlet letter numerous times before when my parents, with report card in hand, would see fit to scold me and restrict privileges to this and that. But when judging musicians, should we undermine the artists by using a rather elementary system?
If you’ve ever read an art critic’s review of an exhibition, you’ll notice one inherent difference from an album review. Art reviews are absent of ratings.
When you’ve taken off the facade of what has become a cultural norm among music reviews, you’ll see that there really aren’t many differences between an artist’s album from a visual artist’s exhibition. Both are a collection of an artist’s self realization of an idea pertaining to politics, autobiographical accounts and the like and their vision transpired into a tangible medium. They also both showcase individual pieces that collectively are thematic. If you need convincing, go onto NYtimes.com. You’ll see that even a renowned publication like the New York Times is absent of stars under their “Music Reviews” and that they’ve understood that a review is merely an opinion, and not a final say.
The consumption of pop cultural anecdotes in auditory form is far greater in comparison to the consumption of the boring and inaccessible paintings and sculptures thanks to the inexpensive costs, and more importantly, the accessibility of digital music. At the end of the day, we’ve all grown up with music. It’s in our homes, it’s playing in the department stores, it’s in our conversations, it’s on our laptops, and of course it’s on your iPod. So not surprisingly, the generations after the baby boomers would elect to spend $10 on iTunes as opposed to a 30 minute sojourn at a local art gallery.
Today, with the realization that blogs were more than just personal journals, wannabe critics with an interest in music, but lacking in writing prowess, easily set up their own online publications, wrote on the presupposition based on their feelings, and blindly adopted the rating system. But what these neophytes haven’t realized is that ratings perpetuate a duality of political incorrectness – one: fans need to be told what to listen to; two: critics believe that fans of music are not capable of coming to their own conclusions. Add to that, publications that utilize the rating system are feeding the wild fire that is today’s ADHD culture, which seeks quick information (and by quick, we’re talking about 140 characters), whether or not the information is correct.
Writers, PR firms, musicians and ultimately readers, have to understand that ratings are a textual fence for musicians whether they’ve garnered 5 of 5 stars, or just a 2 of 5 on their life’s story because the blogger just “didn’t like the sound of the music.” While these blogs have taken an authoritative position as the omniscient music-guru, rarely do I read an analysis of an artist’s lyrics in the way that art critics have analyzed the child-like lithe figures in Paul Klee’s work as being reflective of Cubist roots intertwined with the Bahaus, where he taught during his prime. Instead, readers are so used to “lazy and amateur journalism” that we’ve just accepted the facts and think nothing much of what has to be said.
Smokey Robotic couldn’t agree more. “Grades and stars definitely seem like a lazy way for people with opinions to label an artist’s work,” the collective said.
Wouldn’t you say that musicians, for their introspective and art, deserve better?
The New York Times has understood that contemporary music is an art form rivaling painting and literature and that Pitbull’s tracks should be analyzed on the same playing field as Picasso’s paintings. While most publications are stuck on analyzing the popping beats and serene melodies, these are only just one half of music’s equation. The lyrics are more so important. It’s poetry, filled with alliterations, metaphors, iambic pentameters (in some cases) and references to messages that can be analyzed within the context of the artist’s intentions and their history. My Art and Democracy professor encouraged us students to do just that with the controversial classic, Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” but to do so required reading the transcript of the court cases, Ice-T’s own defense of the album and its title (which I suggest you to read) and the various assessments of the album’s dangers and benefits. But many music writers have not been formally trained to analyze art in the way that that art historians understand and comprehend art. Instead, the process is a mutual understanding between blogs, bands and their representing PR firms. For the bloggers, any content is good content and for the bands and PR firms that have grown up in an industry changed by the Internet, any press is good press.
Simply, maybe the best explanation is that there are just too many amateurs out there who claim to be music critics, boasted by the vast readership that they’ve grown. It’s a troubling thought. I myself have listened to bystanders discuss music writing with disgust and apprehension. But, think of it this way. How can anyone other than yourself rate your autobiography, your life, your political stance, your poem without having asked you about your life and your intentions? Would you be comfortable with someone telling you that you’ve lead a mere 2.5 of 5 star life or that your anti-government protests are just a mediocre 3 of 5 mics?
I’ve been reading Jay-Z’s autobiography, “Decoded” and among the various pieces of insight, there is one that is applicable to my sentiment. He writes, “Magazines, even hip-hop magazines, would reduce a song to a rating, a number of mics or stars or some other system. But I always wondered how they could try to pin down and attach a rating to music that was really helping people understand their own lives.”
To answer Jay-Z, I would say that we’ve deviated from the artist driven culture into the fame and data driven frenzy fed by the amateur music publications, who in reality are putting pen to paper but nothing more; and from a consumer’s point of view, it’s insulting to know that just because I happen to like music, publications assume that I can’t formulate my own opinions about art, and that music cannot share the same podium as the famed visual artists.