With every song available for free the instant of its release, do we still need critics to tell us what’s good?
Illustration by John Garrison
On Friday the thirteenth of February in 1970, a little band from Birmingham, England released their self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath. Shortly after it hit the United States, an up and coming music critic by the name of Lester Bangs sat before his typewriter and clacked away at the keys late into the night until he produced five paragraphs about the record that would be printed in Rolling Stone magazine. Of the 575 words Bangs delivered, not one was positive, a hit job from top to bottom. Frontman Ozzy Osbourne didn’t read the review. Every musician says they don’t read the reviews, but Osbourne, a dyslexic, is perhaps the only one who is true to his word. But his bandmates sure told him about it, recanting for him choice phrases like “claptrap,” “shuck,” and “doggerel.”
“Bangs died twelve years later when he was only thirty-three, and I’ve heard people say he was a genius when it came to words,” Osbourne would later write in his 2010 autobiography, I Am Ozzy, “but as far as we were concerned he was just another pretentious dickhead.”
Bangs wasn’t alone in his hatred of Black Sabbath. The album was widely critically panned. Robert Christgau, writing for The Village Voice, called it “bullshit necromancy.” One critic’s review of the band riled guitarist Tony Iommi up so badly that upon coming face to face with him in a hotel in Glasgow, according to Osbourne, he “swung his fist back and just about put this bloke in the hospital.”
Time proved Bangs and his peers wrong, of course. The album defied critical consensus and went on to sell millions of copies and is often credited with birthing heavy metal. Rolling Stone even atoned for its mistake years later, ranking it 238 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
So why then did the negative reviews bother Black Sabbath enough for Iommi to deck a critic in the face and for the words to stick with Osbourne for 40 years? Simple. In 1970—a time before the internet, MTV, and satellite radio—reviews were a valuable source of information for music fans. Reviews could form opinions. Reviews could sell records.
Bangs would downplay the power he wielded as a critic, though, saying in his final interview: “Let's face it, if you can hear a song on the radio, that is going to influence you to buy that record much more than anything you read. Especially since most people don't read now anyway.” He was on to something there—a music critic’s greatest competitor has always been a listener’s own damned ears. Why take the word of some greasy snob hiding behind a byline when your brain can tell you whether or not a song is any good? What Bangs didn’t know was that decades after he would be dead and gone, listeners would have access to every song, every album, and every note of music ever recorded, available at the touch of a button.
We are living in that age Bangs never got to see. There are enough services competing to offer us streaming music—Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Rhapsody, 8tracks, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp, to name a few (and that’s not even mentioning the illegal download market)—that it would take hundreds of thousands of years to listen to it all. So with every new album available at our fingertips completely for free at the instant of its release for our own personal judgment, you’ve got to wonder: Do we still need the album review?
“Album reviews were a critical piece of the puzzle when print media was king—part of breaking an act alongside word-of-mouth, radio play, and video play,” Pam Nashel Leto, a publicist for Girlie Action, tells me. Leto has been working as a music publicist since 1998 and has promoted Elliott Smith, Spiritualized, and The White Stripes. “Back then, album reviews carried a lot of weight—a positive review in publications like SPIN, Rolling Stone, The Source, Magnet, or The New York Times was enough to make readers curious, enough to make them go and buy the album—at an actual record store—or see them live, sometimes without ever having heard a track off the album.”
In the years since print media has fallen from prominence, publicists like Leto have sought music coverage elsewhere, namely the internet. While the rise of the internet may have all but killed off the print review—or at least relegated it to the back page of the few remaining physical publications—it has also birthed a new type of critic: the blogger.
Throughout the early 2000s, as newspapers and magazines begrudgingly shifting towards online iterations, music reviews and coverage were still operating in a very Web 1.0 model. Websites existed as static objects, power was still centralized, and there were still gatekeepers—those who had access to albums and press releases ahead of the general public. Generally, there was no discourse from readers unless they wanted to go dumpster diving in the comments section.
Gradually, as blogs grew in popularity, regular people seized the opportunity to steal the power of criticism once wielded exclusively by longstanding publications into their own hands. Webzines like Pitchfork and Buddyhead, which both started as at-home operations by individuals in the late 90s, rose to prominence for their unfiltered, inexperienced, and subjective critical analysis of music, gaining followings that rivaled those of corporately funded publications like Rolling Stone and SPIN. They were replacements for the old world of music journalism that required editors, proofreaders, and brick and mortar offices. Unlike small-run print zines, these sites had the potential to reach the world. The playing fields were leveled and music criticism could suddenly be done by any blogger from any bedroom with an internet connection.
Some of these blogs legitimized over the decade following—Pitchfork most notably, having been acquired last year by Condé Nast. But even Pitchfork, which held the gold standard for album reviews for over a decade, is now losing ground to real-time opinions of the populace via social media services like Twitter.
“The Pitchfork review paradigm where you get Best New Music and then all of a sudden, your career is on the go, I think that’s kind of dead,” says Ian Cohen, who has been reviewing albums for Pitchfork since 2007. Cohen cites bands from the indie rock boom of the mid-2000s that benefited from the Midas touch of a glowing Pitchfork review. Acts like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah—all of whom were granted the site’s coveted Best New Music tag between 2004 and 2005—saw their audiences and album sales grow shortly thereafter, a success arguably attributable directly to their Pitchfork review. There was a mutually beneficial relationship between the site and the artists. Pitchfork would hype select artists who would go on to have sustainable careers, and in return, Pitchfork appeared sage and knowledgeable and got to reign as tastemakers of cool music. But with the cultural conversations about music now happening online at an increasingly break-neck speed, that dynamic is shifting.
“I heard it said recently that the new Pitchfork is kids talking on Twitter,” says Cohen. “If there was a new Arcade Fire, if there was a new Broken Social Scene, if there was a new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, it would be recognized before Pitchfork could do something on it.” No longer can a review from Pitchfork or any site be traced as Patient Zero for an artist’s success.
Meaghan Garvey, who has also reviewed albums for Pitchfork as a former staff writer, agrees. “As corny of a term as ‘tastemaker’ is, I don’t think it’s the critics or writers who are tastemakers anymore. People on Twitter or Instagram are doing that,” she says. “You can listen to a third of an album in the time it takes you to read a review of the album. It’s not even that writers have grand insights or forward thinking, boundary-pushing abilities. They’re probably playing catch-up to some 18 year old on Twitter with a bajillion followers that’s cooler than them.”
Those seeking to stand out as tastemakers have had to adopt new strategies in order to ensure that their voices are heard. Anthony Fantano made very little headway during the two years in which he ran a music blog and an NPR-affiliated podcast, for example. He was having trouble getting noticed among the endless heap of wannabe critics. Just before he closed the book on his career in music journalism, he tried one more thing. He set up his digital camera in his living room, pointed it remarkably close to his face, and started reviewing albums in video form, spouting opinions off of his head. Now, with over 600,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, The Needle Drop, he is one of the most influential voices in modern music criticism.
“The internet has essentially democratized the music industry in terms of what is popular and it’s democratized the music journalism industry as well,” says Fantano. “Anybody could put their thoughts on a record out there. I think the world of reviews and opinions is now very much a meritocracy.”
Though music criticism may have become more of a personalized operation, the downside is that with so many voices shouting wildly for attention, it has become a veritable trash pit of amateur opinions and toxic discourse. The ushering in of a new generation of free-to-low-wage clickjockeys, outrage-generators, and online opinionistas racing against one another to be the first out of the gate with a piping hot take is largely said to have contributed to the death of the professional critic, and reduced collective feedback of art to a pass/fail, “classic or trash” consensus.
“It seems like the purpose reviews now serve is wrapped up in this cycle of content,” says Garvey, “where the people who are most responding to music reviews are other critics, either to kiss the writer’s ass or to patronize them, or to run their mouths because they’re bored on Twitter. It turns into this super circular thing where there’s an album review, and a thinkpiece about the album review, and then there’s 48 hours of Twitter talking about it. It feels like it’s not reaching the right people.”
For a recent example of how maddeningly insular the black hole of music journalism has gotten, take the story of the Brooklyn band Wet. Pitchfork ran a review of Wet’s major label debut, Don’t You, this year. The review was unkind, slapping it with a mere 4.0 rating, and poking fun at the notion that the band is an industry plant, propped up with live showcases, BBC1 playlists, and clips on Khloe Kardashian’s Instagram account. Shortly after it was published, two editors at the site Genius ran a review of Pitchfork’s review of the album in the form of annotations, taking the original review’s points to task and arguing on behalf of Wet, not doing much to dispel the conspiracy that Wet is in fact an industry plant. Hang on, not done yet. Then, after the review of the review ran, and music writers began arguing on Twitter as is their livelihood, Jezebel ran a blog post recapping the drama the situation had wreaked. It's hard to believe a casual music listener who simply wants to learn about a new band would follow the conversation that far down the content hole, especially once it strayed from what the album actually sounded like. But wait! Before we come back through all the layers of this online journalism inception, it should be mentioned that the whole story is being recapped in this article you’re reading about music criticism right now. And maybe someone will write a response article to this as well. The circle of content life.
It’s unsurprising that Wet’s negative review sent the internet spiraling into feces-throwing mode. Overtly negative album reviews are becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. Metacritic, a site that aggregates the many reviews received by albums, movies, and video games, grades the overall feedback from the press by color. Green = generally positive reviews, with a cumulative score of 61 percent or higher. Yellow = mediocre, with 41 percent or higher. And red = bad, with lower than 40 percent. Between the years of 2013 and 2015, not a single record went into the red. Every album released in that three-year period averaged out as having either a good or mixed response from critics. You’d have to go back as far as 2012 to find the one record that got red-zoned: Chris Brown's Fortune, whose negative response was based less on the caliber of his music, and was due more to the reviews’ condemning of Brown personally for his criminal past and assault on former girlfriend Rihanna. To recap, unless a musician is actively committing battery on another musician, they’re ensured at least lukewarm reviews.
Comparatively, in the world of film, a medium in which release dates are still closely tied to sales—the kind that require people leaving their houses and opening their wallets—the bar for critical scrutiny is still set much higher. Over that same period between 2012 and 2015 in which no albums dipped below average into Metacritic’s red zone, 17.75 percent of movies released were in the red, accounting for 436 movies (one of which being Battle of the Year, a breakdancing movie starring Chris Brown).
So why have album reviews gotten so soft? One argument is that in the current advertising-dependent, click-friendly state of music journalism, online publications have become too indebted to artists. A share of an article about Five Seconds of Summer on the group’s official Facebook page, which boasts over ten million fans, for example, can drive major traffic to a website. It doesn’t matter how vapid or void of quality the writing of the article is (and whoo boy can it get bad), a share or a retweet from the band will send their rabid fans flooding by the thousands to a site, boosting its monthly traffic numbers, which looks appealing to advertisers. So it’s in the site’s best interest to lean positive on their coverage, especially with popular artists.
This, in part, has been responsible for the resurgence in poptimism—critics bandwagoning for the musical winners instead of sticking their necks out for the deserving underdogs of music. By doing so, artists like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift dominate the daily music content cycle, from extensive thinkpieces about their cultural impact to listicles about cats they’ve Instagrammed, and teen heartthrobs like Justin Bieber land the number one spot on prominent music websites’ best songs of the year lists. Any dissenting voices on these untouchable artists get shouted down online as either clickbait, trolling, or general assholery. Saul Austerlitz pretty epically tore down the effect of poptimism on web culture, writing in the New York Times that “poptimism embraces the familiar as a means of keeping music criticism relevant. Click culture creates a closed system in which popular acts get more coverage, thus becoming more popular, thus getting more coverage. But criticism is supposed to challenge readers on occasion, not only provide seals of approval.”
Beyond the rewards of web traffic, though, there are other motives for websites to keep artist relations friendly. Websites and their brand overlords will always need favors—artists to play their SXSW showcases or host their award shows, or labels to advertise on pop-up ads, or publicists to help land the big exclusive interview after the artist inevitably hits rock bottom after being caught drunk driving at a Wendy’s drive-thru on TMZ. The line between church and state often becomes blurred in these behind-the-scenes deals.
Many sites have shifted away from reviews all together. (Noisey does not run traditional album reviews, please stop pitching them.) When Ben Westhoff became music editor at the LA Weekly in 2011, one of his first orders of business was to largely stop running album reviews. “Practically nobody was reading them,” says Westhoff. “The other issue is that it's very difficult to describe music in words. I could spend paragraphs describing a sound and it wouldn't compare to even a few moments listening to the track itself.”
Premieres have instead come to dominate coverage of new releases. In the weeks leading up to an album’s release, the artist will promote their album in piecemeal in the form of premieres of first tracks, second tracks, music videos, lyric videos, third tracks, artwork reveals, fourth tracks, and so on. (One time I even got pitched on exclusive GIFs for a music video—not all of them, though. Another site was promised half of them.) Premieres lack the critical depth of reviews, though. Most are more biographical about the artist and, depending on the site, can merely be two-sentence write-ups, jamming in a publicist-provided quote from the artist, and directing readers to the pre-order link.
There is a trade-off that comes along with premieres. The artist’s publicist is agreeing to direct the artist’s fanbase to a website, and in exchange, there’s an implicit agreement that the website’s write-up will lean positive. For a general idea of how many premieres get pitched to major sites each day, I just searched for the word “premiere” in my inbox and my computer spontaneously combusted, and then I got a follow-up email asking if I wanted to premiere a GIF of the combustion.
Established artists with built-in fanbases are wising up to the fact that they hold the power in the premiere exchange, though, and it might not be a sustainable model for much longer. Mega-huge artists like Beyoncé can get away with dropping a surprise album at 3 AM on Christmas morning and still have every music blogger tripping over their cats (plural) to post the news. But even mid-level bands are seeing success in being their own mouthpiece. The band Say Anything, for example, released a surprise album, I Don’t Think It Is, overnight this month, announcing and streaming it directly on their website to avoid the dismantling of it track by track. “It’s sonically weird, and works best as a whole,” frontman Max Bemis tells me of the album. “Hearing it piece by piece messes with people’s expectations of the record itself. Some people may dismiss a record if they don’t like the first song.”
Music criticism might also be leaning more positive not just to appease artists, but to avoid their wrath. As artists have become more personally active on social media, some have become prone to using it to fight against bad press. As Cohen, Garvey, Fantano, or any writer who still values honesty in their critical analysis can tell you, it’s not that uncommon for an artist scorned by a bad review take to Facebook or Twitter to voice their displeasure of it, and sometimes even call out the critic by name. And yes, artists definitely do read the reviews.
“I think the artists might be the only ones that read the reviews,” laughs Brian Fallon, frontman of the band the Gaslight Anthem. “The artists and their associates at the label and publicists and management, they read the reviews. It’s changing. On tour, I used to run into kids who would bring magazines and they’d want them signed. I haven’t seen that in years.”
Fallon’s last album, Get Hurt, was panned by Ian Cohen on Pitchfork and while Fallon chose to keep his grievances to himself, he was certainly bothered by the negative response, as many artists are, and can practically quote the review verbatim from memory. “I don’t remember the good reviews at all. I think that’s just the tendency of people who are generally artistic and also borderline self-aware,” says Fallon. “You could have a room full of people who are happy and the one person who says ‘you suck, dude!’ that’s the one you hear.”
Not all artists keep their mouths shut like Fallon, though. Andrew Falkous, frontman of the band Future of the Left, for example, also got burned by Cohen on Pitchfork on the release of his 2012 album, The Plot Against Common Sense, and wrote a line by line response to it on his blog which was… well, let’s just say the phrase “stupid cunt” was employed. “The fact is that that review came out seven or eight days before any other review of the record,” Falkous once explained to me in an interview. “And even people of intellectually free minds are still easily influenced with criticism and with hype. There is a narrative that is often built and sometimes those early words can end up influencing people’s view. So I thought it was important to get in there and give a quick, dismissive ‘fuck you.’”
It’s not relegated to rock. Rappers have also gone to battle with critics. Wale once called Complex to threaten them after his release, The Gifted, did not make their “50 Best Albums of 2013” list, and last year, Talib Kweli reviewed Pitchfork’s review of his album, Indie 500, on Medium. (He gave it a 3.6.)
“Some artists think that by clapping back at Pitchfork or SPIN or whoever, that they’ve won just by doing that, that they’re controlling the conversation,” says Cohen. But while the artist might think they’re winning by publicly having the last word with critics, it could also be argued that they’re diluting their own art. By creating a scandal around their album that is clickable and has the chance to go viral, they’re shifting the conversation away from the quality of their album. In five years from now, when rap fans look back on Wale’s album, how likely are they to remember the music versus the jokes and the memes made about his threatening phone call?
It doesn’t take a 1,600-word blog post to launch an effective rebuttal, though. With the simple use of an “@” in a tweet, an artist can fuck up a critic’s entire week, weaponizing their thousands fans to launch an attack on an offender. Sometimes it’s innocuous and harmless and can even encourage a public dialogue. But it can also go beyond civil discourse and get incredibly personal. When directed at female critics, it can turn especially ugly. After writer Lynn Hirschberg wrote about M.I.A. in The New York Times Magazine back in 2010, M.I.A. famously responded by tweeting Hirschberg’s phone number, prompting fans to call her and leave messages, a move which Hirschberg later called “infuriating and not surprising.”
So perhaps the reason music reviews have gotten less negative is that critics just plain don’t want to spend a perfectly good afternoon being bullied online by a bunch of egg avatars for pointing out when an artist clunks out a stinker of an album. Garvey mentions an instance where her lukewarm review of Future Brown’s album elicited responses about her from the group on Twitter and Facebook. “They were digging shit up about my personal life and it got petty and babyish.” But then again, she notes, “maybe it’s cool that critics get shook once in a while to remind them of the power balance.”
While artists and critics play this back and forth game online with each other, muddling the integrity of honest music criticism through petty scare tactics, listeners—who should be the intended audience for reviews—are often caught in the middle like children of divorced parents. Album reviews certainly still matter to artists, writers, and publicists, as they are the ones dealing with them every day, but does the average listener still pay attention? According to Andy Larsen, marketing manager at the New York record store Rough Trade, yes and no.
“From the store’s standpoint, we do see albums sell more when they are given Best New Music or high ratings on Pitchfork, etc.,” she says. “Customers absolutely search out and question the store about positively reviewed music.” But then on the other hand, some sales are review-proof. “Some artists are beyond the review. It doesn’t matter if they get a good review or bad review on a blog or magazine. If they have a solid fanbase, the worst review won’t hurt them.”
So there might just be some selling power left in the written word after all, and it may be premature to pronounce the album review dead. But it certainly dangles over a grave full of AOL floppy disks, Blockbuster membership cards, and Hot Hot Heat CDs. The review, much like music itself, runs the risk of becoming an artform diluted by the internet’s shameless pandering to its lowest common denominator.
But maybe that’s what people have wanted from criticism all along—to simply be told what they already knew, to reinforce the opinions they’ve long held, and to read positive words about things they like, nodding along gleefully without being challenged. There will always be good music out there, but thanks to this democratization—and dilution—of traditional music criticism, and its creaky old warhorse, the album review, you, the listener, are on your own, left to the mercy of your own opinions. After all, if Lester Bangs could do it, so can you.
Dan Ozzi gives this article a 4.2. Too derivative of good writers. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi