Compared to What?
Jerry Lucky Commentary July 2013
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Like many of you, over the years I’ve ready many reviews of all types of music. Sometimes I read a review of something I know and I wonder, did they even listen to the same disc as I did? Other times I marvel at the writer’s gift of using words or a turn of phrase. Still other times I read things that actually make me angry and make me want to toss the magazine. Wow that really dates me doesn’t it?
It’s important to keep in mind when you read a review, that EVERY writer has an agenda. Even when they say they have no agenda…trust me…they have an agenda. It’s impossible not to have one. If there were absolutely no agenda, there would be no review. Sometimes that agenda will come loaded with baggage; a dislike for a certain genre, or style or instrument or musicians involved. Sometimes the agenda will be about self-aggrandizement, but whatever it is, that agenda shapes the tone of the piece the writer is working on.
Some reviewers see their role as the “guardians of taste.” Their agenda is to ensure that the reader isn’t duped into accepting something that they deem to be musically inferior, so they will take great pains to point out the many failings of the music on display almost as if they are trying to discourage your purchase, which I’m sure is what happens to those who enjoy reading those types of comments.
Some reviewers see their role as “dispassionate critics.” Their agenda is one that takes them to a higher plane where they feel impervious to the music’s charm. I knew a movie critic once who always sat in the furthest back corner of the theatre to try and get as far away from the screen as possible so as not to get caught up in the emotions on display. These dispassionate music critics are similar; they will make every effort to not become too connected to the music lest their minds become ensnared by the music’s charm.
Some reviewers see the need to impress us with their knowledge. They are easily spotted throwing around all kind of comparative notes, referencing passages of one band to another or perhaps detailing their knowledge of the band’s studio efforts; what types of instruments are used or misused or what studio gear was applied or misapplied. For my taste, these “know-it-alls” are so busy making connections they sometimes miss the point of the music they’re currently listening.
Some reviewers (and here I like to count myself) make the effort to be as descriptive of the music as possible. We write quite specifically about what we hear in a way that paints a kind of visual picture of the music we’re listening to. Typically we like to offer some comment about appreciation as well. The danger of course with this type of writing is that it can become almost like a promo-puff piece for the music hence the need to ensure there is some comment involving the music’s impact on the reviewer. Another words, did I like it, was it not my cup-of-tea etc. In the end it’s important that some personal observation be made of the music.
There are no-doubt other types of reviewers or critics, call them what you like, but my point is we all come at the craft (I won’t call it an art) of writing reviews with an agenda. In the broadest sense it’s about giving the reader an idea of what they can expect to hear. Virtually all reviewers or critics would suggest their comments offer up an objective observation but I would have to disagree.
I don’t think it is even possible to be objective when listening to music because of the emotional connection that music makes. Any observations made are inevitably subjective and every effort made to disassociate oneself from the subjective becomes another brick in the agenda wall. The “guardians of taste” may invariably lapse into contrived criticisms to enhance their standing rather than accounting for context – another brick in the wall. The “dispassionate critics” will remove themselves so far from the music and fail to appreciate the emotional connection an artist is attempting to make – another brick in the wall. The “know-it-alls” get so wrapped up in what they know they fail to recognize the music ended five-minutes ago – another brick in the wall. And reviewers like myself can become too involved and simply write something that says nothing at all – another brick in the wall.
I’m not suggesting that any one of these styles (or any other) is either right or wrong. What I am saying is that they all have an agenda whether they admit it or not. As a reader, and I tend to think that even writers are readers of reviews, the best approach is to find a writer you feel a kinship with and then from time to time compare that with writers who are different. This can help create context – something that we seem to be losing more and more these days. At least that’s what I think.