Sunday, March 20, 2005

Rock Criticism in Crisis

Frank Zappa once said 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture', but he also released an album that sounded like somebody gave 80's Midi-based music composition software to a chimpanzee (Jazz from Hell), so it's not like everything he said or did was essential. The truth is, there was a time when it was actually interesting to read music writing, particularly from the likes of Griel Marcus or Lester Bangs. Bangs' review of what's arguably the best rock album ever, Fun House by The Stooges (the article was entitled 'Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Reveiw, or, Who's the Fool?') would be required reading for all up-and-coming rock critics if rock writing had a future, which it doesn't.

MP3 and peer-to-peer technology have thrown the music business into turmoil that's been the source of much Schadenfreude for the 99.99% of rock bands that are either never signed or are screwed over and left bankrupt by labels, and rock writing is the remora that's not only forced to sweat the shark's well-being, but also finds itself threatened in other ways.

As recently as 5 years ago, a rock writer could write a review telling you how the new album by the Minions sounds like James Brown smoking a joint with Willie Nelson at Studio 54, and you'd be forced to take his word for it. To some degree you might actually make buy/don't buy decisions about music based on a review, because if you didn't own the album, you might not have a chance to hear it. Nowadays you can obtain a copy of the album over the internet, or even go the legitamate route of listening to samples on iTunes, and find out for yourself what the music really sounds like (specifically, Sly Stone doing bong hits with George Strait at a rave).

Even where reviews are concerned, there are plenty to be found at sites like Amazon.com, written for free, often of comparable or superior quality to what you'll find in magazines on sale at a local bookstore.

Actually, if anything, the reviews at Amazon.com and elsewhere are more credible, because often a reviewer will write about an album that really, really, sucks and tell you it sucks. A writer for Rolling Stone would give the album two stars (out of five) at worst. And Rolling Stone is hardly unusual in that. I recently picked up a copy of 'Filter' and 34 of the 42 albums they reviewed scored above 80%. The lowest score was 53% for 'Around the Sun', by REM. But, as they themselves say in that review,

as everyone else knows, REM's latest offering is an infuriatingly lifeless turd chock-full of bad poetry and plodding adult rock.

so it's not like there's any big scoop there, or even the kind of guilty pleasure hatchet job that sometimes livens up a dull review section.

Essentially, rock writers seemed scared to death of saying anything bad about anything they review, which doesn't do wonders for the credibility. It reminds me of when I worked for a large record company with a website that sold CDs, and the latest incarnation of the marketing staff (they turned over every 6 months or so, yet each incarnation seemed to have exactly the same grand creative out-of-the-box ideas as their predecessor) decided to add ratings to their site as part of their ongoing top secret strategy: 'copying other, better music sites'. They used the 5 star system, with a helpful legend designed by that week's graphic design team explaining what all the ratings meant. It started at one star, meaning 'OK' (?!??), and went up to 5 stars, meaning 'call the crime scene cleanup crew to come over before you put this on, because you are sure to have such an overpowering orgasmic reaction your head will explode like that famous scene in the movie Scanners' (actually the description for the 5 star rating was more concise. I never claimed to have what it takes to write copy for marketing). I believe in early stages of that project there was a push to not allow ratings below three stars, but declaring by fiat that one star meant 'OK' was the compromise they agreed on (before dispersing for salads and /or cocaine for lunch). I don't know what the site has today, because, frankly, there are a million and one better places to buy music online, and I'm a Luddite who prefers buying music from a real person in a real store who appears to give a shit about music anyway.

The morals of this story are:
  • the blog format works best when articles are kept reasonably short, as in brief
  • large record companies are soul-less robot-like entities
  • the Rock Critics at Rolling Stone and Filter are ball-less wonders! Nyah!

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