Over the past few days, there’s been a bit of a hullabaloo on Sputnik regarding what, exactly, constitutes evidence in a review. In the comment thread for contributor Josh Fountain’s review for the new Powerman 5000 album, there have been a few people attacking the review itself for, among other things, its “lack [of] basic argumentation.” At the risk of pulling some comments out of context, users have described it as a review “chock-filled with “cheap insults,” one that is “extremely annoying” and “filled with animosity.” While for every user who complained, there were about five or six supporting the reviewer (which, to an extent, I approve of), the thread still devolved into a trainwreck of “this review sucks/you suck/Powerman 5000 sucks/this thread sucks.”
I’ve already voiced most of my thoughts about the review itself in the first few pages of comments, but for those of you unwilling to read a few extra paragraphs of me blathering on about writing about writing about music I basically argued that evidence in the traditional sense is moot in terms of writing reviews. Of course it’s possible to describe a song down to the timbre of an instrument and utilize that as evidence as to why it’s an objectively brilliant and/or stupid piece of art, but for the near-total majority of the general Sputnik-reading-and-writing populace such criticism is undesirable and usually too dense and pedantic to read. If an author wants to argue that the reason such-and-such a song is good is the transition from V7 chord to ii6 arpeggio utilizing cello ostinato bass and a syrupy Moog tone, then by all means they can do that. The issue with such an approach, obviously, is that it’ll be nigh-unintelligible and usually stripped of all practical meaning.
So, as a result, most “evidence” in reviews of Sputnik’s ilk is going to be exceedingly subjective. Until a team of scientists finds the irrefutable key to what makes music undeniably good or bad, what we have now will most likely be the norm for a while. I defend the benefits of such an approach in part because it’s all I know, but also because it’s easier to read, easier to write, provides more fodder for post-review discussion, and a whole slew of other reasons. I’ve been attacked for my subjective, “unprofessional” writing (for those looking to save time, I’m referring specifically to this comment on my review for Feed Me’s Calamari Tuesday) with equally subjective arguments (and usually the accompanying hyperbolic claims that a review I’ve written could be “the most unprofessional review” ever to grace the Internet). My peeved, slightly incoherent response notwithstanding, I’d like to use that comment and similar ones as a springboard to say this: There is no such thing as an objective review. Everything a reviewer writes is irreconcilably colored with his or her own biases and previous assumptions. There’s simply no way around it. (The added bonus that reviews touting themselves as “objective” are usually no fun to read is a given.)
This brings us, though, to an important point regarding writing reviews. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, as I’m still a relative newbie to critically analyzing the music I listen to, but from my limited experience I do know one important litmus test that any writer should keep in mind when starting a review: Do I care enough about this album to say something interesting about it? Or, in other words: Am I writing for writing’s sake? One of the biggest issues with Sputnik reviews I see is that the reviewer often fails this test. To go back to the beginning of this post, I think Josh’s review was very competent, a fun, easy read which said all that really needed to be said about the album. However, I also think the one thing it was missing, and the one thing that negative commenters immediately jumped on – and I mean this in the most helpful way possible – was something to justify its own existence. It seemed to me a review written for the sole purpose of having a review for a boring, already-dated-at-release album, and by nature no matter how well-written a review like that is (and it was a well-written review, don’t get me wrong) it simply can’t stack up with the same writer’s best work (as an example, Fountain’s previous review was exponentially better).
Writing for writing’s sake can be a helpful thing. It’s a useful tool to take an album to which you have no attachment and force yourself to review it so that you can file it away as a piece of experience that will help you in the long run. I’ve done quite a few of these in my time at Sputnik, and one of the reasons I’ve been given a staff position is that I’ve spent hours and hours grinding away at reviews I didn’t have any reason to make, putting in the necessary work to improve my writing skills. Looking back, though, I realize that the reviews I’m most proud of are the ones which have a reason to exist. My most well-written pieces are the ones that cover albums for which I feel something, whether that something is good or bad.
The main reason I hold Sputnikmusic emeritus Robin Smith in such high regard is that he always has something to say in his work. I envy how much he loves nearly all the music he listens to because it’s so much nicer to read a glowing piece than a highly critical one, and he’s exceptionally good at conveying his passion for good music into text. In a similar vein, it’s possible that people who comment critically on Sputnik reviews have a point. Sure, there are any number of reasons that they could feel moved to comment, including score disagreement, inexperience with a certain writing style, or what have you. But maybe, behind all their claims that a review is poorly argued and lacking solid evidence, they might be expressing their yearning for something visceral, gripping, alive in the review. Music writing is subjective – there’s almost no alternative. When writers embrace that objectivity, though, they give themselves the best chance to shine.