In Defense of Negative Reviews

Is music criticism necessary? That’s the bombshell of a question Steve Almond raised earlier this week in a Boston Globe editorial. His answer: Nope, not really. In a piece that looks back on his days as a self-identified hack music critic, Almond reveals his formula for a concert review: “My standard template was to start off with a bad pun then proceed to the concert set list, with each song title modified by at least three adjectives. If I was feeling ambitious, I described the lead singer’s hair.” It’s no wonder that depressing routine wore on him until “[t]he very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant.”

Almond is especially doubtful about the utility of negative reviews. “Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart or sophisticated,” he writes. “But it rarely does anything to advance the cause of art.” It may not surprise you to learn that we completely disagree.

To be honest, like Almond, we don’t get much joy out writing negative reviews. Sure, the first few are a thrill: It’s cathartic to take your daily angst out on some unsuspecting band. But soon enough you realize that there’s nothing heroic about taking the piss out of totally unknown artists who are only trying to start a career and earn some fans. Still, to say that all negative reviews serve no purpose beyond smug, self-satisfied superiority is to ignore the value of spirited cultural debate. Slamming a musician may not change the minds of many of his fans, but a good negative review will justify its existence by accomplishing at least one of the following:

1. Showing that the emperor has no clothes
In these days of relentless blog hype, it’s easy for a band that has not much more to recommend it than a meme-friendly gimmick to earn widespread popularity. But real criticism means taking a step back from the effusion and judging these crazes on their own merits. For instance, this week the New York Times’ Jon Pareles published an eloquent, post-SXSW takedown of the so-called “glo-fi” movement, including artists like Toro y Moi, Memory Tapes and Neon Indian: “It’s annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds–a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they’re not brash enough to make,” writes Pareles. It doesn’t matter whether or not we like glo-fi or not: An intelligent argument at least makes us re-examine what it is we see in the music we embrace.

2. Commenting on the culture at large
Popular music (and film and books and fashion and visual art) becomes popular for a reason: It speaks to the zeitgeist. For that reason, it’s important to discuss it whether it’s good or bad. Criticism that forces us to think about what niche or need a particularly offensive band or trend is fulfilling is criticism that transcends the realm of snarky derision to examine larger cultural problems, hangups and fascinations. (See: Baltimore City Paper’s Michael Byrne on our enduring obsession with Insane Clown Posse.)

3. Contextualizing an album within an artist’s discography
One of our favorite aspects of criticism is the opportunity it gives us to consider the way musicians evolve (and devolve) over the course of their career. That means taking the good with the bad and pondering, for example, what Bob Dylan’s embarrassing Christian-rock period has to do with the timeless music he wrote before and after that low point. It may be polite to ignore bands’ greatest misses, but criticism that only accentuates the positive will always be incomplete.

4. Keeping the critical conversation lively and diverse
Almond characterizes contemporary critical debates as nothing more than snark and sass. We find that assessment depressing and pessimistic, especially insofar as it insinuates that most critics care less about music than they do about scoring points and sounding smart. If we agree that art matters in our lives — and if we don’t, then what are we doing discussing the merits of art criticism in the first place? — then we’ll understand that these disagreements, at their best, are substantive rather than superficial. A negative review is liable to inspire an impassioned defense, and vice versa. To say that it’s pointless to aim for a respectful, productive critical conversation about music is to imply that music isn’t worth talking about.

5. Advancing the cause of art
“Despite what the critics would have you believe, it’s the pleasures and disappointments of the fans that matter in the end,” writes Almond, closing his piece in a blaze of populist glory. Translation: “If it makes you happy, who cares if it’s good?” That rhetorical shoulder shrug might work if we believe that the only thing art is good for is eliciting strong emotions. And while we can’t underestimate the power of that subjective experience, we believe that criticism is also about defending aesthetic and political values that actually matter, both within the art form and in the larger culture. The only way to fully articulate what inspires or disturbs or fascinates or bores us is to think hard about both the music we love and the music we hate.