The state of music criticism in 2021

This morning I read a Facebook thread about how the Lorde album inspired some great writing about a lacklustre letdown of a record. And read this comment from Mark Kermode

These things got me wondering about the state of criticism so here are three theories to bung in this skip fire of ideas (I’m probably as wrong about all of this as most critics were about Loutallica)

1 - Blame Social Media For Humanising

Social media has allowed artists to deepen their connection with super fans, who have become radicalised to a point where they have a “we must defend the kween” mentality, even if the artist isn’t that bothered. It used to only really be fans of big metal bands like KoRn who’d not just fill our comment sections with bile beneath a 7/10 but also send crazy emails to the writer (often claiming the writer knew nothing about heavy music or whatever). The depth of connection with the music once drove some of that “passion” rather than the depth of connection of seeing artists slog away on the campaign trail on social media… the school of “they’ve worked so hard” seems to trump any sense of context.

In a way, all artists have become a bit more humanised which protects them from being served shoe pie.

2 - Consumer Guides Have Gotten Lost

There was always a school of rock writer who seemed to be about value for money, with some publications writing more of a consumer guide to new releases, rather than something about “feelings” (I always love writers who let their emotions take over but had moments of composure…). This was replaced in the early days of the attention economy with trying to filter all music from best to worse, both of that week and all time, which is why most people have dipped out of the daily music discourse in favour of end of year lists.

In the blurring of these worlds, it feels like critical acclaim is far easier for small budget early career artists than artists who either have huge major label backing or a decent catalogue to which the new record will be compared to. Like, Spiritualized could release the album of the year but if it wasn’t as good as Ladies and Gents, you wouldn’t know about it.

What my pre-coffee brain is pondering is whether time/attention guide journalism is just the same as consumer guide criticism. And whether we’ve just moved to “give it a few more plays and you’ll love it” territory rather than “don’t buy that over hyped crap, buy this instead”.

3 - Context Is Kween

In a sea of voices, I really wish we could find a good way to give a short-hand summary of a writer’s taste or a sense of their knowledge. Think it’d allow people to appreciate that when they don’t agree with the writer about most things, they can be less upset by their opinion and more upset they have a platform… or rather, let’s stop listening to (new) music tips from people who’ve recommended 500+ acts who’ve never released a record you like.

I think as modern writers, finding a way of explaining your taste is increasingly key and was something that was always broken with Drowned in Sound, because far too many people read it as the opinion of the platform, rather than a platform of opinionated people. (And yes, I disagreed with a lot of the reviews of some of my favourite records)

To be totally honest I almost never read any music reviews any more. Much of my new music exploring is based on social media or from spaces like these boards. I read quite a bit of ‘commentary’ or ‘cultural’ music journalism, but reviews barely feel relevant to me any more. Could very well be just me though and I would t want to generalise.

Weirdly I rely a lot more on film reviews - maybe because I’m not so certain on how to get to films that I like, and less sure of my tastes, so I feel I need a bit more guidance there.

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No point in it now there’s Spotify and Bandcamp. It’s nice to read about music sometimes (goldflakepaint etc) but music criticism is useless when it’s just as quick to hear music as read about why someone says it’s good or bad.

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Definitely rely a lot more on live reviews to get a sense of a band

This, in combination with there being so many bad music writers out there, also stopped me from reading reviews.

Yeah I always use areas where I’m not “a specialist” to better consider people like us on the edges of music who don’t know that a 4AD new release is worth checking out over something on Sony. I often felt like some of my mission was to bring in that 15 year old me who was excited but felt excluded by the language and dense cultural references used in music mags. It’s why I often called DiS a digital fanzine (and was told not to call it that by many).

With film there’s always so many factors about spending a few hours and the mood you’re in, which you don’t necessarily get considerations of with music criticism.

I used to half joke I was going to turn Drowned in Sound into a travel guide for music. Make it more like Surfer’s Path where it covers surfing about as much as Mad Men discussed advertising.

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Stan culture is so fucking weird and creepy. I don’t envy people reviewing huge pop albums rn

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These days all I’m really looking for is a couple of genre words describing the artists sound to gauge whether I’ll check something out. Mainly just use the weekly releases thread on here, that already leaves me with far too much to listen to every week

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I don’t disagree but some of the best read things on DiS over the years have been pieces that help start a journey by clustering things together.

The biggest flaw of most music criticism (and why I felt the rushed appraisals of surprise released Radiohead albums was the death of music writing) is that idea that a review is on a good/bad binary. It’s often why I felt uncomfortable about some of the very low and very high scores on DiS, when the writing and the argument for or against didn’t justify the marks. (Leave my Jessie J review alone, it was “art”)

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This is a good point I suppose. Thinking of substacks/newsletters I’m subscribed to - it’s Shawn Reynaldo for dance music and Dean Van Nguyen for hip hop, because they’ve both managed to establish themselves as authoritative voices in those subject areas for me.

Always thought that getting the sense of knowing what you’re talking about across was the most important thing when writing about music. You can spot writers who are out of their depth or who haven’t done the amount of research needed to justify even a 200 word review very quickly

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I still read reviews often. I enjoy having a curator - there’s just so much music & I tend to flit across genres a lot so I could be trying out an infinite number of records if I had no guide. I realise I’m in the minority, but it’s still really important to me.

As an aside, nearly all of my favourite records I had to ‘live’ with and didn’t love straight off the bat, so I don’t subscribe to this theory that because streaming is here now reviews are less important. Streaming has made the impulse to just move on to something else greater, and that’s one of the things about streaming that I think is definitely not a good thing. So if something has had multiple good reviews, I try and persevere with it - the blinding L’Rain album - in contention for my AOTY now - is the best recent example. I just didn’t get it first time.

It’s also nice to have a bit of context, and I enjoy hearing people’s opinions of things, even if they don’t align with mine, it often makes me more engaged with what I’m listening to. Why do they think that? Why do I disagree Etc? It’s healthy.

Plus I hate algorithms. Gave up on Spotify because they just want me to listen to the same stuff over and over - a crapper version of what I’ve just heard. Apple is a bit better which I use now, but I’d still much rather listen to a human.

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Yeah, this. I’m more I interested in having stuff brought to my attention (as @sean says, end of year lists are good for this) as I can sample everything in the world for free before deciding to keep, or even buy if I really want to support the artist.

I remember buying albums on spec based on glowing reviews - Untrue, Abattoir Blues and All Hours Cymbals spring to mind as big successes in that regard. I also remember the ritual kickings, which were sometimes deserved (Limp Bizkit etc) and sometimes needlessly cruel.

Streaming, more than anything else has completely changed the game. Part of me misses the thrill of discovery (and maybe even the occasional crush of disappointment) of getting home with a record I was excited to hear and listening for the first time AFTER investing money and effort getting hold of it. A larger part of me loves having access to everything in an instant and my music taste is far far broader as a result.

I do like reading well written writing about music though and sadly there are increasingly few places to find it.

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I find it quite easy to pick up when a movie reviewer has broadly similar or different tastes in films to me. Doesn’t mean, where my tastes generally differ, I totally dismiss a film if they love it but I certainly don’t rush to see it excitedly.
Music I have just never been able to build up a picture of individual reviewers tastes, which just goes back to the lack of ability to listen to much music easily back in the day and now the opposite is true so don’t take much notice of reviews in the same way (always interested to read and hear views on records but don’t really use them as a guide) and being older just have a bit more confidence in my own tastes.

This! It’s exactly why I can’t seem to let the idea of carrying on this website die (even if it is a financial drain and often an emotional quagmire to keep it going)

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I often couldn’t always fully figure out the tastes of some of DiS’ most prolific contributors. And I think the fact I like The 1975 and Paramore as much as Hammock and Kelly Lee Owens confuses people about my tastes (and led the first two to be red flags not to trust my taste for proper snobs).

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How is the Lorde album doing sales wise? Seems like the sort of critical reception that used to destroy a career but I’m guessing not now? The preview singles for the new Billie Eilish album seemed to get a lackluster response too but the album seems to be selling massively.

I feel like I use music reviews in the same way I use TV/Movie reviews now. I read them after I’ve watched whatever it is and use them as an opportunity to compare/consolidate my thoughts. e.g. one of my favourite things is to read episode reviews in AV Club or Vulture as I’m watching a show as it creates a sense of community around the thing I’m enjoying (or not often).

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i think there’s loads of things to say and write about music. absolutely loads. and the artists probably aren’t going to write them themselves. there’s loads of writing about music that i’ve really loved, and some of that comes in the form of reviewing an album, and some of it doesn’t.

i do agree that no-one is reading many reviews to get a sense of whether or not an album is any good, because you can just listen to it. except to say, every now and then a review will make me think that i need to give something i’ve already dismissed another go.

the reviews in the wire are great for me as well, because it’s basically a set of really great writing about music which most of the time isn’t on my radar at all. i’ve spent some lovely weekend mornings, including today actually, reading through The Wire and playing bits and pieces from the reviews section that sound like they might be good. that process is one of the main ways that i branch out from listening to genres and things that i already know i’ll like.

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Guy who runs my local record store says he’s struggling to shift the eilish. Had only 7 preorders and had over 20 copies to shift

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