When I was younger, a big part of why I read music writing was to have my biases and prejudices reinforced by reading a negative piece about a band I didn’t like. At the time (late nineties), there were plenty of music writers, at least in the UK, willing to oblige, including more than a few who made this kind combative writing into a shtick.
Whether or not I agreed with their published opinions week to week, I usually enjoyed the writing. It wasn’t just that it seemed invigorating and funny. It went deeper than that. Music fandom seemed much more tribal then, and the need to actively police the boundaries of your tastes much more pressing. It was only natural that, to do this, you’d need to vigorously put the boot in on stuff that you found wanting as well as simply praise the things you liked. Or you’d need to read other people doing it on your behalf.
Now, in truth this stuff doesn’t tend to have a great shelf life. Bands oftentimes have longer careers than writers, unless you’re Robert Christgau or something, and yesterday’s roiling controversies look like piffling little storms in teacups just a few years on. So it’s not a huge surprise that this kind of writing has all but disappeared from pro (which in Internet terms means ad-supported) and amateur publications. The few practitioners I was aware of who made it a significant part of their online personas 10 years or so ago are no longer being published on a regular basis. The trend is more towards the evaluative and the pseudo-objective, with serious (non-click bait) writing as concerned with how a new work fits into the arc of a given artist’s career, or the music landscape in general, as it is with critiquing the music itself. And when you can hear the record for yourself with a click or two and form your own opinions, why would a writer spend time doing that? Who would want them to?
This kind of writing feels like a mature and sensible response to the situation we have now. And it always behoves writers to remember that a) opinions about art are only opinions, and b) even given that, little music that we hear will strike us as either really great or really terrible. Most of it is in the middle, and contains something redeeming, whether it’s in the quality of the mix, the attention to detail in the arrangement, the technical proficiency of the singer or whatever.
For me, I can only find it within myself to be angry at records that seem insultingly cynical, and that’s fairly rare*. More than ever, too, I’m aware that new artists (and writers) are for the most part a decade younger than me. Maybe their first album isn’t very good, but if there’s something in it, there’s always the chance that they can take it, develop it and grow. Who would have known in 1982 that Talk Talk would one day make Spirit of Eden?
On the I Love Music message board over the last couple of days, a few regularly published music writers have been discussing all this stuff, with some really interesting perspectives thrown up by those who are “in the game”, so to speak, work with editors regularly and are affected on a day-to-day basis by issues like: will X record company put us on a blacklist for panning their new artist’s debut, and, will running a “meh” review get us more clicks or fewer than a more obviously positive or negative review. These are issues I feel grateful not to have to face. Taken all together, they make it pretty clear that massively negative reviews haven’t just disappeared because music writers as a breed have gotten more fair-minded. There’s a complex web of issues here.**
For what it’s worth, I still enjoy reading negative reviews and opinions about a band or artist if the writer has done the work of engaging with their music and isn’t just being controversial to generate clicks, or infamy. That said, as I get older and more reflective myself, the less knee-jerk tone of modern criticism does seem to be a net gain.
*I think Mercy by Duffy was the last time a single actively made me angry on this score, and that was 10 years ago. But still, the effrontery of it was outrageous. A straight rewrite of Rehab and replace the “No, no no”s with “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s. It was breathtakingly cynical, especially when performer and cowriter openly admitted the album was already recorded but was missing a first single. Hall of shame stuff from performer and writer Steve Booker.
**A few days ago, Pitchfork ran a review of the new Arcade Fire record where the writer seemed wounded personally by the band’s new music. He professed only to like one or two songs, and those not without reservation. It reads like, at most, a 2-star review (out of five), yet the published score out of 10 was 5.6. Like I said, a complex web of issues going on here. It’s been a while since I read that negative-seeming a review on a big online music site, though.