Essay # 3


I guess the time has finally come.

Why do people actually start making up record review sites? Obviously, this happens at a certain point in their life when they deem themselves to have assembled a vast enough "opinion collection" and feel the necessity to share this collection with other people. Psychologically, it is certainly a matter of self-assurance and self-elevation: when your opinions aren't just present in your head but laid down in systematic form on paper or a Web site, it all looks far more important and grave. And it gives you (well, at least it sure gave me) a great polygon for refining your thoughts and building up your own defensive walls against concurrent opinions (which definitely suck - c'mon, it's obvious that the writer always considers his opinion the most, hell, the only true opinion, despite all the endless "let's agree to disagree" and "everybody's entitled to..." formulae - these are nothing but a smooth buffer of politeness).

In the midst of all this comes the Great Doubt - hey, so many people seem to disagree with me, maybe it's my opinion that sucks after all? Have I missed something? Have my heart's intuition and my reasoning misled me? The Great Doubt touches every opinionated reviewer in the world, and basically there are three ways of dealing with it. To make things more concise, let's name these three types by three fabulous names: the Prindle type, the Mike O'Hara type, and the CosmicBen type. The Prindle type of resolving the Great Doubt is simple - not to give a damn about it. In other words, let everybody have their say and that's that; my opinion is stable and while it may eventually change, the fact that it contradicts certain other people's opinions doesn't imply any consequences. This is definitely the kind of approach that saves you time and nerves, but it's also an approach that's not particularly interesting or useful. "I think this; you think that; we're both perfectly happy, and now let's go mind our own affairs". Why build up a site then? If your opinion is just an opinion and you're not going to do anything with it, who needs it? Six billion people on the planet each have their own opinion; why should we be interested in Mark Prindle's opinion more than in anybody else's? Simply because he's bothered to put it down in HTML format so it's easier for us to see it than anything else? Isn't that ridiculous? Which implies the fact I've hesitated to state earlier, but it's a fact nevertheless: Mark is a wonderful writer, but people mostly love him for his immaculate writing style and humour, not for his opinions on music. Go to Prindle's site, touch it with a magic wand and take away the humour and his own brilliant writer's touch; leave just the album ratings and the dry pieces of album descriptions; three guesses on the site's future in that case? [Note: I do not at all ridiculize Mark's musical tastes; he is actually much smarter in musical decisions than it seems at first sight, but that doesn't change the approach he has selected anyway.]

The second type of resolving the Great Doubt (the Mike O'Hara one) is equally simple - whenever the Doubt arrives, you should rip it to pieces, kick the shit out of anybody who approaches you with a counterproposition. Simply because "I'm right and you are wrong". Unsurprisingly, this often leads to gross exaggerations: having built up a solid theory of American rock radio being "rigged", completely taken over by dollar-hungry corporate bosses hindering any musical progress and shunning any kind of true creativity, Mike ended up basically dismissing 90% of American rock'n'roll and overpraising all kinds of British bands ranging from real innovators to... ehhh... Of course, I don't want to say that 'Hotel California' or 'Freebird' rank among the best songs ever written, but it would take a lot of effort from me to prove that they are bad songs; for Mike, they are bad simply because they have been written by the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd - bands that symbolize American commercial conservatism. Needless to say, such a one-sided approach shows a shocking self-limitation.

Finally, the third type is the CosmicBen type of resolving. Metaphorically speaking, Ben Marlin rips his shirt open, covers his head with ashes and laments about a complete crisis of subjectivity/objectivity, essentially admitting an inability to resolve the problem (well, at least, he used to do that in some of his past rants). Out of the three approaches, this is the most honest one - after all, it's far more sincere to state your inability to do something than to try to find obviously false ways to do it and end up back to square again. But what does it bring into your world? Nothing but despair and lack of self-assurance. Some people kill themselves over such things, and I can't even blame them. Fortunately, Ben is alive and well at the moment - obviously, he's got a lot of mental strength.

To resume: the "Prindle type" is the most psychologically comfortable, but the least useful; the "O'Hara type" is the most useful (since it leads to more 'positive' results than anything else, even if it also leads to more 'negative' results), but the least honest; and the "CosmicBen type" is the most honest, but certainly the least psychologically comfortable. The vicious circle closes.

However, without knowing it (I sure didn't know it when I started writing this essay!), we have thus managed to formulate the three main criteria for a successful musical review. See it? A musical review (hell, any review or critical essay, but let's concentrate on music here) should be:

a) Pleasing - after writing it, you should be able to sit back and say: 'Hey! What a great piece of work!';

b) Useful - in the sense that it shouldn't just state your opinion (everyone has one), it should also have serious arguments to back it up;

c) Honest - that goes without saying.

While criteria (a) and (c) are not that difficult to maintain unless you're an inborn liar or an inborn masochist, criterion (b) is different. This is where the question of objectivity/subjectivity stands up in all its might. How can you prove that, say, Fleetwood Mac's 'Oh Daddy' is a great little pop ditty and 'Everywhere' is a murky pop throwaway? The unwritten law says that whatever you write, there will always be at least one person disagreeing with you; another unwritten law says that every song ever written, be it a part of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music or a tune from Britney Spears' last album, has at least one person who loves it and at least one person who hates it. In this context, how can we find some objectivity? Who can formulate an objective "law" concerning the goodness or badness of a selected song if there will always be somebody who'd only be happy to ridiculize that law? I say: "Cliched schoolboy mysticism in song lyrics is bad. Stealing riffs from other people is bad. Generic heavy metal is bad. A vocal approach like the one of Jon Anderson is bad." Mr X replies: "I have no problems with cliched schoolboy mysticism if it helps the song get along. People who steal riffs always adapt them to their own musical style and personality. Generic heavy metal is exciting and adrenaline-raising. Jon Anderson's vocal is beautiful". And then we either rip each other's throats, which is hardly a plus for musical reviewing, or say "let's agree to disagree" and find out that we have just killed a couple hours of our precious lives' time without having achieved anything interesting. So does musical (and art in general) reviewing have any use at all?

As far as I can see, the obvious answer is: in order for us to find objectivity in reviews, we must first look to the subject of reviewing - the listener, that is. Music dsoesn't exist on its own; without the listener, music is just a bunch of acoustic noises that has no purpose. As every "sign" (and it is a sign in the semiotic sense), music only exists as a correspondence between the external side (acoustic noises) and the listener's interpretation of it. Since the listeners are always different, it is obvious that music is always different too. Basically, there's no such thing as "Eleanor Rigby" or "Bohemian Rhapsody". Or, rather, they are, but they're just sequences of musical notes and vocal passages that don't mean anything; they aren't music. They only become music when they are being heard by US. In other words, there's "Mark Prindle's 'Eleanor Rigby'"; "George Starostin's 'Eleanor Rigby'"; "Rich Bunnell's 'Eleanor Rigby'"; etc. The more people have heard this Beatles' song, the more different Eleanor Rigbies there are in the world. Not one song, but billions of songs, all based on the same "superficial" structure but all different since an essential part is their interpretation.

Does this mean that musical reviewing should be abandoned altogether? It's one thing to review ONE 'Eleanor Rigby', but it's hardly possible to review a million, let alone, billions of 'Eleanor Rigbies', and even if it were possible, nobody would ever finish reading the reviews without getting slightly mad. The answer is: no, no, and no. While it's true that there are no two persons completely alike in this world, there are nevertheless huge similarities between many of them. True, no two persons' feelings when they hear 'Eleanor Rigby' will coincide to a tee, but with a certain dose of "roughness" which can be forgivable, we might sketch a picture of how people of group so-and-so are likely to feel about the song. For instance, there's a high probability that hardcore heavy metal fans will despise it and feel like vomiting at the very sound of "sissy strings"; that all the lonely people in this world will easily identify themselves with the protagonist and feel very uneasy, to say the least; that "pop lovers" caring for a catchy melody will get a blast out of it, etc., etc.

Basically, every musical review should be preceded with an answer to the question: WHAT do YOU expect from the music you are actually listening to? If this is stated loud and clear, and in as many details as possible, this is a great and stable axiomatic ground for further activity. Such a "statement" or "creed" immediately carves out a niche, creates a certain category in which you place yourself. Other categories and niches are also possible; but, contrary to what can be thought, there aren't as many of them as we often think. Below I shall try to present such an "axiomatic system" constructed for myself and try to show some of the 'alternatives'.

Of course, very often we see a situation when even the stated 'laws' don't work. For instance, every possible logical move suggests to you that whoever likes Thick As A Brick by Jethro Tull should also like 'Supper's Ready' by Genesis. (I haven't yet met any exceptions). But one day you meet a person who rates Brick as one of his favourite albums of all-time and then proceeds to state that 'Supper's Ready' sucks ass. Possible? Sure. Definitely possible. This, unfortunately, is where the "ultra-subjective factor" steps in. A lot of impressions can be due to 'random' events - for instance, somebody has a soft spot for his first record, or associates it with a particularly pleasant event, or he was just in a particularly good mood when he last put on that record. Needless to say, an honest reviewer must weed out the "ultra-subjective factor" at any possible cost; that is to say, he certainly shouldn't try to rip it out of his heart (if you're deeply attracted to something, why throw it away unless it harms somebody else?), but he should be objective enough to realize the particular circumstances in which he had acquired this particularly favourable (or disfavourable, for that matter) impression. This is hard to do, but this is definitely possible; and it is the only kind of "biases" which I call really, really harmful when it comes down to analyzing something. It's one thing when you feel a deep dislike for hard rock in general, and another thing when you love Led Zep II because your girlfriend gave it to you on your birthday and hate Led Zep IV because it's overplayed.

Anyway, here are several considerations on the subject of "music axiomatics" from MY point of view. I dare say that the following "axioms" are being shared by a lot of people, which is why this whole damn business makes sense. Others may disagree with some of these axioms - and it makes sense as well. Here is what I expect from a record (song, musical piece, improvisation, noise, whatever) when I put it on:

I) Music should please. Seems too obvious, doesn't it? Yet not so obvious, considering that many people listen to certain types of music just in order to seem different from the rest - this usually refers to all kinds of obscure avantgarde artists whose audience mainly consists of snubs who can never even begin to explain what it is that strikes them about these kinds of music. Sure, music shouldn't necessarily please at first listen - many records require multiple listens to grow on you, and if some intricate, complex prog-rock suite seems offensive and nothing but a piece of meaningless self-indulgence to you today, there's no guarantee that a fresh look in a year's time will alter your perspective 180 degrees. But the basic rule here is: one should never force oneself to love something ("the others love it and I don't, I must be an idiot"), because in the end this might simply lead to self-deceiving, this is just the way that all these stupid snubs are born.

Example: Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark is, according to my opinion, an album that cannot please. It's just not the kind of stuff that can stimulate positive reactions (any reactions, in fact - when I say 'music must please', I am certainly including all kinds of emotional resonance, including fear, anger, intentional disgust, etc.) in the listener. It is avantgarde classical music that radically breaks its ties with more "traditional" music to the extent of abandoning the "music - pleasure" link. I agree that there are people in this world who love this album sincerely. But in that case, they simply do not accept this first axiom for granted. I do, and therefore The Yellow Shark and everything similar to it will never be rated highly.

II) Music should be written for the listener. Maybe even more obvious, and yet, so many important things arise out of this axiom. First of all, it renders useless the traditional question I'm already sick of: 'How can you review this stuff if you're not a musician?' Music is not written for musicians; it's written for those people who want to listen to it. Therefore, any music lover in general is a potential reviewer. Second, it also imposes certain restrictions on the artist in question. If the artist is writing music for himself - music that he is not going to supply the public with - he may produce anything he wants. If the artist is writing for the public, he must take the public's taste in consideration as well. In this context I fondly remember Rich Bunnell's statement that went something like "all good music is commercial by definition". All good music is commercial, because it takes pity on the listener. Of course, music must not get too commercial, because then it will lose its freshness and originality and contradict several other axioms (see below). The ideal here is The Golden Middle: a truly great song is the one that manages to make a perfect marriage out of the more 'traditional' elements, already known to the public, and the more 'innovative' elements that come out of the artist's inspired mind.

Example: why are the Beatles the best band in the world? Not because they invented feedback or backwards tapes and not because they wrote the catchiest songs on earth. They are the best band in the world because they mastered the principle of the golden middle better than any of their contemporaries or followers. "Express yourself as best you can, but keep in mind that this record will be listened to by people different from you."

Another example: what's the main problem with progressive rock? Prog-rock artists like Ian Anderson or Peter Hammill, when lost in a never ending world of their deeply personal fantasies, lose the golden middle. Their untrivial and way too complex musical and lyrical structures become more and more esoteric, and end up being understandable only to themselves and a very limited cult following. This is not necessarily a bad thing (unless some of the more rabid of these followers start cutting up their opponents' throats or anything), but it's still a bad thing for me. I'm all for innovation and sincere self-expression, as you know, but remember: music should please.

III) Music should be original. You already know that. To avoid any misunderstandings, I'll repeat here that the best kind of originality is always based on tradition. A complete dismissal of everything traditional... well, apart from the fact that such a thing is hardly possible physically, it usually results in stuff like - right, you guessed it - The Yellow Shark (actually, that album is also traditional - it builds on the legacy of avantgarde classical of the mid-XX century) or some hideous King Crimson improvisational jam. If you look at all the good music that's happened in the last 50 years, you'll see that its evolution was extremely fast, but gradual - for those who observed musical processes closely, there were no sudden leaps or revolutions as rock "slowly" progressed from Chuck Berry to surf to early Beatles to early Stones to... you get me. Brian Burks was deeply wrong when he wrote about how progressive rockers in the early Seventies wanted to "discard the past" with their self-indulgence and revolutionary attitude. Yes, the word of the day was "experimental", but it was a gradual, multi-part experiment that was all based on the past, never discarding it.

Anyway, in a certain sense all music is original unless you're sampling, and even then it's original too. What I really mean can be more or less exposed in five mini-commandments: a) Thou shalt not steal riffs from thy predecessor, unless thou wishest to implicitly underline thy heritage; b) Thou shalt not rely on drum machines unless thou usest those in a creative manner; c) Thou shalt not approach thy synthesizer if thy soul wisheth to use it for desperate lack of ideas; d) Thou shalt forever be on the lookout for new sounds from thy instruments; e) Thou shalt stay hip only if thy hipness doth not overshadow thy artistic nature.

Even with these commandments (they all look different but they're all really one), "originality" is a very diluted conception, and I'm not going to go into details here once again (that would require a separate essay). I'll just say that the approach "so what if it's not original?" really, really bugs me. Believe it or not, it does matter whether it was the Kinks or whether it was Blur who came first. Again, there is a perspective (and an understandable one) according to which it does not really matter, but such a perspective should be excluded on a serious review site. Basically, it does not matter if Mona Lisa is present in the Louvre or in the house of a person who stole it, because it will always retain the same beauty; but it certainly should be present in the Louvre and not in the house of the person who stole it.

There is only one major exception to the rule of originality, and it's closely linked to the last axiom which is...

IV) Music should be adequate. This one's the least trivial, so I'll precede it with an example. Why do so many people hate the music of bands like Uriah Heep and Styx? These guys are good at their instruments; they write relatively simple, accessible melodies; they are even original in some ways, especially Heep, who were the leaders of early "prog-metal" until Rush came along. And yet, people with "good taste" - not at all snubby ones, just those who have bothered to listen to a lot of music and provided themselves with a good insight - usually put them at the very very shitbottom of art-rock. Why so?

Because these two bands are inadequate. The form and structure of their songs does not correspond to the songs' meaning, and even less so to the songs' supposed goal. Whereas the ambitions of Heep and Styx were obviously similar to the ambitions of other progressive bands around, they didn't have these bands' inventiveness and dexterity (although Styx were a little better at that than Heep, I must say). Try to sing 'Hickory Dickory Dock' with an orchestral arrangement and a deadly serious look on your face and see what happens. These guys did more or less the same thing.

Likewise, today's MTV pop sucks so much because it has become absolutely inadequate. Today, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys are almost being marketed to us as "high art" (well, they don't exactly say that, but since they don't really offer much else, and due to all the hype, the impression is similar), when in reality all of this stuff doesn't amount to anything higher than provincial dance club muzak. Adequate? I don't think so. But I sure wouldn't have any problem with this muzak if I really happened to encounter it in a provincial dance club, where it would be adequate.

While this principle may not seem much to you, it is pretty much the most important axiom of all of them to me. Basically, a composition which is adequate can't be all that bad. You'll see, for instance, as you browse through my lowest-rated albums, that they're all gruesomely inadequate. The Animals' Winds Of Change pretends to be a new word in Hippie Philosophy when in reality it's just a stupid collection of unimaginative sonic collages. Eric Clapton's Pilgrim pretends to be a deeply felt emotional experience, but the corny, routine arrangements drag it down to the Britney Spears level. Rod Stewart's mid-Eighties albums pretend to be energetic outbursts of rock energy, but in reality they're just conventional efforts from a washed-up old bag in his mid-life crisis period. The list is endless.

On the other hand, if an album is fully adequate, I can even forgive it its lack of originality. For instance, Celtic bands like Clannad or Steeleye Span kept remaking the same record over and over again; but it was their schtick to introduce their audiences to the pleasures of Celtic music, and they fully succeeded in that. Of course, unoriginal bands can't hope to last for very long, but as long as they're adequate, they have that hope.

There are also other factors contributing to the "goodness" of a song (technical mastership, production, melodicity, etc.), but these are secondary and, well, far more diluted than the four above. For instance, I could never understand the talks about "ugly" and "beautiful" melodies. Okay, I can see where a melody could be "beautiful", but "ugly"? Unless it's played with an ear-destructive distorted violin, of course (but that refers to instrumentation, not melody). For me, a melody is either distinctive (based on untrivial chord sequences, featuring well-constructed original riffs and phrases, etc.) or not (derivative and trivial, or - vice versa - overcomplicated to the point of sheer unmemorability). Likewise, the criterion of "chops" is also very relative - I can, for instance, understand the arguments of both those who state that good music requires good chops and those who say that the essence of rock'n'roll is not having any chops at all. As for production, well, a good song should certainly be produced well, but so what if it's produced poorly? (In that respect, check out Bob Josef's comments on the Who page - he's built up an exciting "History of Who Production" there, which almost ends up giving the impression that the best Who albums are those that are the best produced).

Basically, this is the essence of my musical philosophy, and these are also the main criteria according to which I rate records. Are they objective within themselves? Yes, they are. Originality and adequacy are both fairly objective notions; I could formulate both of them in more precise terms, of course, but I don't feel that's absolutely necessary at the moment. If you want to disagree with me over certain bands/albums/songs which I consider (un)original and (in)adequate, I'm all ears - but in this case, either you or me are objectively wrong, and in the end, if we're wise and we're tolerant, we're bound to find a compromise.

HOWEVER. Discussions over specific questions like 'I disagree with you when you say that Uriah Heep's 'The Magician's Birthday' is a gruesomely inadequate composition' and discussions over problems like 'Who the hell cares if it's adequate?' are TWO DIFFERENT DISCUSSIONS. I am not willing to participate in the second one because it goes over the borders of this here musical philosophy. If your musical philosophy does not coincide with mine, any kinds of arguments are useless. We are both right within our particular thought paradigms.

Short resume: objectivity in art assessing is only possible within a chosen subjective paradigm. Contrary to popular view, there are only a few such paradigms; the abundance of all kinds of subjective opinions has more to do with personal limitation and special social/intimate circumstances that have determined a certain person's musical taste (the "ultra-subjective factor"). Unfortunately, it is VERY hard to get rid of all biases (it took me years to get rid of the anti-hard rock bias, for instance); but that's what a good reviewer should always try to overcome. The paradigm presented above takes enjoyability, originality and adequacy as three main objective criteria for evaluating and rating music. Other paradigms are possible as well - for instance, paradigms that only rely on enjoyability, or paradigms that only rely on originality. So far, I haven't yet encountered any paradigms that only rely on adequacy (haven't even met anybody who'd previously formulate that criterion), but hey, who knows what tomorrow may bring.

Any thoughts on all this rather complex matter will be appreciated. But remember: it is absolutely useless to argue about whether "originality", etc. is "good" or "bad". It is good in some respects - namely and mainly, in the respect that original music has a better chance of being preserved through the ages - and not important in other respects (namely, "unoriginal" does not mean "unenjoyable"). It is more useful to go ahead and try and find other criteria for judging music.

A very important postscriptum concerning teen pop.

Returning to the subject of adequacy, I'd just wish to add that deep down in my soul, I don't feel any true animosity towards the "teen pop" artists mentioned above, such as Britney Spears and co., nor do I feel any animosity towards gangsta rap, techno and other genres that to me define the very essence of "genericness". In fact, I feel far more animosity towards the more recent incarnations of such artists as Genesis or Rod Stewart. Basically, it's one thing to start out as an intelligent, thought-provoking, tasteful cultural phenomenon and then slowly degenerate into something far more primitive (this is particularly painful for older fans of the band/artist), and another thing to start out primitively from the very beginning. In my Web hunting I have come across many a site that took delight in bashing teen pop - huge sites dedicated to actually analyzing these bands' lyrics and music and then saying: 'Now do you see the difference between this and, say, Dark Side Of The Moon?' Stupid. This difference is obvious without any analyses. And people who actually believe that in this way they can turn other people away from loving teenybopper stuff and into more serious music are naive to the extreme. The teeny-lovers will just say: 'So what? Music need not be intelligent'.

Let them be, I say. As people grow and acquire the need for something deeper and more intellectual, they will turn away from teen pop themselves. Or maybe they won't, or they will turn to other equally mindless genres - it's their problem. A shallow person can only become deeper through his or her own experiences; any kind of sneering or "education" will only lead to further problems. The real problem only occurs when Britney Spears and co. start being marketed as real art - this is definitely intolerable. Fortunately, such attempts usually fail - just look at Oasis, for instance. All efforts to pass them off for 'the next Beatles' have ended nowhere, and this is definitely a good sign which shows that music tends to be perceived in an adequate way even when it's being marketed in an inadequate one.

Rich Bunnell comments: (02.10.2000)

Studying for a doctorate in WHAT, George? Philosophical studies?? Yeesh, if they offered PhDs in popular music analysis, you'd be crowned king of the universe.

Firstly, I agree with you about the three "types" of reviewing. Prindle's "who gives?" system is refreshing, but too often his tendency to rule out anything he's not used to or didn't grow up with gets kind of annoying. Look at how he rated Ziggy Stardust for example. He didn't grow up with Bowie, to to HIM that's a mediocre, unmemorable album, "by the numbers rock and roll with no reason to exist." But hoot man, every friggin' album the Ramones put out just floats his boat halfway to two Saturdays from now!! Not to say that the Ramones are bad, or that his opinion is wrong, but he shows a bit of a blatant bias towards the music of his childhood.

Speaking of "bias," that's where I reach Mike O'Hara's system. Now, granted, I'm on very good terms with the guy and agree with his list more often than not. But it's kind of hard to read through his lists and wanton replies to reader comments without wanting to take the guy by the collar and go "HELLO!" It really irritates me when somebody dares defend a popular band, and his reply is "So if they're so influential, then why does VH1 play them?" As much as I don't watch VH1, that is a very close-minded, unresearched reply. But more annoying is his pro-Brit bias. Granted, I myself listen to a lot more British music than American. But this guy writes off EVERYTHING that came out of the States just for the sake of proving his "point" about some "British embargo"(hey, buddy -- that's called "nationalism," look it up). The Replacements, Husker Du, Pavement, Talking Heads, Tom Petty, Steely Dan, Zappa, and scores of other worthy American artists are completely brushed off either on the basis of their radio hits or one or two listens. He's said "Look at my 'Best' list, it's 50% American!" before, but the "American" half of it either consists of really obvious artists like Springsteen or the Doors or kitschy '50s and '60s one-hit-wonders that just happen to strike his fancy. In the meantime, he's all too willing to push boring-ass bands like New Order as "examples of the British postpunk explosion" and acting like Depeche Mode is the fourth best band of all time even though he himself doesn't really like any of their albums the whole way through (he admitted this to me in an E-mail). Plus, he put TMBG's "Birdhouse In Your Soul" on his "Worst" list, and that just irks me for obvious reasons.

As for the rest of your argument, I think that you did a valiant job of getting out the basic rules that pretty much every listener follows (that is, if he or she is aware of them). My only disagreement lies in your "Music should be original." section. I don't fall into the "So what if it's not original?" camp, but I do fall into a camp that gets bugged when people complain that an artist is aping another artist's sound. I mean, sure, Blur -sounded- like the Kinks on a few songs on Parklife and Modern Life Is Rubbish, but, with a few teensy exceptions maybe, I don't hear Damon Albarn stealing any melodies outright from any old Kinks records. The gripe shouldn't be whether a band steals another band's sound, but whether they do it in a way that's offensive, obvious, self-serving and annoying, which is the case with our good ol' pricks Oasis.

Otherwise, I agree with you. My basic theory is that in reviewing music, one has to be sure to express his or her own opinion while not expressing facets of that opinion that are unique to the individual. For example, Prindle completely writes off "1979" by the Smashing Pumpkins because he claims that he's offended by the lifting and fixing of a flat note from an old Husker Du song. Is the average individual (or hell, an educated individual) even going to notice that??

George Starostin replies:

As you see, we share different paradigms with Rich - and like I already said, both of them have their ups and downs and both are equally appliable. In practice this comes down to a situation when, for instance, both of us enjoy the same Blur album equally, but I will decrease the rating of the album for lack of originality (on this site, this would normally correspond to a decrease of band rating) and he will not. In this respect, Rich would be "working for today" and I would be "working for tomorrow", and we would both be doing society a good favour. Essentially, there's just no need to argue about this kind of thing.

I would, however, like to remark that for me, it would be far harder to distinguish between "offensive unoriginal" and "inoffensive unoriginal" than to distinguish between simply "original" and "unoriginal". What is meant under 'offensive'? If I'm right in my hypothesis and Rich denotes as 'offensive' the same thing that I denote as 'inadequate', then he's right; "offensive unoriginal" is indeed offensive and should be put down at all costs. But the trick is not to let one's subjective bias override the facts and not confuse 'objectively offensive = inadequate' with something which doesn't appeal to the individual - right, like the case of Prindle dismissing '1979'.

John McFerrin comments: (03.10.2000)

Dammit George, this essay kicks ass. Probably because it concretely brings to form what I've more or less though about music reviewing since I began my own site, but I hope that even non-music-reviewers get something out of it.

One thing, though - you missed one of the reasons for the existance of review sites. When made interactive, they provide an _excellent_ opportunity to examine various facets of modern culture. Put another way, I may not know that much about AC/DC from Mark's page, but I sure as hell know a lot about AC/DC _fans_ from that page. Same with Jethro Tull, same with the Moody Blues, same with tons of bands. It's fascinating to view general musical taste as a microcosm of general culture, if you ask me.

George Starostin replies:

Wow, it's the first time I've been nominated an "ass-kicking essayist". I'm really flattered.

Yeah, I know I missed out on the interactivity - good correction. That subject just wasn't closely related to the essay's subject. As for the relation between AC/DC and AC/DC fans - I'll be writing more on that one as soon as I get around to constructing the AC/DC page (in the MP3 section, of course).

Nick Karn comments: (05.10.2000)

Great essay here with some very good points you've brought up. I thought I'd offer my take on it, since I seem to like responding to these things.

One reason I actually started making my own album review site was for the simple self-indulgent idea that I didn't think the opinions of certain reviewers were satisfying to me at all. That doesn't mean I was pissed at every little disagreement - even when I have major disagreements with some of your reviews, you back your opinion up so well that I can usually see where you're coming from. But that's exactly what, specifically, The All Music Guide and The Collector's Guide To Heavy Metal by Martin Popoff (a published book of over 3,700 different reviews) didn't offer. Most of the albums on both are reviewed and rated in an incredibly sporadic and inadequately short fashion, so I couldn't understand where they were coming from. Needless to say, after reading through a lot of these reviews and ratings, I really thought it was time to just write out my own opinions, especially since I have this horrible obsession with playing around with numbers. I started out with probably around 200 or so reviews - around half of them probably my own albums, some from vinyl collections, still more from my brother's collection.

I also think I have a fair amount of confidence in my own opinions, even though my early reviews sucked - it was only when I reopened my site that I had expanded my reviews so they were detailed and thorough enough and enabled readers to send in their comments, since I think it's a huge bonus to be able to give your perspective on an album someone else reviewed, to have a place to vent or praise it, since nobody's opinion is right or wrong and that feature could only help to get a balanced view on the album in question - just why people like, dislike or have mixed feelings toward the album. The way I approach it is to give my picture on an album and then leave the floor to those who have something to say about it, and invite them to contribute full length reviews. Sometimes I have my doubts about how good an album is, but my opinion of it is usually stable for the most part.

As far as that one approach to ripping the doubt apart when it arrives, that is precisely the type of reviewing approach that I can't stand. Reviewers like that act like they're egotistical and all-knowing as to what albums and music in general are all about, and that's just impossible - that kind of attitude turns me off in a huge way. I guess that's why I'm not a huge fan of Wilson & Alroy like most people are - I definitely respect their diverse taste, but when they act like their opinions are the right ones, with their reviews brief and interactivity nonexistent... well, there's my guideline for what my site shouldn't be like. And as for the Cosmicben approach, the inability to resolve something does paint an accurate picture of giving your own views on something on such a totally subjective thing as music, even if that lack of self-confidence sometimes brings down what the reviewer is trying to express - but only sometimes.

I would like to think I follow the three main criteria for music reviewing, since I'm generally proud of most of the reviews I've written (especially the ones I've done with in the past... oh, four or five months - I've gotten much better since I started I think), they are an attempt to paint a decent picture of what the album's overall sound is, what the main strengths and weaknesses of it are, and I normally don't feel intimidated to criticize a 'sacred cow' or praise an album that's generally regarded as subpar - whether or not my opinion comes through is up to the reader to decide I guess.

Objectivity and subjectivity, however, is a really difficult issue to tackle, and I really think this is where interactivity helps, as it's up to the reader to choose who to believe by seeing several different opinions (until hearing the album, that is). However, if the reviewer does a good enough job of describing objectively as possible what the actual songs and album sounds like (for instance, describing Jon Anderson's singing voice and his lyrical style may be a warning siren to the reader that "hey, this song or album may not be for me"), it sort of makes it easier for the reader to distinguish what may be good or bad to them, since proving anything to be 100% true is nearly impossible in most of these cases. I do think you bring up a great point in that since the listeners are always different, the music is different to them. It's possible that some person may think "Eleanor Rigby" is nothing more than a typical saccharine Paul McCartney crap with horrendously dated strings and production values. They're not wrong at all for thinking that, though you and I would probably think that person's insane, more likely, since it really is what one hears.

Many reviewers, whether they know it or not, often reveal a lot of what expectations they may have for certain musical genres or whatever throughout their style in attempting to get a clear idea of what an album and artist is all about. In your case, it's a musical creed on the main page, which goes even further with that idea. And yes, there are always exceptions to the unwritten rules, as there's always someone who likes one band/song/album but hates another, even though they are very related. This can definitely be due to that 'ultra-subjective' factor you mentioned - it's never totally possible not to have any good or bad biases towards anything, and especially in the early stages of one's record buying people tend to become attached to these albums, but ultimately, when you really start to dig deeper into the significance and overall effect of the album within itself, those things tend to become minimal.

Regarding those points which you bring up about what you expect from music:

Music should please is, without a doubt, my number one criteria for whether I like or don't like it. It's one thing if, for example, a record has a depressing and downcast overall mood to it. But it's another thing as to whether it actually has resonance, with the combination of the right elements in the song going together (melody, lyrics, atmosphere, etc.) or it merely wallows in a state of lifelessness and worthless self-pity with none of those strong qualities to back it up. I also agree that it should also be something listenable, which depends purely on taste, and what you want to hear. The more varied aspects of the music that the creator puts into it (diversity often helps, as do powerful hooks which make definite impression) the more that people will highly enjoy it. Musicians doing it too much for themselves is often when things get carried away, as they sometimes lose sight of not whether the general public or their fans will think it's good, but whether they think it's good, which, painfully, sometimes do turn out to be very different things.

On the idea that music should be original, for me it's not necessarily musical ideas that had previously not been carried out before that make it great, but whether or not it's overall approach (the combination of the overall songwriting, be it musical ideas of others with some of the band's own elements thrown in) sounds relatively fresh and unique to my ears. Those that sound sickeningly derivative, no matter how good they are, I usually won't rate them very highly. However, if there is something in a band's style that's totally unique sounding or groundbreaking, I'm more likely to hold a higher regard for it if the songs at their core are actually good (which more often than not, they turn out to be more than so, especially in the 60s, given the immensely talented songwriters that I don't even have to mention).

As much as I love Radiohead, for instance, I highly doubt that I'll ever have more respect for them than Pink Floyd, not only because Floyd's songs were mostly great, but because they were special in that no one else ever sounded quite like them, and I also happen to like them more just because of a vast backcatalog of great songs to choose from (one flaw of a lot of modern bands is that most only release albums every two or three, sometimes even four or five, years, as opposed to older bands that often churned out an album or sometimes even two every year, and that makes a lot of difference). My final opinion is often a combination of the approach and quality of the songs factoring in the originality - sometimes the lack of it can bring things down somewhat (I may really love an album and it would only get an 8 instead of a 9 or 10 because of it, while something that I might not be the hugest fan of in the world may get elevated to something more), but in a few cases, the songwriting talent is so outstanding that it can mask the derivative tendencies of the music effectively.

For example, Dream Theater is probably my personal favorite band right now, because they combine the unique styles of most of the huge players in progressive and hard rock from the 60's through the present with great meaningful poetry and tastefully carried out musicianship so amazingly, that I can't help but be completely blown away by almost everything they write. They have had their moments of ripping people off, but hey, who hasn't? I know they definitely aren't or wouldn't be a special band in everyone's eyes and the reasons why people would hate them are obvious. They just totally work for me for all the same reasons they would attract others.

Inadequacy in music? Hmm... yeah, the overall effect of the song should match whatever type of mood or meaning it's trying to shoot for in the best way possible. That's a huge part of what actually makes a song work, isn't it? I could name several examples of this type of thing, as well as reach exceeding grasp (ambitions carried out which did not need to be done), but I'm not going to. Nice examples of albums pretending to be something they actually aren't which fail miserably at it. Sad when these things come from such great bands, isn't it?

Meanwhile, I don't exactly think 'teen pop' is marketed as 'high art', but I do think it's made out to be the 'best' of what's out there, like being number one on eMpTyV's Total Request Live is supposed to mean something. Whatever. I will have to say there's something inadequate about teen pop songs where almost everything that actually makes the song attractive (its' structure and pleasing melody) is not actually composed by the performer, and that's always bugged me. In these cases, I'm fairly convinced that it's not actually the songs that sell the records, it's the very image of them (their dance moves and looks among other things) that do. I'm not going to say these types of songs can't mean something to some people, and I have absolutely nothing against those who just like to listen to them as something to dance to. Besides, if they're ambitious enough music listeners, they'll grow out of it or other inferior genres.

Adequate albums, though, are usually the kind that I would, at worst usually give a fairly decent grade. If the songs aren't poorly thought out and generally don't have serious flaws about them, then I'm OK with it. For instance, the power pop band Enuff Z'Nuff basically made the same record over and over with a few minor variations in mood, overall heavyness, etc. There's really not much unique about their sound at all, as it heavily borrows from The Beatles, Queen, Cheap Trick and Elvis Costello, but they are for the most part very good at what they do (except for their pre-debut demo albums of course, but that goes without saying), with very catchy, not too obviously derivative, melodies and a good sound. Probably a classic example of a band which I'd consider ant (or one star) status on your scale.

Whew, I've probably spent a good one and a half, two hours, typing all this out and responding to all this stuff. I see this essay as generating a lot of thought-provoking, extremely intelligent discussion - it really makes me think about what actual worth all aspects of music possess. You really have a great talent for expressing your ideas on all this stuff. Keep up the great work, and I myself will continue in my album reviewing pleasures with all these ideas in mind.

George Starostin replies:

Just one minor correction, concerning the "I also agree that it should also be something listenable, which depends purely on taste, and what you want to hear" line. My idea was somewhat different - I put 'listenable' and 'enjoyable' forward as an objective, not subjective criterion. Take it this way: I may not enjoy music like Traffic a great deal, but it is definitely enjoyable, since it is based on musical tradition that takes such things as harmony, melody, continuity, etc., into account. Therefore, while I don't like a large percent of Traffic output because of unoriginality, repetitiveness and sore lack of interesting melodic structures, it is for the most part possible to enjoy anyway. On the other hand, an album like The Yellow Shark - and I insist on that - is impossible to enjoy, because it violates many unwritten, yet existent, musical laws. At least, it is impossible to enjoy from a natural standpoint: you have to undergo special self-training and a severe violation of your own perceptability in order to really enjoy it. I mean, such a thing as masochism is possible, yet it is by no means a 'normal' situation. If masochism is a deviation, then enjoying Yellow Shark is certainly a deviation as well. To me, persons who say 'You must train your ears in order to get modern classical' and persons who say 'You must train your body in order to get pleasure from physical pain' are the same type of crowds.

I know I can't prove this from a purely logical point of view, but well, that's just one of the axioms I put forward in this essay. Feel free to disagree with me.

Lyolya Svidrigajlova Comments: (18.03.2001)

NO OFFENCE MEANT. Just that's my way of commenting. Well, let me criticize a little bit the "rating system" which was praised by everybody..

1. What does ACTUALLY mean "originality"? Humm... possible variants...

a) "unlike others" - which on Andy Lloyd's reviews page (best reviews page I know, don't argue!) was called "personality". Mean, can you confuse Jim Morrison or Mark Knopfler with anybody else? Yup. That's what really matters. IMHO, of course.

b) "innovativeness" - that belongs more to fifties than to sixties. And that's what is meant here probably? Burr... but to the reviewer Beatles seem more innovative than Doors or Pink Floyd?.. Period...

2. "Resonance" is SO HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE! A hippie would rather identify himself with Jim Morrison and a housewife with somebody else. Tina Turner or Bonnie Tyler, probably?

3. "Listenability"? Eagles are listenable but sooooo booooooring... And - so many things omitted!

1. "Sincerity" really matters! Let me put it this way: the more honest you are, the more you talk about yourself and your own world, the more people will take your songs to their hearts. ...

I recall "Shine on you crazy diamonds". Not that I'm a Pinkfan, but this song really makes me cry. A guy gone into the night never to come back... gee, that's so personal. But if you have never had friends who "disappeared in the night", this song will never make you cry. That's "resonance".

2. "Emotion". Any further comments needed? Okay. Does anybody like to jaw not cooked macaroni or dry gooseberries? Or swim in a overchlorated swimming pool? The same case is with music.

3. The level of musicianship, vocals, music and lyrics also matter. Do they not? But here, a reviewer should be either a musician or at least he should have a musical education. Andy Lloyd he is and that's why I trust him much more.

In addition - why do I think that being a musician is very important for a music reviewer? Cuz only the one who writes songs knows HOW DARN HARD IT IS. If you don't know how something is done, you think it's simple, ah? And if you try just one time to do it yourself, you'll feel more respect to the thing done and to the person who has done it. Period.

Reviews should be either professional or funny. Or both (like Andy's). But not none of that. Period.

On Andy's page, the readers' comments are at least at equal importance with the reviews. And they are always intelligent, full of humor and respect. I wondered why, and then I knew that it's not only because of good, professional, interesting and respectful reviews but also because Andy always gives three attempts to all of his commentators. In other words, if he gets something like "Gilmore sold out, Waters rules" he ALWAYS asks the commentator to explain, and you can twice or more add something or change something until you get what you wanted to say. And what is also nice is that fans are welcome. Andy believes that they see more about this or that band than he does and can add some interesting things, impressions, views. And that's true. Given that you don't treat them dumb. Period.

George Starostin replies:

Now here are some sharp and vital critiques! I suppose they deserve a detailed and serious answer.

1. "Original" means "new". You can put it whichever way you like. Innovativeness and "unlike others" both matter. Not every band adds anything 'new' - Kansas, for instance, never did anything that Genesis didn't do before them, and they hardly introduced any new kind of 'personality', either.

2. "Resonance" is not subjective at all, at least, not highly subjective. It is, in fact, the same criterion that Lyolya dubs "emotion" and treats separately: I don't. Call it "emotional resonance" if you wish. It is true that different types of music trigger different emotions in different people, but the only idea expressed in that criterion was that some music isn't supposed to trigger any kind of emotions. [Modern classical, hint, hint... well, not all of it, but a lot of it]. Of course, this criterion is tied in with the "originality" criterion in some way - 'resonant' music that relies too heavily on cliches ultimately only stays resonant for those who don't have a large enough musical background to recognize the cliches.

3. Not all "listenable" music is interesting, of course, but whoever said that all of the criteria mentioned above are of equal value? Put it this way: from the point of view that I offer, all of the "unlistenable" music should be dismissed, but it doesn't mean that "listenable" music automatically becomes "great" music.

As for the 'omitted' criteria:

1. 'Sincerity' certainly matters, but this one is a very feeble criterion. First of all, music needn't be sincere to be good. Examples? David Bowie, the greatest "fake" artist in history. I'm not a big Bowie fan, but I still recognize him as a great talent. Second, it's sometimes very hard to see where sincerity ends and where it begins. Some shed tears at the Stones' 'Angie', others dismiss it as fake. Is it sincere or not? Who can tell. There are extreme cases: ultra-sincerity, like Lennon's Plastic Ono Band or Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, and ultra-insincerity... (eeh... probably some Uriah Heep song). In between these lies the whole wide world which is very hard to define according to that term.

2. 'Emotion' = my 'resonance'. 'Nuff said.

3. 'Level of musicianship' makes part of the 'adequacy' criterion. The level of musicianship is not always important, or, better to say, should always be judged according to different standards. There are bands where the vocals are important, bands where the musicianship is important, band where just the overall level of energy is important. Each band is rated according to what exactly they are proposing in this respect. I can't condemn the Ramones because their drummer doesn't play immaculate drum fills a la Phil Collins, can I? That's "adequacy".

I should also emphasize the fact that the "paradigm" I presented was just my own paradigm. People who disagree with it are welcome to their own paradigms - I don't see this as a serious problem or anything. Now you wouldn't want to argue with a Christian from the point of view of a Muslim, wouldn't you, or vice versa? I'm not sure if anything truly creative and useful could come out of such a dispute.

Another thing: though I'm not a musician, I do respect musicians and composers, independent of whatever quality their actual output is. It doesn't matter at all whether you are a musician or not yourself, it all depends on your basic psychological attitude. I have never seen that "Andy Lloyd page" Lyolya mentions, but supposedly that Andy Lloyd is just a nice guy, and it's because he is a nice guy that he treats everything and everybody with the utmost respect (if he does - like I said, I've never seen the page). There are plenty of reviewing pages across the Web, and plenty of reviewing guides in print, where musicians, or, at least, people with enough musical knowledge, pour far more dirt and venom on many bands and artists that I ever did. Not that I am a particularly nice guy - probably not. But I assure you, musical knowledge and respect for musicians do not in the least presuppose each other.

"Only the one who writes the song knows how darn hard it is". This is a very strong statement. Sometimes people sit in their studio and try to think of an interesting melody for hours. That's hard. Sometimes you just wake up in the middle of the night with a melody in your head, like a Paul McCartney or Keith Richards, and record it on the spot. That's easy. Which one is better?

It certainly takes far more effort to write, record, arrange and produce a Britney Spears dance tune than it was, say, for Bob Dylan to think of something as simple as 'Girl From The North Country' (simple, because the melody is not his, and the lyrics aren't too twisted either). Which one is better?

I certainly understand that it is hard to write and record songs. But dammit, this is the composer's job. He gets paid for it. Pretty good money, too. It's also not that easy to write a musical review, even a bad musical review. I don't get paid anything for writing musical reviews. I get paid for my regular job. Now who deserves more pity - the artist or the critic? This is a serious question to be pondered upon as well.

Last of all, about the fans once again. Not everybody knows about it, but I actually do try to encourage even flamers at times to expand their ideas - it's just that I don't have enough time to write extended, polite letters to every d... er, excuse me, every fan who originally sees the page as a prime means to vent his or her frustration. But perhaps I should once again make it clear that the site is mainly oriented on people who try to have their music in perspective - not concentrating entirely on a 'deep penetration' inside a single artist, but rather assessing that artist against a plethora of other ones. Plus, I have no problem with really serious and intelligent fans - I get along with most of them just fine, and always welcome their comments. Granted, I'm probably not as good at that as Andy Lloyd, but why does the Web need two perfect review sites if you can't top perfection?

Mattias Lundberg Comments: (04.02.2002)

Really impressive and relevant observations and very well formulated as well. It has been said many times before, but pardon me for saying it again: hats off, ladies and gentlemen, this page is absolutely fabulous ! I have a little question as regards the forth axiom, 'music should be adequate': Could not this axiom be in conflict with the general criterion 'honesty' ? I don't really know how to put this, so I'll give a hypothetical example: Mr.X and Mr.Y are both fans of the ultra-subjective kind (the kind of persons that would say things like "The fact that you listen to that band proves that you know nothing about music" or "Why do you hate this band ?" if somebody gave them a 9 on a 1-10 scale). Mr.X is a prog rock purist who thinks that the musician alone decides how seriously her/his music should be taken and, to him, serious equals good. Needless to say, he believes that 'unserious' music has got no right to exist. Mr.Y loves his blues-rock and early metal stuff, good chops is his main criterion but he regards all art-rock as the airy-fairy nonsense of pompous public school boys. Now if these two individuals one day would wake up having turned completely objective and honest over night, would adequacy matter to them ? I believe not, let us take two examples of inadequate bands: i. Rush as a band that aspires to be 'high art' but mainly produces music rather on 'root level' and ii. 80s/90s act Primus as a band playing music of structural complexity and instrumental proficiency, but with total 'piss-take' lyrics and a jocular general outlook. Wouldn't Mr.X enjoy Primus - on a purely musical level - and realize that some of their music could have been from K.C.'s 'Red' (sorry about this reference to another band, I don't mean to undermine the originality of any of the bands)? And wouldn't Mr.Y regard Rush as a worthy alternative to Led Zep and Deep Purple (ditto) ? Wouldn't it be dishonest and subjective of them not to ? What do you think about this, I might have misunderstood your axiom, but it seems like the concepts of honesty and adequacy are in conflict, since the latter implies non-musical presuppositions (what the musician wanted to achieve).


The worst thing that could happen in a music review is subjectivity dressed up as objectivity (e.g. "If you haven't been a middle class teenager in the 70s, smoking pot at a party while listening to 'Meddle' you can't understand what Pink Floyd is all about." or vice versa (e.g. 'I just love this song, its contemporary record sales and the fact that it took over a year to record in the studio just makes me feel its the best song ever written'). You'll never find faux pas like this in a review by comrade Starostin.

George Starostin replies:

Adequacy can certainly come in contradiction with honesty, in which case I personally always select adequacy - thus, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and honesty of such a band as Kansas (whose members are known for their benevolent nature, friendliness and such, in addition), but unfortunately, however sincere their motives might have been, the music they wanted to make was simply way too tough for them to crack. And so, while I have nothing against these guys in particular (nor do I have anything against Rush musicians as persons), I don't find the music at all laudable.

Coming back to the case in question, Mr Y would certainly have his own right to regard Rush as a worthy alternative to earlier hard rock - but if all he ever paid attention to were the hard-rocking riffs of Alex Lifeson, or if he started treating Neil Peart's lyrics and Geddy Lee's seriousness as something absolutely justified and representing high artistry, I'd have trouble coming to an understanding with him. Another thing is, in many cases musical aims are rather obvious in the music itself even if they're not achieved; nobody would argue that Rod Stewart's Camouflage is not "supposed" to be an energetic rock'n'roll album, and nobody would argue that a band like Uriah Heep ever had a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards their demons & wizards schtick.

Nick Scholtz Comments: (18.04.2003)

GS: "1. 'Sincerity' certainly matters, but this one is a very feeble criterion. First of all, music needn't be sincere to be good. Examples? David Bowie, the greatest "fake" artist in history. I'm not a big Bowie fan, but I still recognize him as a great talent. Second, it's sometimes very hard to see where sincerity ends and where it begins."

I think that you dissmiss this idea too quickly. I think that the trait of "commitment to the material" *IS* important and can be considered as objectively as adequacy (and there is overlap). Rather than "sincerity" which, as you say, is a slippery concept I think we do respond to performances in which the artist is present in their material, alert to nuance in their performance, and, for lack of a better phrase, giving it their all. I think that people that have a sincere sentiment that they are trying to communicate frequently have these virtues but that it's also possible to be committed to performace itself -- like Divid Bowie, to use your example. As a friend of mine said about 'Ziggy Stardust' -- "You have to admit, it's a great song and he sings the Hell out of it." Bowie may be theatrical but he doesn't give into the impulse to mock the performce while he's giving it. You may not be able to say that he sings it like he believes it (what would it mean to "believe" 'Ziggy Stardust') but he does sing it with the conviction that the song deserves to be given its due. As another example Steely Dan (particularly in their early material) is a band that is committed to their material even if they aren't "sincere." Perhaps I just have a weakness for Fagen's singing but there's never a moment when seem to consider themselve above either the song of their audience. Quite obviously, given their studio obsessiveness, Steely Dan cares about there performances.

This is an area in which I think so much of "pop music" fails. The performers frequently sound as if they're too distracted to care about the music or the performace they give. To offer another example listen to "Better be good to me" by Tina Turner. The song is dumb, the music is a perfect example of "generic 80's pop" but Tina Turner's sing is fantastic. She is completely committed to the performace as a woman done wrong stading up to her ex. Is it sincere? Who cares, it clearly has commitment.

George Starostin replies:

Theoretically, 'commitment to the material' IS an objective quality, because an artist is either committed to his material or he isn't (although there can be various degrees of commitment as well). But it's pretty hard to come to an agreement on that as well. I happen to think, for instance, that Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks are quite committed to their material, but so many people I've talked to about Fleetwood Mac simply refuse to even consider that possibility, calling it "bullshit commercial pop" and not willing to even consider that there might have been some other motive behind that music other than earn a million dollars. Then there's the question of professional songwriters, for instance. Were people in the Brill Building, those who gave boatloads of hits into the hands of performers, "committed" to what they were writing? Were the performers "committed" to these songs? Or when Carole King sings 'Up On The Roof', how does one know that she is feeling this song? You can only know that you feel it - or you don't. Chances are, if you feel it, you'll say that there's commitment; if you don't, you'll say there's no commitment, and even if Carole King herself will come up to you and say "No, I did this sincerely and with commitment", you won't believe her - after all, is there one "non-committed" performer who will be ready to admit he's only doing it for the money? That's pretty hard to establish.

Lionel Marechal Comments: (14.03.2004)

I globally agree with your ideas. I wanted to give my comments about a sentence I heard from my teacher in philosophy : "The mission of art is to please and teach". A piece of music (or any other form of expression) can be considered as "art" if it "pleases and teaches" : otherwise it is below or beside art. "To teach" means, if I understand well, to carry a  message about life (about freedom, or revolt, or love of God or whatever) or about the form itself (such as, showing the original possibilities of an instrument, or a new way of combining some elements, and so on) ; to please means, well, to bring pleasure, of course (I include "making cry" or "kicking ass", for example, as forms of pleasure).

If music only relies on "pleasure", it is below art : it is only "ambient music" that can please your ears but doesn't bring thoughts. This is, in fact (IMHO) the definition of "commercial" (as a negative term, I mean) : music that can bring pleasure but doesn't try to teach anything (that includes teenage pop, harcore metal, barroom rock...). When music relies only on "teaching" and forgets to please, it isn't art either. Relying only on the message leads to boring preachiness (thus, Dylan's Saved as an example) ; relying exclusively on musical possibilities leads to wild experimentations (such as avantgarde classical music, the worst excesses of free jazz or overcomplicated prog rock).

Thus the real artist is the one who manages to both please the listener and to bring him/her something. If "commercial" means "easily accessible to the widest public", it's a good thing ; if it means "giving the people the ear-pleasure they want", relying only on well-used formulas, it's a bad thing. The Beatles (I'm not too hot about'em, but hey) are a good example : they managed to make music widely accessible without forgetting to try and experiment.

In fact, it rejoins your criteria : music must please (hence "listenability") and as well teach something, be it about emotions (hence "resonnance") or about the form itself (hence "originality"). I agree, though, that "please" may not necessarily mean "please at first listen" (the first times I heard Quadrophenia I understood nothing at all ; after the fifth listen I was amazed by its sheer beauty). And "adequacy" is a very important factor, too : I heard only two or three songs from Kiss and Uriah Heep, and these guys don't seem entirely devoid of talent ; but only two minutes of it made me cringe. What's the problem ? that's this : they're inadequate.

Just my two cents !

Brendan S. McCalmont Comments: (21.07.2004)

"despite all the endless "let's agree to disagree" and "everybody's entitled to..." formulae - these are nothing but a smooth buffer of politeness"

Well, not with me it isn't. I mean that, because I know that you and I look for different things in music.

" too often his tendency to rule out anything he's not used to or didn't grow up with gets kind of annoying"

I agree, that is why I feel angry about you forever 'pissing on' synth pop. While I personally don't love the genre, [i'm blue nwo am I] I find it annoying you overlook it's pluses because 'it's synthetic'. I actually might seem as though I'm contradicting what I said above, well, I'm not, because I don't agree to disagree! Synth pop can be catchy, groovy, energetic, vibrant and just because someone's playing a synth doesn't mean it can't be melodic. I can accept you don't like it, though, I don't raelly like it though I can see those qualities in it.

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