Indie

Ask A Music Critic: Is It Okay To Yell At A Critic Over A Bad Review?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at steve.hyden@uproxx.com.

After Pitchfork’s recent reviews of albums by Foxing and Lorde went up and fans of the artists were predictably disappointed that they were less-than-positive, there seemed to be a pretty immediate backlash among music writers that amounted to “fans shouldn’t get mad online about a negative review of an artist they like because negative reviews are Good and Important, and it’s boring to have the same opinions about everything.” I agree that negative reviews are necessary (I wish we got them more often!) and I’m obviously against fans harassing music writers. But the idea that it’s somehow tacky or inappropriate to post that you disagree with a negative review strikes me as strange and kinda backwards. Isn’t the point of talking about art to, you know, talk about art? Why are we doing this if not to have a conversation about it? If fans aren’t supposed to react to music writing, then who are critics writing for besides other critics? — Maff from Austin, TX

This is difficult to answer for me as a music critic who is universally regarded as such a genius that nobody could possibly disagree with my takes. Are there music critics who actually make people mad because readers think they’re wrong? Again, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this. Have I ever been wrong? But I’ll attempt to answer your question anyway.

When you see music critics on Twitter get defensive about whoever is on the hot seat that particular day for writing a negative review, whether it’s about an act with an intense cult following (like Foxing) or one of the world’s biggest pop stars (like Lorde), understand that they’re doing it because they feel threatened, literally and figuratively. Literally, in the sense that it’s fairly common now for writers to hear from lunatics who want to do them actual harm because the wealthy stranger they have an irrational love for got a 6.7 on a music website. Figuratively in the sense that music criticism seems in perpetual danger of being wiped out of existence because millions of people — let’s just say most people on planet Earth — don’t appreciate or even understand it.

Also, let’s acknowledge the obvious: Nobody likes to be criticized, not even critics. Imagine someone calling you a moron over something you wrote. I’m guessing you wouldn’t like it. You would probably feel hurt, or at least annoyed. You might even feel like punching that person in the face. Or you might go on a 10-tweet thread about the sanctity of music journalism and how poor beleaguered critics are the most righteous martyrs since Joan Of Arc. (Later, you’ll realize that punching someone in the face is less embarrassing.)

Now, let me just say that I agree with you 100 percent. Readers have an absolute right to get P.O.’ed when they read a review they don’t like. And it’s an unavoidable reality that if a writer is on the same social media platform as the people who read them that the writer will face some abuse at some point. (Myself included, no matter my joshing a few paragraphs earlier.) If you don’t want to hear from angry readers, don’t be a critic or at the very least avoid Twitter. (Or, if you must use Twitter — you kind of have to use it if you work in media — then take advantage of the mute and block buttons.)

So long as it doesn’t tip over into actual threats, doxxing, or other forms of harassment, of course it’s okay for you to yell at us. I would even say that a backlash to a review is a good thing for a critic because it shows that people actually care about what you have to say. An irate reader who tries to put a critic down by calling their opinion irrelevant is owning themselves. The critic proved that person wrong as soon as the reader pushed “send” on their mean tweet.

My question is about concept albums, which were much more prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s, but what are your favorite contemporary concept albums? A couple of modern ones that stand out to me in terms of being so committed to the story/concept are The Antlers’ Hospice, Deltron 3030’s Deltron 3030, and The Good Life’s Album Of the Year. — Matt from London, UK

First of all, I am thrilled that this question came from a British person, as I tend to immediately think of English rock groups as soon as I hear the phrase “concept album.” I think it’s appropriate to actually speak the words “concept album” in a British accent, like you’re Rick Wakeman or Ray Davies.

As you said, concept albums were more common in the ’60s and ’70s, but there’s more of them now than there might seem. It just depends on how you define the term. Typically, we think of concept albums being centered on a narrative, like The Who’s Quadrophenia or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But those albums can also be classified as rock operas, whereas a concept album can also be a meditation on a theme or guise. In that sense, I would suggest Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a concept album, as the music is inspired by the sounds of her birth year. Sturgill Simpson has referred to all of his records as concept albums, and even said that his overall discography is one long interconnected piece. Even the most popular album in the country this week, Kanye West’s Donda, is sort of a concept record about his late mother and his inability to self-edit.

When I think about contemporary concept albums — let’s define contemporary as “since 2000” — the records that come immediately to mind fit the rock opera mode of Quadrophenia and The Wall: Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera, Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor, and Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life. Then there are the records that don’t have a “story” per se but still operate with a central theme: Queens Of The Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and Mastodon’s Leviathan.

Those six would probably be my favorites. I should also mention Green Day’s American Idiot, which has to be the most popular concept album of the last 20 years. As for me, if I had to pick one, I’ll go with Southern Rock Opera.

I’ve been listening to a lot of late-period Sonic Youth recently, and I always find it a bittersweet experience, because I feel like the band was on the cusp of figuring out their next step when news broke of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s divorce following Thurston’s affair. I’ve dug what Kim, Thurston, and Lee Renaldo have all done since separately, but of course, it’s not like having the band together; there’s a lot of “all that could have been” there. So, my question is: If you could undo or “fix” one musical event from the last, say, 30 years, what would you pick? I’m excluding deaths from this question since otherwise it’s kind of a downer. (Plus, who do you choose to save? Gets real bleak real quick.) But band breakups, album flops, trends that didn’t catch on — what do you pick? I’m undoing Thurston Moore’s affair. — Blake from Cincinnati

Great question. I’m also going with a band breakup that was sparked by a family dispute. At a show in Paris in 2009, Liam and Noel Gallagher got into an argument backstage. Certainly, this was nothing new for Oasis, but during this particular fight, Liam threw a plum at Noel. And this apparently so enraged Noel that he stormed out and declared that he was leaving the band.

Here we are 12 years later and Oasis, like Sonic Youth, remains disbanded, with little hope of a reunion. So, if I had the power to undo one famous rock mistake from the past three years, I would stop Liam Gallagher from throwing a plum at Noel Gallagher.

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