Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like a lot of people this week I read Pitchfork’s extremely negative review of the Måneskin album. I also read your review, which was also negative though you were relatively kind compared to Pitchfork! I thought the review was funny and well-written, but it mostly made think about how rare it is to read an extremely negative review these days. Maybe Måneskin is just an easy target, though there are other albums that I think also warrant that sort of treatment. What’s going on here? Why aren’t there more negative album reviews? Don’t tell me that music is better than ever! — Phil from Los Angeles
I get this question a lot from readers. There clearly is hunger out there for more haterism! Though I suspect that what people really want is for that haterism to be directed at music they also hate. When haterism is applied indiscriminately and music you personally love catches a stray, that’s a different story. That is a crime punishable by tweet storms and angry emails. But when it’s a goofy rock band from Italy that acts like an ankle-humping poodle in heat, the hate suddenly seems hilarious and invigorating. This is the kind of hate the people demand.
First of all, let me assure you that you are not imagining a dearth of negativity. Head to Metacritic and it’s almost impossible to find universally dismissed records. Which is strange because, like you said, it’s not as if music in the modern era is better than it used to be. There are plenty of artists who make music that I think is bad, and that you might think is bad, but that doesn’t seem to be reflected in what critics are writing.
When people ask me about the lack of smack talk in music criticism, they almost always immediately offer their own answers. Here are the most common theories:
1. It’s about access
Music publications don’t run negative reviews because PR people will blackball them and prevent the artists they work for from granting interviews in the future.
2. It’s about fanbases
Music publications don’t run negative reviews because psychotic online fanatics will make the lives of their writers miserable.
3. It’s about poptimism
Music publications don’t run negative reviews because writers have been brainwashed by an “everything is good and relevant” critical ideology.
I have listed these theories in descending order of credibility. No. 1 is kind of true (but only for certain publications, and in far fewer instances than is assumed). No. 2 is barely true (especially since psychotic online fanatics will even protest positive reviews for not being positive enough). And no. 3 isn’t true at all (particularly when it comes to butt-rock bands like Måneskin, who have been the lowest hanging fruit for music writers since Grand Funk Railroad).
What I never hear mentioned is the simplest and most logical explanation, which (in my view) is also the truest — it’s about the decline of the general-interest music critic.
Thirty years ago, music criticism was predominantly a local business. In every town with a daily newspaper or an alt-weekly, there was a person who covered concerts, interviewed musicians passing through town, and reviewed albums. And because this person was the only writer on staff who covered music, they wrote about everything. (Freelancers pitched in, but that was only in bigger markets and usually when the on-staff critic was on vacation.)
Now, this person was required by profession to have a broad musical taste. But a human being’s musical taste can only be so eclectic. Blind spots were inevitable. The critic might enjoy mainstream rock but have no feel for country. They might have extensive knowledge of R&B history but grow cold at the sound of hip-hop. But no matter the blind spots, this writer still had to cover music they didn’t really understand or know much about. And that was the music they were more likely to go negative on.
Take Robert Christgau, whose “local” perch at The Village Voice in New York City made him one of the most-read and important general-interest music critics of the late 20th century. Christgau is one of the most prolific music writers of all time, and he’s covered as wide a range of artists as anybody ever. The man’s knowledge is second to none. But even Robert Christgau had blind spots, and one of the biggest was metal and hard rock. In the 1980s, he did not like AC/DC’s Back In Black, he scoffed at Metallica’s Master Of Puppets, and he pretty much loathed everything Guns N’ Roses committed to tape.
Now, it was his prerogative to hate on those bands, and his loyal readers no doubt appreciated Christgau’s insights and one-liners at his subjects’ expense. But for listeners who loved metal and hard rock — or any marginalized genre that existed outside the expertise of the era’s general-interest critics — reading about how Appetite For Destruction only deserved a “B-minus” was understandably maddening. Because on some level, even with all of his knowledge, he didn’t in this instance really get what he was writing about, at least in terms of the audience for that particular music. He couldn’t grasp what a “good” metal album was, because all metal was bad to him.
To write a real pan, you need a bad album, of course. But pure, uncut haterism also requires a certain distance from the topic. You must be cut off in some essential way from what you’re writing about. Effective haterism is typically directed outside the normal purview of who you’re writing for. (It’s why describing Metallica as “male chauvinists too inexperienced to know better” was funnier to Village Voice readers who didn’t listen to Metallica than the heshers who bought Master Of Puppets.) If you feel empathy for the artist’s perspective, the hate will instantly drain from your body. The insult-comic part of your brain will shut off. You can still write criticism, but it will be measured and more thoughtful. (As well as less mean and probably less hilarious.)
Once the internet became the hub for conversations about music, it was no longer necessary to read opinions from non-experts. And that changed music criticism forever. In the current landscape, it’s more likely that an album will be reviewed by a person who is intimately familiar with the type of music under discussion. (Or, at the very least, the writer will be an appreciator.) That doesn’t mean the writer will automatically like the record, but it does mean that the “outsider” viewpoint that makes bombastic haterism possible won’t come into play. An example is Pitchfork’s review of the recent Lil Yachty record, Let’s Start Here, which leans negative but doesn’t register as a comical takedown like the Måneskin review.
Complaints about music critics going soft typically pertain to coverage of pop stars. But I think this shift from general interest to expertise has had a more profound influence on how genres like metal, hip-hop, and country are covered. (This also applies to any “new” genre that young people love and old people can’t stand, like hyperpop.) And that is a good thing! Except for the unintended side effect that music criticism, perhaps, is a bit too nice now.
Instead of covering everything, music critics now are inclined to write only about genres they already like. I have mixed feelings about this. Expertise is a virtue, no question, but when everyone “stays in their lane,” you lose that wild hater energy that keeps the discourse interesting. I doubt, for instance, that Steve Albini actually knows anything about Steely Dan, but it’s fun to see him get so worked up about despising them.
Like I said, people love bombastic dismissals from critics until reviewers start coming for music that they like. So, I guess I’ll turn the question around: How many negative reviews do you want? Are delicious pans worth the occasional gratuitous cheap shot? If you laugh at something you can’t stand being taken down a peg, will you shrug off the hatchet job on something you adore? As for me, I see it as my job to call out artists who I think have committed artistic sins. But I try to be judicious with my haterism. Vitriol is a precious resource. Spend it wisely.