Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
Which band or artist has the worst fans? — Andrew from Milwaukee
Excellent question! Though also very difficult to answer. When people talk about bad fanbases, what they really mean is “most annoying fanbases.” In terms of fandom, the best fans (i.e. the people who are most informed, most dedicated, and just all-around care the most) are often also the worst fans (i.e. the people who will band together online like killer bees and repeatedly sting any dissenter to death).
As a person who writes about music and pop culture for a living, I have a skewed perspective on this. We now live in an age where it is extremely easy for famous artists to essentially weaponize their staunchest followers against anyone who speaks ill of them. I had my own taste of this earlier this year, when I wrote a critical piece about Saturday Night Live‘s Colin Jost, and his friend and fellow cast member Michael Che accused me of having sex with dogs on his Instagram. This subsequently unleashed a torrent of best/worst SNL fans who clogged my social-media feed with “you totally have sex with dogs, dude” jokes. Just a normal day at the office, folks!
For what it’s worth, I think Michael Che had the right to publicly lash out against me and my piece. When you decide that your own opinions are worth broadcasting to the world, you must accept that occasionally people will get mad at you. (Also, I think Che made himself look like an idiot and inadvertently confirmed the validity of some of the criticisms made in my article, though that’s neither here nor there.)
Anyway, anyone who writes about public figures for a living is especially attuned to the awfulness of the best/worst fanbases out there. Here are the three worst in my own personal experience.
3. Anyone About Whom I Have Written Negative Things
I don’t know that the fanbase for Arcade Fire is especially bad. But, personally, I still get complaints about the review I wrote of 2017’s Everything Now. As for Childish Gambino, I got an email the other week taking me to task for a piece I wrote six years ago. These people are simply defending artists and bands that they love. I can respect that. I can also wish that these people would all suddenly lose access to the internet.
2. Anyone About Whom I Have Written Nice Things
It’s understandable to get some blowback when you rip an album by an artist or band that a lot of people like. For instance, I know that if I ever attend a Dave Matthews Band concert, I might take a shiv in the back for calling them “the world’s most ambivalently received superstar rock band.” But what’s truly insane is when you write nice things about an artist or band, and the fans still get mad at you. This has happened the most for me whenever I write about jam bands, even though I count myself among the most sympathetic to that scene among mainstream music critics. Jam partisans are in many ways the best music fans out there — they listen with rapt attention, from a position of deep knowledge, and often after traveling long distances to a concert. But that devotion can also drive them to argue with people who essentially agree with them, over some minor, arcane point that only matters to someone who has bothered to rank every essential live version of “Harry Hood.”
1. The Beyhive
Look, Beyoncé fans are the best. Truly. Bow down. Bow down, I said! But let’s be frank: The Beyhive is also the mafia of music fanbases. Anyone who steps out of line will be targeted for a swift comeuppance. It’s one thing to write something uncouth about a beloved pop star. Anyone who writes anything even remotely negative about Beyoncé faces the possibility of social-media hell that can last for days, weeks, months, years. However, people have faced death threats just for improperly asking Jay-Z if he wants a vodka soda at a basketball game. That is some true best/worst-ness right there.
Don’t hurt me, Beyhive.
The other night, Lord Huron played a career-defining headlining show at the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve been a fan since their debut, and while I understand that they are not a band that has reinvented or reinvigorated music in any substantial manner, the apathy or obliviousness to their slow and steady ascendancy from music publications and writers, with few exceptions (such as your friend and contemporary Ian Cohen’s profile of the band in Stereogum), strikes me as very odd. How can a very successful act that just headlined one of the most iconic venues in the country still feel like they are completely under the radar? —Mark from Las Vegas
I’ve asked myself this very question many times — not about Lord Huron specifically, though they are a great example of this phenomenon. Obviously, there is some dissonance for acts who generate almost no media coverage, in spite of doing well on the road and even selling a decent amount of records.
Not to pick on this band, but Iceage is one of the more acclaimed indie acts of the last decade. All four of their albums were designated as “Best New Music” by Pitchfork. But in real-world terms, Iceage isn’t a fraction as popular as a band like Lord Huron. Now, that doesn’t mean that Lord Huron deserves great reviews, just because they do well on the road. Though I agree that it’s a little strange when bands in Lord Huron’s lane — which also includes Dawes, Nathaniel Rateliff, The Head And The Heart, The Lumineers, and other heartland-rock type indie acts — are for the most part ignored by the music press.
However, I think it’s also important not to overstate the importance of coverage from music critics. It pains me to say this but it’s true: Music writers are a relatively inconsequential part of the industry. I’m reminded of this whenever I hang out at a concert with people who work in radio. Those are the people who are treated as true kingmakers, and they have the absurdly good seats to prove it.
So, I don’t think Lord Huron is actually under the radar where it counts, no matter how many indie music sites you read. My guess is that the guys in Lord Huron would probably appreciate a few more glowing magazine profiles. But the guys in Iceage would definitely want to sell as many tickets as Lord Huron.
Editor’s Note: Uproxx actually ran an extensive profile of Lord Huron for their last album. Read up, Mark.
What is your process for reviewing an album/new music? How many listens, where do you listen, how much research do you do into the artist, etc.? — Matthew from Birmingham, Ala.
Every time I solicit questions for an “Ask A Music Critic” column, someone always asks a question like this. Frankly, I don’t know why people are so curious about this. The process of reviewing records isn’t that interesting, is it? Ultimately, I think it goes back to the age-old question asked of all critics: What makes you so qualified to cast judgement?
To answer your question, there really is no set procedure. It all boils down to two things 1) What is the deadline? 2) How far in advance of the deadline did you get the record? For major releases, there is often no advance (another sign that the industry doesn’t care about critics!) so you’re listening to an already released album a handful of times before quickly writing something. Other times, however, you might have the album for three or four months before it comes out.
How much of a difference does this make? Well, obviously, if you don’t have a lot of time with an album, you are more likely to fall back on your preconceived notions about the artist in question. Whereas if you have more time with an album, you’re more likely to address and appreciate the specifics of the music itself.
But here’s a more interesting question: Is a review necessarily better or more “accurate” if you have months to spend with an album, versus a couple of hours? Maybe … but maybe not. Without question, I prefer to spend as much time as possible with a record. I like it to hear it at least a dozen times. I want to hear it on headphones, in the car, in the living room, and pretty much anyplace that’s not my laptop. I want to live with it, and really get to know it, almost like a person.
There’s a pitfall to this “ideal” scenario, however: You can pretty much talk yourself into liking anything over the course of several weeks, or even months. I call this “Music Critic Stockholm Syndrome,” and it can be a real problem when you’ve thought about an album for so long that you can no longer figure out whether it’s actually any good or not. You start thinking things like, “This album could be good, if I choose to listen to it in this specific way.” Sometimes, hearing an album only four to six times and going with your gut reaction might actually be more honest.
To sum up: Sometimes it can be bad to have very little time to review an album, except when it’s helpful. Though it’s usually better to spend a long time with an album, except when it distorts your point of view.
Never look for clarity from a music critic.