Some thoughts about music reviews

A while back, when it first came out, I was thinking about writing a review of Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. Not for any particular reason, just because I thought it was a good record, I like pop music, I like writing things and, statistically, at least one of my six regular blog readers will be a Taylor Swift fanatic. But I couldn’t. As with celery, Microsoft Outlook and whoever designed the springs on the Mk II Vauxhall Corsa suspension, I have an issue with reviews.

It appears to me that there are two distinct schools with their own methods when it comes to writing reviews, music or otherwise. The first type of review I like to call “The Philip French Observer Film Review Method” after the method used for reviews of films written for the Observer by Philip French.

For your 2000 words, you’d get 1750 words on any subject other than the film at hand, the intention being to prove how much smarter than you Philip French was. Invariably you’d get references to Marxist theory, postwar Italian cinema and (if the lead was a female) something about Laura Mulvey – unless the lead female was either pregnant or a mother, in which case it would be Creed and Kristeva.

The final 250 words would be a series of snippish, snarkish asides even if French liked it and the film turned out to be the most popular film of all time. The whole effect is just to prove French’s cerebral superiority as he lathers himself towards an intellectual orgasm over the course of the review before unleashing his egghead ejaculate all over the reader’s face.

The second type I call “The Smash Hits Method” and involves writing about the thing being reviewed in a way that describes what it is like and leaves the reader to decide whether they might like it for themself. Consider this video:

Now consider the way that Tom Hibbert described it in Smash Hits in 1985:

“It sounds like Richard Clayderman having a fight with Frankie Goes To Hollywood in a coal scuttle.”

Hibbert could have said that it sounded like pulsing electronic pop dance music full of clever production tricks, catchy keyboard riffs, slightly nasal male vocals, an odd series of arhythmic metallic clanking sounds and two kitchen sinks. He’d have been right, of course, he just didn’t need to; the comment above said all that. No mentions of poststructuralism, the mating habits of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Sasha Grey’s new-found credibility as a serious actress.

In the end, and luckily for you, I couldn’t be bothered to write a review of 1989, not least because everyone from Top Gear to Portable Restroom Operator Magazine wrote a think piece about it. Also because I have the attention span of a squirrel trapped in a barrel full of blue Smarties and I started thinking about something else. And what I thought about was this: why do we only review new stuff?

Specifically, I was thinking about media products – music, books and films, chiefly. There’s such a clamour to review new ones, but that model doesn’t really reflect the new democracy of digital media.

Example: some years ago I participated in the light-hearted campaign to purchase Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” and keep the latest miming dance monkey from rhomboid-headed pop svengali Simon Cowell ((c) XFM Manchester) off the Christmas number one position. Not because I cared either way, I just liked the record and it was good to hear it on the radio. In fact that remains the only time I’ve listened to the chart rundown since my mid-teens and the only time I’ve listened to Radio 1 since Mark and Lard left, but that’s not the point. Well it kind of is, or it will be, but I haven’t made it yet.

The whole campaign was only possible because iDevice owners could go online and download the song from the iTunes store, and purchases made that way counted towards chart positions. Now things have moved on apace and not only do we have the Google Play Store and the Amazon Store, but streaming plays also count. I have no idea how that works; if a couple of thousand of us decided to leave the same song looping for a week, could we get a song to number one that way?

Anyway. The point that I’m not exactly speeding towards is that now there’s a literally endless amount of media available to us all online, such that we could never hope to consume more than an insignificant fraction of what’s available during one lifetime.

So, why the rush to review new stuff?

Most of us can’t buy anything significant without reading reviews of it. If you’ve been on leasthelpful.tumblr.com, you’ll know that product reviews are a tricky minefield to negotiate (Amazon product reviews should never end with a kiss, people – Ed.). A helpful curator’s hand would be a real benefit here. I think there’s a lot that you could get from going back and comparing what you love now to what went before. For example, at the minute, I’m quite enjoying stripped back, electronic rap like Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ or Chanel West Coast’s bizarrely hypnotic ‘Karl’:

Let’s take ‘Karl’ as an example. Sparse, electronic beats, a single note synthesizer melody, monotone vocals, and a general air of computer music, as opposed to organic manmade music.

Sound familiar?

‘Karl’ is from 2013; ‘Scorpio’ from 1982. There are straight lines between the two. I’m not talking about plagiarism, I’m talking about heritage. And heritage is relevant whether you’re listening to Jack White and Robert Johnson, watching J.J. Abrams and Alfred Hitchcock, or reading Stephen King and Ambrose Bierce.

So, I was wondering why people concentrate on reviewing new releases when there’s now so much old stuff now available and worth looking up. One of the problems I have with a new band or author is the binge syndrome; when I like something I want to hear a lot more. Difficult for a new artist, but less so when you realise they released ten albums throughout the 70s and 80s. I’m not putting myself forward as a reviewer of old stuff, because I’m an ENFP and I like the start of projects rather than running them for years and years, although I might well use These go to 11 for that purpose. I’m just making a (long-winded) point about writing reviews, for reasons that now escape me.

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