We read a lot of reviews in the popular press, be they for movies, or books, or music. And there was a time when we knew what they were for, or at least we thought we did. Before the internet, movie reviews functioned as a means of deciding what we might like to go see. Album reviews, too, functioned in the way that consumer reports do.
Of course, there has always been more to reviewing than that, but guiding consumers was a part of what was going on. Now, though, the reasons behind reviewing perhaps aren’t as clear. We don’t buy music in the way that we used to, and if we can’t hear entire albums via streaming outlets like Spotify, we can nevertheless listen to clips.
Because of that, at least in terms of music, reviews don’t need to be consumer reports any longer. Which provides an opportunity for them to be more, perhaps much more, than that. Quality can still be a part of it, but reviews can now also function as a means of having a conversation around music. They can give a sense of the context and then take up a discussion about what music is, or can be, or how it relates to other things, such as art, life and culture. There is no greater example, I think, of what reviewing can and should be than the work of Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for the New Yorker. Some of his pieces are strongly worded, and he doesn’t shy from telling things like they are, both good and bad and in between.
Still, his pieces are always so much more than that: each is a moment in a conversation, not the conversation itself. The conversation is about art, not any particular artist, or work, or style. Those things are just the raw material and the conversation is ultimately not really about them, it’s about us, who we are, and what we might be thinking about. Schjeldahl keeps that critical distance, again despite some very strongly worded reactions, because it’s essential to the kind of conversation he thinks we can be having about, you know, art, life, and culture.
I write a lot of music reviews, all within a very niche area of the musical world: folk, bluegrass, Americana. I don’t relish the idea of writing negative reviews, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation around music, one in which it is possible to have some strong ideas from time to time. I once wrote a scathing review of Marah’s Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania for Penguin Eggs magazine. When I submitted it, I noted to the editor that I’m fine if he chooses not to run it. His response was, I think, excellent: he said that if we don’t review the bad stuff, then there’s no point in reviewing the good stuff. And I think that’s exactly right.
The focus, of course, has to be clear. To say a singer is fat, as so many people seemed to feel that they needed to mention about Rita MacNeil, is not part of a musical conversation. But, to say that her TV show was kind of silly at times, presenting what could be a grating view of Canadian folk music, could be. We might even suggest that her work with the Men of the Deeps could feel unsettling, almost a Disney-esque presentation of a serious issue. We could cry for “Working Man” and then go on with our days … despite the fact that poverty in eastern Canada, and the issues that lead to it, remained unchanged.
But there are lots of things we could have been talking about. Such as, what was it that gave MacNeil traction? If all that was ever said was “how great is this!” or “gosh that sucks” then I think we’d lose something, namely, that conversation. Instead our responses would become hollow, uninteresting, or as we see with so many — Rita MacNeil prime among them — cruel.
That critical distance is essential. A negative review isn’t about the person, or the people, it’s about the work. I don’t know Michael Barnett, and I don’t know anything about him, personally, nor should I. What I do know is that the songwriting on his last album isn’t great, and I wrote about that. I talked about why I felt it was weak, and I supported those ideas. I’m not writing for an academic audience, so there as elsewhere a few sparks will make a piece more engaging. That in turn will make it more likely to incite a response, and ultimately to continue the conversation. That’s a good thing, I believe.
If a reader has some thoughts on the review, I’d be delighted to hear them. But, again, a critical distance is kind of important. “You should be ashamed of yourself”—Barnett’s mother told me that—isn’t conversation, and it isn’t informed. It’s a desire to hide something, or to avoid the reality of living in a world where everyone’s voice is protected. In North America, we are allowed to be wrong, and make mistakes, but our responsibility is to engage with the material, not to stifle it or to be cruel. Comments should be about the art, or the writing, not me, or Barnett’s mom. I might be fat, but telling me that doesn’t underscore what I have to say about your album.
Of course, it’s going to be blurred somewhere along the line. Friends and family are just that: friends and family. They don’t see the music, just the person. I’m the opposite. I’ll never meet the person, and don’t care to; rather, I’m interested in the music, and the conversation that it’s taking part in. Barnett is young and wants to be taken seriously, and to be creative, and to be appreciated. He’s young, and he doesn’t see what all of that really means. It’s not about him.
I recently interviewed Norman Blake and asked him about his participation in the Will the Circle Be Unbroken recording in 1974. In retrospect, it is an indelible moment in the history of roots, country, and Americana music. What does Blake think about it, even in hindsight? He said that it was a job, and he took it as a job. Had he had his druthers he wouldn’t have gone, given that he was sick at the time, but that he didn’t feel he could turn down a job. No amount of hindsight, history, whatever has changed that. He still just sees it as a job, one that perhaps got more attention than most others, but, you know, whatever.
Barnett isn’t yet looking at all of this as a job — right now it’s all about the applause in his room — but he will. He’ll also see that it’s not his room, it’s our room that he’s entered into. My room. He’s my guest; he’s our guest. He’s welcome, of course, but it won’t all be upside. He wants applause, but he can’t enforce it. In time, he’ll thank us for that, because his art will be better because of it.
Here’s a response I got from Steve Spurgin, a consummate professional who has had a long career on all levels of the music industry:
“I’ve had a lot of reviews over the years, but this one goes in my keeper file. What really validated it for me was that you made no bones about not really caring for my previous projects. So, when you said you liked this one it rang true. I truly appreciate you taking the time to put forward your thoughts with such an obvious knowledge of the music. Well written and done with intelligence. I am impressed. Some reviewers don’t handle language as well as you do and don’t take the time to get inside what is going on.”
Getting inside what’s going on. That’s what I’ve always hoped to put across in my reviews. It’s also the spirit in which I hope that they’re read.