Review Review

This is probably the most comments I’ve ever got for a single review on RA.

Not that that says a great deal: I always find it a really cheap idea when someone says that causing a reaction means a piece of writing or a piece of art is a success. Afterall, if you wrote a vile racist rant you’d get plenty of reaction too.

The truth is that people don’t respond to positive reviews much. Just as the writer finds it more difficult to say why they love a record (and I believe this is true for all writers), the person commenting finds it difficult to simply agree with a review. Sure you get a handful of responses to a good review, but nowhere near as many as a bad one. Instead, there’s this circle of negativity on the net, at least on RA. Someone gives a bad review, and other people criticise that review.

The language of invective and criticism just seems to carry more weight, and slides off the tongue more easily. If everyone had to think of why they agreed with a glowing review, there wouldn’t be any messageboards because nobody would bother. You don’t have to think too hard to criticise, nobody does. Mind you, the more thought that goes in the more reaction you might get.

In the case of the Fabrice Lig review, I picked the release, as I always do with RA stuff, because I heard sound samples and thought I’d like it. When I actually listened to the full thing, as I said on the thread, I realised I’d be lying if I said I liked it. So I gave it a bad review and tried to express why I didn’t like it. I guess the only reason I did so was because I had signed up to review it. I’m not apologising for my opinion, not at all, but I don’t revel in criticising a record.

I can remember when I first wanted to be a music critic, aged about 15. Back then I actually thought the pinnacle of human existence was 80 words eviscerating some terrible record. I made it my goal to be one of those critics who pans things endlessly in the sharpest manner possible. Then I got into house and techno and music became such a bigger part of my life that I actually thought I cared about it too much to be that kind of writer.

For a while I was evangelical about dance music, wanting everyone everywhere to like it, and I suppose that trait never fully dies in a dance writer. But eventually, in the last few years, I just stopped caring. What interests me now is writing about music I like, pointing a spotlight on music I like, and hopefully recommending some records to people that make the day at work go quicker, or that they have a great night out with.

That probably sounds quite facile and simple, maybe even anti-intellectual to some. But that’s because they don’t realise that the language of criticism and negativity is stronger than the language of praise! That was a piece of advice I got in college and it’s become fundamental to my feelings on music writing.

These days I think negativity is a crutch for writers. If you’ve got nothing specific to say, just fire off a rant or a world-weary thinkpiece! “This new scene is a load of rubbish”, “Will this kill off music forever?”, “I’m having an existential crisis about today’s records” etc etc etc. People will always react to negativity.

But it’s not just in music writing. People use the power of negativity in every paper, in every magazine. The world is constantly in decline, barbarians are always at the gates, and culture is always just about to be thrown in the dustbin. Except the truth is the world probably began its endless teetering on the edge of doom the first time somebody picked up a pen and wrote an article. Same goes for the music scene.

Anyway, just wanted to dispel any sense that I would slate a record for kicks.

Comments 27

  1. ilian wrote:

    i’ve read the review and the comments and must say it’s all very amusing. i can’t beleive some people actually think that there is such a thing as “quality music”, and that reviewers should be objective.

    the whole point of reviews is to give an honest opinion.

    Posted 22 May 2008 at 8:04 pm
  2. todd wrote:

    i can’t believe how many people feel that strongly about that record being good, maybe i just don’t get it. (track of the year ? , c’mon now!)

    Posted 22 May 2008 at 11:04 pm
  3. aidan wrote:

    i guess i don’t get it either, i think the track (in question) is cheesy and boring, i can’t believe so many people are in to it/sticking up for it on ra.

    ps-very apt ra username 😉

    Posted 22 May 2008 at 11:43 pm
  4. ben j wrote:

    I agree with the negativity thing. That’s why I’ve always like allmusic.com for general purpose music reviews. No matter who it is, no matter how almost-objectively terrible an artist is, they’ll find a reviewer who can give it a good shot. There are four Kenny G records that get 4/5!

    I’d say you were a sympathetic audience here. I’d have pointed out that a remix of “The Track” could end up in Oakenfold’s bag someday and that “The Riff” is obviously a missing Les Rhythmes Digitales b-side.

    I got no problem with Bump Bump on its own, although I don’t think I’d want to hear a DJ play a set structured around it. I like the bass quite a bit (although it may be the beatport degradation that makes it sound good).

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 1:18 am
  5. Jacob wrote:

    I’ve had my fair share of this on RA recently with my slating My My’s “southbound” and giving a lukewarm review to Benga’s album…

    I haven’t heard this track and don’t really feel that’s the point. As was said above, negative reviews always get more attention.

    I do think, though, that the reason this one was so inflammatory was that (possibly not intentionally) it seemed as if Ronan had moved away from criticizing the track and towards criticizing the artist and the label responsible.

    If I were to make an analogy with my own reviews – I stand by the My My one because despite it being driven by my personal sense of tedium at hearing so many tunes that sounded like that, I think it was fair to the artist. On the other hand the Benga review kicked off with what basically amounted to a slagging of the dubstep scene, which wasn’t really necessary to make the point I wanted to make, and which was the part of the review that drew all the flak.

    That review I would re-write if I could, not to change the verdict but just to remove the bit that was ad hominem. I suspect Ronan might feel the same here…

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 4:04 am
  6. Jacob wrote:

    Oh and Brophy was being a fuckwit of the first order on that thread, I have to say.

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 4:05 am
  7. Matos W.K. wrote:

    I found it interesting that the Lig review ran at the same time as a couple of other mediocre-to-lousy singles reviews on RA–and it made me happy, actually, because criticism is about being critical, not just approving. The positive write-ups on RA do have a critical viewpoint much of the time (it’s why I read the site), but calling things out is necessary for all arts writing and I think the Lig review in particular did that well–the idea that you were slating something for slating’s sake is pretty absurd for anyone who actually read it.

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 6:07 am
  8. Ronan wrote:

    One thing I wanted to say on the thread but am going to say here instead is that the last line in the review was not intended to say “Fabrice Lig and Versatile are only in it for the money”.

    Clearly they could make a big porno-house tune if they wanted to make money (or at least try to do so!)

    My point was more that dance music becomes a career for people. That years into that career maybe innovation isn’t really important.

    Fair enough, but not my cup of tea.

    Of course some people would say there is no innovation in house music, but I obviously disagree.

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 10:00 am
  9. chrisdisco wrote:

    this relates to an ongoing question/concern i’ve had and it is to do with what extent criticism and critique is considered acceptable and legit. when it comes to house, techno, there is a culture of high fiving and when a reviewer or blog departs from that, situations like this arise (the “discussion” over ‘ribcage’ was another very good example). and i think that is perhaps one danger with only giving out positive reviews, it fosters this kind of acritical culture and way of receiving the music. in this regard, i think it is a good think RA are willing to publish reviews that are critical and may give lower grades. it may annoy some people, but hopefully you’ll get some productive disagreement going on.

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 3:22 pm
  10. G wrote:

    just to be a geek here for a minute (one of many), it’s not just negative writing that’s stronger than positive – it’s negative ideas in general. i’m not trying to go all emo on you either – just saying that it goes back to our roots, in that evolutionarily speaking (horrible phrase), it’s an advantage to prioritise bad features over good, since good might keep you a bit happier/healthier for a while, but bad might kill you. one bad experience is generally enough to put someone off a particular food or an experience, and it takes a lot of good experiences to overcome that.

    which is why when I find myself automatically starting to dislike a track/film I love after hearing someone else criticise it (regardless of whether I agree with the criticism) I think to myself “DON’T PANIC, this is just your monkey heritage speaking”.
    well ok I don’t, but maybe I should.

    overlooking the negative aspects of a track is harder than overlooking the positive, which is maybe why people get so aggressive when they’re defending the music they love – because they’re in a precarious position – so… what am I saying… er, best not to take it personally?!

    I’m obviously way too bored.

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 4:00 pm
  11. Ciaran wrote:

    Wasnt this just a review? its up for discussion but why did it get so serious?

    Seems a few of the dublin folk joined in too…

    Posted 23 May 2008 at 7:41 pm
  12. b0b wrote:

    I think generally reviewers are not enough critical when reviewing music. And the rating could be different if you’re judging the music for DJ use or for home listening.
    Rating >= 4.5/5 should be reserved to exceptional stuff ie great music not just “tracks” that works in a DJ context.

    Anyway, keep giving honest reviews, even if that means giving 1/5 to your favorite producer and have a few people angry

    Posted 24 May 2008 at 10:11 am
  13. James wrote:

    Just checked out your review and the ensuing ruckus – wow.

    Thanks for posting this rationale regarding negative reviews – you’re right: more often than not, it’s a cheap way cause to a stir. Given how much music/writing/design is out there, making a point of finding bad stuff to kick around is lazy and pointless.

    That said, if something like ‘The Track’ is achieving anything close to ‘this summer’s anthem’ status, then it requires a critical look. It’s not an awful track, but I agree: it’s boring and predictable and I’m happy there are reviewers like you who will say, “hang on a minute, did this track really earn its reputation?” And perhaps a better question is “Why is it popular?”

    I agree with Bob – there’s grade-inflation throughout the world of techno discourse. Now that the music has come of age and access to making & distributing electronic music is cheaper and more democratic than ever, the genre demands higher standards – and I’m happy Ronan is applying them.

    Posted 24 May 2008 at 10:18 pm
  14. James wrote:

    Just a quick scattershot thought: I complained that ‘The Track’ is predictable – and it is, but is that really a bad thing?

    After all, techno is pegged to predictability: the relentless drum, the promise of a continuous groove . . . which might be why it is a sin – the best moments in techno (and perhaps any art form) are when something unexpected happens – the music thrives on this, ranging from a surprising ‘bring the beat back’ moment on the dancefloor to the slight flutter or pause after five minutes of a repetitive loop in a Mike Ink or Brinkmann track.

    It’s physical music and for that to work, there has to surprise . . . then again, I could listen to a Maurizio loop for hours . . . Ok, I’m going to stop brainstorming all over your comments section now…

    Posted 24 May 2008 at 11:53 pm
  15. Richard wrote:

    Oh and Brophy was being a fuckwit of the first order on that thread, I have to say.
    – don’t usually post here, but Jacob, I think you’re the one being a bit of a fool actually. The comment I made on the RA thread was tongue in cheek, a little bit of a wind up, something I explained when a few people responded. I totally defend reviewers’ rights to be negative, once it’s constructive, and to offer unsympathetic appraisals of releases. it’s a big part any critic’s job – what a pity you have absolutely no sense of humour Jacob, but I suppose that’s just a byproduct of living in a facist city state…

    Posted 25 May 2008 at 4:56 pm
  16. Richard wrote:

    the last line of that previous post was a wind-up too Jacob, just in case you didn;t notice

    Posted 25 May 2008 at 5:12 pm
  17. Ronan wrote:

    great material

    Posted 25 May 2008 at 5:15 pm
  18. Richard wrote:

    great material – thanks, and even if you thought it was shite, i’d still defend your right to say so…

    Posted 25 May 2008 at 5:35 pm
  19. PC/dysconnect wrote:

    As if praising a record isn’t the easiest thing of all. Much more difficult to right a critical review that’s not a sledge. A very well-considered, thorough, negative-to-neutral review is usually the most difficult one to nail. There are all too few of these in dance music, and far too many overly positive reviews.

    Honestly, read a bunch of reviews of an EP from twelve, twenty-four months ago. You’ll find that, with the benefit of time/hindsight, the reviewer was overly generous. Often ridiculously so. Part of this is also because reviewers are expected to turn reviews around so quickly. Another part of this is that reviewers are going to get more press/attention/love from either sledging or boosting. They feedback off and amplify the split, bipolar tendencies of the review machine.

    The problem is this ‘ bipolar machine’ – people take a defensive, antagonistic view of the world. People get defensive, and because they like the thing and you attack the thing, they interpret as an attack on them and lash out.

    A lot of people have a great deal of difficulty coping with ambivalence. Ambivalence is complex. Much easier to revert to splitting the world into two: good/bad; with me/ against me; friend/enemy and so forth. I see this happening on RA ALL the time now. If you praise a record, people take it as a personal praise ‘He’s with me!’ ‘I am good!’ and then they write something like:

    “Awesome remix!!! Best of the teh year!!! I’m diggin’ this!!!” (emoticon)

    But, on the other hand, if you criticise it, they say something like:

    “This reviewer doesnt understand what their talking about!! Two stars is wwway too harsh, IMHO. This is a Great record!!”

    etc.

    Question: Why can’t large numbers of people (judging from overwhelming numbers of comments on RA) handle it when somebody is criticising something they like?

    I think Chris has the answer above.

    Too much dance music writing is little different to the press release. There is a strong tendency toward presentism and boosterism. Criticism is uncommon because it’s ‘the odd man out’ – people aren’t used to it. They feel threatened, they split the world in two, become defensive and lash out. In turn, the risk is that reviewers become scared of flak or loathed by distributors/promoters for not being a ‘safe bet’. There are certain distrib/promo people who will even withold EPs from certain writers/outlets if they’ve received a bad review.

    If you want to be court philosopher, it’s simple: butter everyone up, say everything is good….ignore everything that isn’t. The peepz on the forum don’t have to get defensive, the promoters/distributors know you’re a safe bet, and so on… the circle jerk tightens, and everyone within it knows that everyone else within it agrees with everything else that everyone says/does/is. Have a VIP lanyard! Have a drink! Want a line? Want a (****) job?

    It’s quite obvious that if RA was just a forum, it would degenerate into a fortified version of this kind of defensive complex. Thanks to RA’s editorial team for supporting critique; and thanks to every writer for having the guts and integrity to cut through the bullshit and write what they really feel about any given recording.

    Posted 25 May 2008 at 10:57 pm
  20. Ronan wrote:

    I disagree, oftentimes the worst writing is negative/wistful musing that seems to spill off the tongue for 1000 words or so, anywhere and everywhere, with little invitation.

    Posted 26 May 2008 at 3:15 am
  21. chrisdisco wrote:

    ronan, regardless i think you are missing pete’s larger point, namely, that a critical or negative review – which is not simply sledging – is actually a very difficult thing to do. moreover, it is a very important thing to do. our music can only benefit from a critical, constructive culture rather than just one of backslapping and high fiving.

    Posted 26 May 2008 at 9:45 am
  22. Ronan wrote:

    was that post a backslap to pete or a high five? It contains no argument.

    Posted 26 May 2008 at 10:40 am
  23. chrisdisco wrote:

    considering you completely didn’t bother to actually engage with pete’s original argument, it was a reiteration that hoped to draw you into actually thinking and responding to what pete had said. obviously it failed.

    Posted 27 May 2008 at 12:49 am
  24. Jacob wrote:

    I think Pete’s point is really interesting. But I’m not sure it’s entirely the fault of reviewers/boosterism.

    There definitely is a binary culture when it comes to assessing dance music. And the key to good reviews is breaking past that and not just saying “good” or “bad” but why or how something is good or bad. Including being able to accept why something that isn’t from a genre that you like, is still a good example of that genre.

    But it seems to me that the root source of this is that when you’re consuming dance music, especially as a DJ, your mode of listening is to rack up a big pile of vinyl (or queue up a big playlist of mp3 samples) and whip through the lot pretty quickly looking for stuff that is “good enough to buy” or “that I would play”. Just to cope with the volume of stuff, people have to take quite a binary approach.

    The more critical in-depth bit then happens at home, post-purchase when people start thinking about when they’d play the stuff they like, what sort of mood it engenders and what other tracks it goes well with.

    The question this poses is whether we’re just tilting at windmills by expecting people to read reviews with any more nuance than “good vs bad”…

    Posted 27 May 2008 at 3:54 am
  25. Jacob wrote:

    Oh and Richard it just upsets me when critics start attacking each other so of course I apologise. I just want us all to get along like one big happy constructive collectivist society…

    Posted 27 May 2008 at 3:57 am
  26. Ross wrote:

    Ronan. I don’t know if you have seen this but I think it sums it up http://webweaversworld.blogspot.com/2008/02/someone-is-wrong.html

    Posted 29 May 2008 at 4:35 pm
  27. david tennis wrote:

    came across this in a rather circuituous route and just wanted to say, this actually made me want to hear the record. i doubt i’d have been that interested from a positive review

    which means, i think, that i am agreeing, that negative reviews are a positive thing. to not like something isn’t to be jaded! and talking about a path taken that you don’t like is just as useful as a path taken you do like.

    the whole picture

    Posted 18 Nov 2008 at 11:59 am

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