Music criticism and the report card conundrum

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • November 4, 2015

In September, my friend and former Beacon music columnist Nina Corcoran had her review of Lana Del Rey’s “Honeymoon” published on Consequence of Sound, a music blog.  She tried to be generous to the beloved Del Rey, but she ultimately gave the album a tepid review, grading it a B-. In response, fans furiously tweeted everything from valid critiques like “This review shows the album is an A- at worst!” to angry nonsense like “This review is dumb.”

We both agreed that it was the B- that incensed the fanbase. Grades are ultimately arbitrary, and evoke different reactions in people. When I got a B+ on a math test back in high school, I was usually relieved. When my best friend got the same grade, it was the end of the world—she might as well have failed. Grades in music criticism are equally up for interpretation. 

Many music publications have long used ratings for their reviews. Rolling Stone famously uses a five-star system, which allows reviewers to use half-stars when they are on the fence. Since it was founded in 1995, Pitchfork has ranked albums from 1 to 10, with decimal points for the in-betweens. Entertainment Weekly has long put letter grades on their album reviews, judging them anywhere from A+ to F-. 

As most written content moves online, using these systems to rank new work has become more of a necessity than a choice. In an age where music is now easier to record, produce, brand, and market than ever before, publications face a massive quantity of new material. DIY methods have changed the game for musicians just starting out—it means the tools they need are on hand, and there is no more waiting around to be discovered. Unfortunately, it also means that the Internet is inundated with artists doing the exact same thing, making it harder for completed work to stand out.

One of the main places artists turn to for recognition is music websites. It is simple to start a blog, but very difficult to find a consistent audience for it, especially when many other competing websites are also vying for attention and authority. To generate traffic and find a readership, these sites need to stay on top of the news cycle. With new releases, it has become increasingly important for music journalists to have a review and an angle as quickly as possible. This includes a definitive letter- or number-rated judgement on the quality of the work. 

When there is such an overwhelming amount of music content, it makes sense that publications would want to further develop systems of organization. However, when it comes at the cost of more in-depth reviewing, it is hard to not view grading systems as a symptom of the Internet’s shorter attention span. Grades are useful, but also potentially reductive, and may undermine the thoughts and ideas that come through the medium.

There are some important reasons album reviews are such a staple in music writing. They break apart and explore the instrumental elements, nudging readers to understand what the artists were thinking when the arrangements were put together. They can also dissect the lyrics, digging deeper into the purpose of the record. Analyzing both instrumentals and lyrical content can allow the listener to explore the artist’s influences and show the history behind the work. Most importantly, they put the work in a broader context, exploring not only what the musician has said, but what it reflects about the culture surrounding it. 

This is perhaps the strongest argument against numerical rating systems—a high grade can tell you that an album is good, but not what the themes were, the perspective the artist comes from, what it will mean when the music reaches audiences. When a record with enormous cultural implications comes out, it’s almost unfair to assign it a grade or number. It’s hard to imagine how a huge, complex album like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” or Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” could be condensed to just a rating. This is where the reader can potentially miss out on important commentary. 

Even without grades, album reviews can be polarizing. I’m even guilty of this, as more often than not I disagree with Anthony Fantano, who has become one of the most popular critics on the internet with his YouTube music reviews. When a song or an album you love is torn to shreds by someone like Fantano, it can really feel like a personal attack. A low letter or number rating is going to make any fan that much less likely to hear out the author’s side. 

Obviously, any review is subjective, and a good music journalist is confident enough in their taste to share strong opinions. It seems a shame to rely more and more on stars, numbers, and letters instead of the words, which can really break open an album for readers. Important analysis and exploration of music should not die in the electronic age.