[Feature] On the Negative Review
A short disclaimer: This article is not written in response to any criticism of Sunbleach, and it is not a passive-aggressive response to an artist’s concerns over reception of their work either in a Sunbleach article or elsewhere. It’s simply waxing poetic on the purpose of the album “review”.1
For the artist, a negative reception can come as an emotional blow. You’ve poured time, energy, and almost certainly money into a project, probably received thoughts from friends and other producers, likely acquired the attention of a label who expressed interest and encouragement (and why else would they unless they liked your work?), and put your name or pseudonym on it so that it’s tied to your artistic reputation. And then some jerk with nothing but a set of headphones and an Internet connection writes a blog post that says your album sucked. What a terrible feeling it must be to have someone say that, and how it must feel like all that time was wasted.
For the label, a negative review can feel as if its tendrils extend to the rest of your roster. If one album isn’t positively received – vehemently so, in some cases – then what’s to say that it doesn’t also apply to other artists whom you’ve approved, promoted, and released? Are you out of touch – or is it the children who are wrong? Additionally, labels might fear like current or new listeners might be soured on future releases, as if the negative reception has poisoned the well and that harsh criticism implies the artistic decisions of the label as a whole are to be doubted. If the only interaction that a potential listener might have with your label is some anonymous writers on social media saying to pass, then won’t it be likely that they’ll decide to skip on the next album?
The absolute worst kinds of negative reviews personally attack the artist, label, or work. You know the kind: articles that say the album is bad and you should feel bad for even considering to release it – often written in a snarky tone that you know the writer thought they were oh so clever for coming up with metaphor on top of metaphor to explain why you should absolutely never listen to this album. It’s the kind of writing where you can tell that the writer feels like they’ve been personally victimized, as if spending a few hours listening and analyzing an album has caused them negative psychological effects and the only way they can recover from this ordeal is by telling you how terrible it was.2
That kind of article does absolutely no good for reader or artist, and it only serves to satisfy an onanistic writing exercise on behalf of the article’s author. An article that does nothing but lambaste the artist for producing music doesn’t actually do anything to help the artist become better – but it does feel good on behalf of the writer, as by God those three hours of listening were torment. It’s an exceptionally shallow and lazy style of not only writing but of artistic appreciation. Their reactions to the art are based in degrading the art and its creator rather than attempting to understand why it sounds a certain way and how the aesthetic within art could be otherwise modified or improved. It’s as if the writer receives a perverse pleasure from taking down someone’s work rather than attempting to build them into a better artist.
On the other hand, there are writers who are terrified of giving negative reception.3 Some writers feel the need to give everything at or above, say, four stars out of five – whether this is due to a misguided desire to find subjective approval in everything, a fear of insulting one’s audience, or a lack of experience in criticism. These articles usually will discuss an album’s potential shortcomings, but they are almost always qualified with statements about the ability of an album to still be appreciated due to other circumstances or a comment on the inherently subjective nature of art. This damages artists by process of equivocation. It’s a way to evade giving straightforward criticism or any real suggestion for improvement, and it renders meaningless the subjective scale through unnecessary reduction.
It is not a bad thing to say that an album does not succeed in its intentions, and approaching that subject need not be one that writers treat with either indignity or timidity. Where the negative review benefits both writer and artist is where it is approached from the subject of improvement. Telling an artist what decisions abased the quality of their work or impeded the expression of their intent is beneficial, as such an approach provides concrete suggestions for how an artist can more effectively express themselves the next time. It approaches the unsuccessful aspects of art in way that simulates the production better art instead of self-gratification on behalf of the writer. A negative review written to bring down the artist might entertain, but it harms artistic expression by turning the idea of the “review” into a rally against indiscretion rather than being a truly constructive criticism.4
A negative review should point out the flaws of an album and not shy away from them. Too much qualification just leads to ambiguity. Writers should be able to point out exactly what issues they find in a work of art so that the artist or producer knows exactly where to improve. If a writer attempts to constantly justify an artist’s actions for them, then the review gets in the way of itself and excuses the album for its flaws rather than clearly and concisely address them. Fear of expressing an unfavorable opinion just avoids the issue, and it ends up failing to give any usable feedback whatsoever. Imagine being in a relationship and knowing that there are some issues that you and your partner can work on together, but whenever you bring it up, you keep emphasizing how everything’s really okay. Would anything change?5
These types of reviews should also provide necessary information for the listener. The ultimate goal of music criticism should be for a potential listener to read the review and get an idea of what the album sounds like before they’ve even hit play. The writer needs to express caution here – to recycle an earlier idiom, a negative review should not poison the well of a label’s or artist’s discography, which can be accomplished by avoiding insults and attacks on integrity. A negative review should also prepare curious listeners for what they’re about to hear. Pointing out a failure in musicianship or production that is not part of the over-arching aesthetic (e.g. low-fidelity in black metal) is important for new listeners so that they may develop a more discerning ear and be able to apply that knowledge to albums of similar aesthetic.
For more experienced artists who are likely to have a following, a negative review should be able to contextualize the artist’s (or label’s) history. However, a negative review should not be approached from the perspective that change is a bad thing. Many artists undergo change throughout their artistic careers, and a world without change would be a boring one. Change should not be the basis of a negative reception, but change that is unnecessary or unsuccessful in expressing the goals of an artist work should be approached on its merit.
According to the 1913 edition of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, the second definition of “criticism” is a “critical observation or detailed examination and review”. That is how a negative review should be approached – as a “detailed examination” that points out flaws or ineffective aspects of music and approaches them in a way that inspires improvement. This can mean giving suggestions for next time in context of the artist’s goals: for exampmle, if an ambient artist is trying to make relaxing furniture music, then inform them that the uptempo percussion on tracks four and five distracts the listener and impedes its goals of blending into the background. It can also mean dissecting the narratives or tropes used by the artist and questioning why certain aspects were used in certain ways: for example, if an trash metal band is writing music on sociopolitical concerns, then why go for a hyper-gory album artwork that might attract metal fans who expect similar lyrical content? In this sense, a negative review should not be a negative encounter, betterment of artist, label, or writer cannot come from that.
A “negative review” should not be synonymous with a “bad review”. “Bad reviews” are those that don’t better the artist or provide information to potential listeners – through either scorn or equivocation – and they are entirely the fault of the writer for either allowing a reactionary desire for retaliation against the perceived wrongness of listening to an album they didn’t enjoy or for hedging to express an unfavorable opinion. In a culture that interprets a positive experience as something inherently more valuable than a negative experience, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of good in understanding why you don’t like something – and even more good in being able to express that eloquently and respectfully.
1i.e. an idea I came up with in the shower this morning.
2Looking at you, Pitchfork Media.
3This kind of thinking plagues all types of media – especially video games, where a 7/10 is considered a bad game and rarely (if ever) will something receive below a 6, making a ten-point scale more of a glorified four-point scale.
4Some writers don’t want to do that. Frankly, they’re not cut out for journalism.
5No, this isn’t a commentary on my own relationship. Don’t worry, friends!