Why All Music Is Good Music

Rob Horning, veteran music reviewer, adds to Peter Suderman's post on the ubiquity of positive album reviews:

Suderman has no real explanations for the surfeit of positive reviews. I had some theories back when I was writing more music reviews and was trying figure out why anyone bothered. Unlike films, many many records get released, and just noticing one and running a review of it already marks it as significant. The substance of the review itself is almost beside the point. Acknowledging its existence is already an admission that it’s “pretty good,” so it would be strange for the review to suggest otherwise.

In general, it’s hard coming up with compelling descriptions of music, and with readily accessible sound files, reviewers are competing with the songs themselves, which are easier to sample for oneself than ever. Many review editors try to compensate for this by urging writers to craft tightly wound prose explosions with lots of active verbs and implausible metaphors. The poetic quality of the review has to make up for its inability to beat the music, which basically speaks for itself. Generally, explaining whether the record is good or not is secondary to the writer’s making the reader laugh or think, Wow, that was cleverly phrased. And if all else fails, reviewers can work a variation on the formula of “sounds like artist A plus artist B doing some crazy thing”: e.g., “sounds like Bob Dylan making a pass at Joan Armatrading while landing a helicopter in a minefield.” (Here’s a good example from Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy: “It’s like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out Of The Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.") These descriptive conglomerates typically come across as positive but don’t really help readers, unless they have a clairvoyant capacity to get on the reviewer’s wavelength.