How to Hate the Songs You Love: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Music Criticism
Updated: Jul 22, 2018
The old saying goes something like this: “Opinions are like armpits; everyone has one, and most of them stink." Armpits are like music reviews in that regard. These days, everyone has something to say, especially in the age of social media. Good reviews generally come down to how well the reviewer can articulate their feelings into a concise and thought-provoking argument. That’s what make critics like Anthony Fantano so popular. But at the end of the day, it’s just an opinion, a totally subjective idea, and no one opinion really matters more than the other. So basically they all stink. Fantano will be the first one to downplay his authority. “Ya’ll know this is just my opinion, right?” is his signature disclaimer.
Even given Fantano’s wholeheartedness, it’s easy to see where his personal tastes factor into play. He seems to have a particular affinity for loud, abrasive, and experimental music. This is something I initially surmised just by considering his Explosions in the Sky and Minor Threat tattoos. However, my inference has been quantitatively confirmed by Thnder Labs, who published a statistical analysis of Fantano’s reviews. Their genre category “Loud Rock” (which one could assume encompasses the likes of metal, industrial, punk, etc) was found to have the highest average rating of the six genre categories they indexed. This comes despite being the median in terms of number of reviews per genre. The only genre that came close was “Other” (which one could assume encompasses more avant-garde, experimental music). In addition, two of the four albums Fantano has ever assigned a perfect 10/10 rating to--Death Grips’ The Money Store and Swans’ To Be Kind--were loud and experimental in nature. Does that mean that this area of music is simply of the highest quality? No. Fantano has reviewed a wide variety of music and given positive and negative reviews to albums of every genre, but it’s clear what kinds of music he is more likely to be receptive to.
Predisposition towards certain types of music is expected for any music fan, myself certainly included. However, I believe that predisposition to be the single biggest obstacle when it comes to making a totally objective review. It takes a great deal of honesty and consideration in order to achieve this, including a rejection of personal relationships with some music. One must ultimately ask the question: Does the piece push forward, fall behind, or merely sidestep in the grand scheme of music as we know it? I will address a number of factors in order to answer this. At the end of the day of course, music is ultimately subjective. It has a different effect on everyone. However, I believe that that this line of questioning can lead one to construct more wholesome and substantiated opinions about the music they love and also that which they don’t.
For the sake of clarification, let us first define objectivity within the realm of music. Objective goodness assumes that no one genre or artist is inherently more important than another in terms of cultural standing, record sales, age, or artistic intent. In deciding which music stands out from the rest, the merits of a piece of work (and also lack thereof) must be weighed in terms of impact. Relativity can be granted within genres and discographies. For example, it would prove futile to try and compare an ambient piece to a contemporary country piece because they both have very different characteristics which vary in relevance within the stylistic confines of their respective genres. For starters, one has vocals and the other doesn’t, and there’s a lot to be unpacked with that one factor alone. Delving deeper into this contrast yields substantial differences in artistic and aesthetic goals (think sitting alone in your room at night vs. tailgating at a NASCAR track). Beyond genre parameters, the all-important and open-ended question must be asked: Does the piece push forward, fall behind, or merely sidestep in the grand scheme of music as we know it?
All that being said, let’s look at the key factors that come into play when critiquing the quality of music. While it may seem narrow-minded to distill the good qualities of music down to a few broad categories, I do believe these categories to be rather all encompassing.
TECHNICALITY AND MUSICALITY
To be considered music in the first place, an audible work must possess a few of the most basic musical elements such as melody, rhythm, and harmony. Music evolves based on the manipulation of these principles, often in rather concrete ways. Music is unique from other forms of media in that it can be understood and created through a set of mathematical principles. These include things like scales and tempos, which can be broken down to numeric sets and patterns. Given this, one could argue that the most complex, technical pieces of music are the best. While that isn’t always false, having lots of technicality can often come with the risk of sacrificing emotion. Music is indeed a vehicle for moods and emotions, which is where musicality comes into play. Good music will strike a nice balance between technical mastery of an instrument and/or production techniques, and a rich emotional and/or cross-cultural soundscape.
I remember 10 years ago hearing Vampire Weekend’s self-titled album for the first time. The sunny, uptempo guitar strumming of “A-Punk” led me to liken the band only to Sublime—a fair comparison for a 14-year-old slowly weaning himself off a diet of 90s and 2000s alt rock. But obviously the young band’s sound was much more than that. Through the emphasis of nontraditional instruments such as hand drums and a Chamberlain, the band was able to blend together baroque pop, African music, and indie punk in sparkling fashion. Amidst its unmistakable novelty and musical detail, Vampire Weekend yielded songs that were also unmistakable in catchiness. This was something that simply had never been done before. Their eclectic selection of instruments spans time, place, and culture. In doing so, the band redefined what it means to make popular music, bringing together an array of unconventional tastes to deliver something universally enjoyable. Their stylistic fusion ushered in a new era of indie pop by showing how widely diverse musical influences could be intertwined to create something refreshingly unfamiliar to the ears.
LYRICS AND MESSAGE
While the voice is an instrument in itself, it is also a vessel for ideas. That’s where lyrics come into play. While instrumental music is not inherently better or worse than music with lyrics in any way, lyrics, when present, should also be given a fair critique. The voice has the power to create a whole new context for the music to be enjoyed in. Vocals and the lyrics contained within them should be looked at in different ways. For example, a lot of EDM relies heavily on strong female vocals to accompany uplifting synth leads. This helps create a blissful buildup that sets a euphoric mood for a rave. Lyrically, however, these vocal parts mostly consist of cliche haikus about the whimsicalities of love and dancing. It is in this way that lyrics are often merely a vessel for a strong vocal performance. That’s fine, but substantial, good lyrics contain an original thought-provoking message and facilitate unique conversations about a given topic. Since lyrics are essentially poetry, it matters not only what is being said, but how it’s being said. Vocabulary choice, syntax, delivery, and wordplay are all important in this regard.
Some genres put more of an emphasis on lyrics than others, such as hip-hop, since its only elements have traditionally been a drum machine and/or turntables, and the emcee’s voice. Now, this is not to say that good hip-hop has to have good lyrics, but it certainly helps. Rapper Mos Def solidified himself out of the gate with his debut album Black on Both Sides, which explores social, political, economic, environmental, and technological issues in ways that no one else in the genre had at the time. On “New World Water,” for example, Mos Def takes water—something almost comically basic—and frames its uses and health risks/benefits as analogies to inequalities across cultures. On “Rock N Roll,” he criticizes rock n’ roll’s appropriation of black artists by calling out the likes of Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones. His sung refrains echo the slave spirituals his ancestors recited (which he references as well). Towards the end, the song takes a left turn into punk rock territory, during which Mos’ delivery becomes a defiant yell. This symbolizes a black retrieval of rock n’ roll from the white artists that appropriated it. Even today, these are topics that are seldom explored in hip-hop. It’s not just the topics that are of note though, as Mos Def’s descriptiveness and diction ensure that his words strike a chord both within and without the context of the music itself.
While innovation is undoubtedly important to consider when discussing the merits of music, nostalgia is also an undeniable force. The classic sounds of older artists and scenes can create a powerful effect by transporting the listener back in time. It’s worth noting however, that this effect can have personal experiences embedded within it, aka nostalgia. Another thing to keep in mind when evaluating this nostalgic nature is that a tribute to a past genre or style doesn’t simply provide a one way ticket to goodness. The overall execution and creativity of the performance always applies. It’s not as if the majority of cover bands out there have what it takes to be appreciated at the next level. A band like Greta Van Fleet deserve praise for their bold nod to 70s rock jams, more specifically a little group called Led Zeppelin. While there has been debate over the blatancy of their homage, their product is an impressively polished package. Led by Joshua Kiszka’s strikingly Plant-esque voice, the band evoke Zeppelin with every note. But alas, there are many other bands that actually play Led Zeppelin with explicit intention. You may wonder, “What makes a band like Greta Van Fleet any better any better than them?”
1. Any band can over Led Zeppelin.
2. Some bands can cover Led Zeppelin and actually mimic their sound and playing style and to a tee.
3. Few bands can mimic the sound and style of Led Zeppelin to a tee, all while in the context of new original music that feels like an extension of the existing Zep catalog.
I am well aware of the debate over whether Greta Van Fleet are just blatantly ripping off Led Zeppelin. While I can see both sides of the debate, I think the answer to that comes down to personal preference. Regardless of whether or not they sound too much like them, the fact that that argument is on the table means that they’re doing something worth talking about. After all, good music sparks good conversation.
The biggest challenge when it comes to making objective statements about music is putting aside personal biases. Different people have different levels of attachment to different genres and artists for different reasons. All of that is perfectly ok, but if music journalism is to be held to high standards of objectivity, the same principles that are present in regular news journalism need to be applied. One should not be judged for their personal tastes, and to judge one’s own personal tastes should not trigger a restructuring of values. Unlike news journalism, a misinterpretation or willful ignorance of certain music is harmless (with the exception of music specifically predicated on hateful ideologies). In the end, it is only art, which is open to interpretation. When considering the sonic attractiveness of a piece of music, a critic should ask themselves: “Do I mostly enjoy this because it resonates with my sensibilities and experiences, or does my enjoyment come from the former and/or the fact that it pushes the boundaries of what’s been done in music prior?”
My musical food pyramid has a lot of emo and pop punk in the place of whole grains. I would say I enjoy the majority of bands within this genre to some degree, but objective goodness I grant much less liberally. Many of the biggest names in the scene today—Real Friends, Neck Deep, Seaway, etc.—are more or less just rehashing what Blink 182 did 15 years ago, or at least trying to. A band like Blink 182 rose to prominence right when pop punk was cutting itself a sizable slice of pop music pie. With their childish, unabashed sense of humor, they were able to craft seriously infectious anthems that rang out amongst the mainstream ranks. Despite being held in the industry’s sugar-coated grip in an era where boy bands and pop divas were seemingly crafted in labs, they were able stay true to their SoCal punk roots and pack an impressive punch thanks to Travis Barker’s deliciously dexterous drumming.
Look, I will continue to love simple, up-tempo chord progressions soaked in sunny distortion, skankable D-beats, and neatly packaged lyrics about teenage love and loss. As a young white male raised among the throes of suburbia, one could say that I’m predisposed to it. In a way, maybe I should be. In many ways music should be relatable, but for the purposes of music journalism, being relatable means walking a fine line. Personal resonance runs the risk of being the subjective gristle that taints the quality of the meat. Cutting out that gristle can be the single hardest part of critiquing music. There are a select few bands in the aforementioned genre that stand out from the pack, ones to which I would grant candidacy for truly objective goodness. Take Sorority Noise for example, whose bleak and tongue-in-cheek lyrics about depression dichotomously breathe life into lush walls of guitar that explode with raw, arena rock bravado. This is an example of a band that reshapes the tropes of their genre to carve out a new space in its canon.
But what makes a personal discourse in emo or pop punk any different then say, Kendrick Lamar’s accounts of growing up around gang life in the predominantly African-American city of Compton? Is more credibility supposed to be granted to those whose music draws from more complex socioeconomic backgrounds? Do marginalized groups simply have more opportunity to write impactful music? These are difficult questions to answer. Let’s take a look at Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, which was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The organization describes the album as such: “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
It is true that only an artist like Kendrick Lamar—who is African American, and whose experiences in Compton reflect the troublesome sociopolitical history of African Americans—could be successful in making the music he makes. That much is more or less exclusive to the demographic underpinnings of his lived experience. Could an artist or group of artists—regardless of race—come out of Compton one day and tell critical and enticing stories like Kendrick’s, but in a totally different style of music, say emo or shoegaze? Sure, but let’s not entertain hypotheticals here. It’s not so much one’s circumstances that act as a conduit for great songwriting. Rather, it’s what one makes of their circumstances and how they make those stories matter. Kendrick Lamar did this through colorful storytelling and powerful delivery. Someone like Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest—a shy, white, middle class boy from Leesburg, VA—couldn’t exactly achieve the same topical authenticity as Kendrick. Despite the rather obvious, he has still managed to create some of the most candidly introspective and simultaneously catchy indie rock of the decade. On the critically acclaimed album Teens of Denial, Toledo narrates scenes of college indulgences with witty moroseness and acute self-awareness over bittersweet melodies. His music should be rewarded in the same way as Kendrick terms of poeticism and honesty.
The key to making the necessary rejection of personal taste is to separate personal connections to the music from objectively earned merits. Perhaps the most challenging part of this process is finding the objective merits in pieces of music that seem unattractive or boring. For instance, I personally do not enjoy listening to classical music. I find that it lulls me into a state of dullness and drowsiness, its antique quality simply off-putting. I can’t help that. However, I am cognizant of the compositional intricacies in a great symphony and can appreciate the music based off that alone. Legendary rapper Ghostface Killah shares in my sentiment in the following exchange with interviewer Adam 22:
Ghostface Killah: “Just because they might not be the sound that you like, no matter how you put it, it’s still music, whether you like it or not. It’s music. Like classical, I don’t listen to classical. I dig it though, but I don’t sit there and be like “Yo put that classical joint on!’”
Adam 22: “You’re at the point in your life where you can just appreciate good art in general and be curious about it.”
Ghostface Killah: “Exactly.”
A more concrete example from my life would be the Icelandic singer Björk. Since the early 90s, Björk has garnered dozens awards and praise across the music community and beyond. Her ethereal soundscapes and equally otherworldly voice have helped push pop, indie, and electronic music into new territory. And yet, I just can’t sit down and listen to an album of hers front to back. I find the instrumentation in her music to be too loose and discombobulated for my taste, perhaps due in part to the ever-present influence of classical music. Her vocal delivery I find to be awkwardly drawn out. For reasons such as these, I was never able to get into her the way that countless other indie heads have. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her unmistakable uniqueness and overall contributions to music. I could easily dismiss her as being overrated, but to come to that conclusion would be short-sighted. As oddly constructed as her music may sound on the surface, it still deserves to be properly examined and rewarded. Björk has redefined popular music through ornate sonic tapestries that reveal intricate yet familiar patterns. Musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding discuss this idea in their podcast Switched On Pop. “You can’t put this on in the background and absorb it. It wants active listening,” Harding insists of her music. This is critical when reviewing music. Passive listening yields more visceral reactions, whereas active listening forces the listener to really hone in on what’s going on. Being fully invested in the music allows the listener to better sort their personal, emotionally driven responses from objective judgements based on specific thematic content and quantitatively-based musical concepts. Listening for innovation and raw creativity in music is not always the easiest or most enjoyable experience. Then again, it’s not like it should be in the first place. Like any form of journalism, good reporting can often prove to be a meticulous and challenging process on the backend.
At this point it may seem like there exists some kind of goodness threshold in music that can be quantitatively defined. The fact is that none such threshold exists and cannot exist. It’s largely up to the listener to define the boundaries of such a territory. It’s not as if a certain combination or ratio of notes, chords, rhythms, lyrics, etc. is a one way ticket to the “upper echelon of music.” While certain combinations can indeed be more generally pleasing than others, that doesn’t necessarily constitute them as better than them. By that logic, most pop music would be considered the best music because it's the most easily digestible for the largest percentage of people. Digestibility/accessibility may seem like a sliding scale (more technical/dense music being more “inaccessible”) but accessibility itself is largely a byproduct of popular music and the music industry of Western society. Our auricular understanding of pop music is, for the most part, based on common musical elements like 12-bar blues and I-V-vi-IV chord progressions, which have been prevalent in countless hits throughout the decades. Many of these progressions can trace their origins back to American blues music. The trends of blues-influenced rock n’ roll and soul music spawned the hottest sounds of the US and the UK, which quickly spread all over the world. From then on, a sort of formulaic approach to pop music began to take hold, which is why the same musical trends reveal themselves in hit songs time and time again. They have been ingrained within our collective understanding and appreciation of music, and that’s exactly what the music industry wants. That way they can essentially recycle and reformat the same basic product in order to maximize profit for record companies. As a result of this capitalistic substructure, digestibility and accessibility should not be seen as legitimate factors when it comes to judging music.
Even after considering all this information, objective goodness is still essentially a theoretical concept. In addition, it can be hard to make an objective call without an all-encompassing understanding of music and music history like an Anthony Fantano. The best that the average listener can do is make a judgement based on their most honest understanding of music. Please keep in mind that the point of this essay is not to say what you should and shouldn’t listen to or enjoy. The point is to offer a guide for what to consider when judging whether or not a piece of music deserves praise. Obviously everyone has personal tastes, and they very well should. Tastes however, are biases, and biases have no place in journalism, at least in its purest sense. That’s not to say that biases are bad either. I think music is such a special form of media because of all the subjective enjoyment it creates. Music can be enjoyed in so many different situations and take on widely different meanings depending on who you are and what you’ve been through. Its open-endedness allows for infinite wonder and discovery. That’s something that isn’t worth being critical of.