Chris Jancelewicz

The subjectivity of objective music criticism

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How does one be objective in music criticism without being too subjective? Find out how Toronto's music critics do it (or don't do it).

Riding on the success of their newest self-titled EP, New York indie band, Interpol strolled into Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern in September 2001. Hailed as the “next big thing,” several newspapers in Toronto decided to send reviewers to cover the show. The Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner attended, as did NOW magazine’s music critic Sarah Liss. A strange thing happened, though, upon their exit and subsequent evaluation of the band’s performance. Rayner loved it, Liss didn’t. Blame it on gender, on music taste, on whatever, but two people went to write about a show and each came out with a different story of how it went inside.

Music critics and reviewers are hired to objectively judge, and then write about, a performance or compact disc. But in most cases, it is not so clear-cut. Nor is it so objective in the end. “Criticism is inherently subjective,” says Exclaim magazine’s punk-rock critic Stuart Green. “Admittedly, objectivity gets a little lost, but you must explain your position using good logic.”

It is hard to rid opinion writing of personal views and attitudes. A traditional method among music reviewers is to approach the CD or concert as a fan would – with an open mind, and a certain idea of what to expect from the performing artist. If it’s Christina Aguilera, then the critic knows to anticipate a pop performance complete with sexual gyrations and dancing. If it’s Marilyn Manson, the reviewer expects a more shocking, gothic show, with pagan imagery and bizarre costumes. Critics must accept that there are no concrete standards that apply across the board, and from there, no matter who the performer is, there is a certain bar from which the critic can judge. Still, despite the surety of this method, sometimes the status of a band makes a difference in the outcome of the review, says Liss. “I try not to take cheap shots,” she says. “I find that local bands need the money and support more, so I’ll definitely be a lot more critical of huge bands.”

Her logic is simple. If a band is raking it in, then they should put on a better show. If a band generates less money, then the audience, and in this case the critic, should be expecting less, especially such things as pyrotechnics or visual screens. The amount of money a band makes is only one of the factors that play into the critical outcome. Others include the audience reaction at the show, the professionalism of the band and the overall atmosphere. “I try to take in how well the performance dominates the stage, and I always look for rapport with the audience,” says Liss. “The charisma of a band or performer can take over technical problems.”

She cites Winnipeg band The Weakerthans, whose songs tend to follow a simple three-chord pattern. She says that even though their songs are not complex, the band’s love for its music is apparent, and it stands out when they perform. In order to do her job properly as a reviewer, she must take in all facets of the act.

Perhaps most important for a critic, though, is to make sure that the audience reaction after the review is written doesn’t sway the writing. Knowing that fans will not react favourably to a review can be motivation to alter it, changing the review in favour of the reader. Rayner has experienced the anger of fans that are more than displeased with an unflattering review of their favourite band. “I have one standard and that’s to be honest,” he says. “I try to be open and up front. I mean, I’ve given good reviews to Savage Garden. But there’s always the fans that react badly to a harsh review.”

Rayner received death threats from Guns N’ Roses fans who didn’t like his review of their 2002 “reunion” concert, in which he described the touring unit as “a good cover band.” Amusingly, a sour Yanni review by Rayner also got the same reaction from fans. “When I go to a show, ultimately, it’s me, me, me, me, me,” says Rayner. “But you can’t just take cheap shots, you have to prove it. I personally believe that you have to assume an objective stance if you’re pursuing subjectivity. So it’s objective subjectivity or subjective objectivity, whichever.”

Green finds it hard to assume such a distanced stance. “Music strikes you on a personal level first, so yeah, personal opinion influences you.” He compares watching a band to forming a relationship with someone. “No matter what people say, the first thing you’re attracted to is looks, right?” he says. “It’s the same with music, you’re going to like something better if it suits your fancy.”

Even for the seasoned critic, it is common that mistakes in judgement are made when writing reviews. Several lesser factors sometimes influence the outcome of a review, like mood or events of the day. “There have been things I’ve published and thought twice about later on,” says Liss. “Sometimes I’m too positive about a performance, and then in retrospect I realize I didn’t like it as much. Or when I review a CD favourably and then go see the show, and they suck, I feel like I’ve been duped.”

Regardless of the band, genre or venue, writing a balanced critical review is not so much an impartial description as it is an individual conveying his or her own feelings about a performance. It seems that personal opinion is a necessary ingredient for well-rounded criticism, so long as it doesn’t render the objective voice completely silent. The last thing a reviewer wants is rabid Yo-Yo Ma fans breaking down the door.


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