Hashtag Criticism

Two weeks ago, SPIN Magazine announced it would be discontinuing its traditional in-print album reviews in favour of 140-character reviews posted on Twitter (@SPINreviews). SPIN reasons that, thanks to the Internet, listeners don’t depend on professional critics to act as authoritative voices about new releases: all anyone needs to discover new music is a working knowledge of Google. A self-proclaimed “reinvention” of the album review with the goal of reviewing as much music as possible (1500 albums is the stated target), SPIN’s decision raises some legitimate questions about music criticism in a digital age, but is flawed as a solution.

The main problem is that 140 characters are not enough to say anything of value, especially considering that on average a third of the space is spent listing the technical details of the album (artist, title, grade). These microblog reviews may seem novel and exciting, but in condensing the breadth of each album into a mere sentence fragment, our understanding of potentially immense albums must rely on a single critic’s ability to, in essence, say as little as possible.

See if you can tell if the following review is favourable or not without the number grade:  “THE DEVIL’S BLOOD/The Thousandfold Epicentre: Satanic vintage metal skirting nine-minute lines between Öyster and Öyster with cheese.” Is it good or bad? Chances are you won’t know from that sentence alone. Though assigning a grade, numeric or alphabetical, is often frustratingly arbitrary, the fact that the above phrase is equally applicable to a one out of 10 review or a 10 out of 10 review is troublesome. The less that’s said, the less context given, the more power is allocated to the number. At this point, words are just a formality. If the goal of the project is to make music reviews more accessible and relevant, SPIN has already failed. These tweets are meaningless as critiques and  nothing more than an exercise for its writers. (By the way, the grade was a “6.” Who knew?)

SPIN blames the Internet for the decline of music journalism, but music journalists themselves are just as much a part of the problem. One of the complaints often lodged against critics, and rightfully so, is that much of the writing is a self-serving description of the reviewer. The contention is not that subjectivity should be kept out of criticism—the merit of all music is philosophically and fundamentally subjective—but that too often writers attempt to show off their prose at the expense of actually discussing the music in a meaningful and accessible way. Music website Pitchfork Media is notorious for this, where criticism and compliments are often buried under tedious anecdotes and obscure references, but it’s not the only offender: overintellectualized, verbose, and self-serving reviews are endemic among critics. No doubt these types of reviews are appropriate for a select type of music fan, but for those without PhDs in “insert-genre-here” (ie. the majority), impenetrable reviews become frustrating and tiresome. It’s no wonder people tune out.

An appropriate remedy is not to eliminate the overly-educated from holding positions in music criticism, but to shift the standard tone. Critics need to ditch the “holier-than-thou” mentality and realize that a review should be a starting point for conversation, not a sermon. SPIN acknowledges this in its press release, encouraging readers to use the new format as, ” … a jumping-off point to explore your own opinion and fandom.” In practice, however, the majority of the Twitter reviews have lost none of their pompousness. 

Another thing that bears addressing is that SPIN’s new style of reviewing isn’t drastically different than its old one. To quote the press release, “…this new plan also means no more overwrought 80-word blurbs on middling, nobody-cares bands where a grade of “6” or a “7” ultimately translates to ‘Hey, this exists; and it doesn’t totally blow!'” Moving reviews to Twitter doesn’t change the fact that “nobody-cares” bands are still nobody-cares bands, if anything being mentioned in print makes them more legitimate, and a grade of “6” or “7” carries the same air of indifference regardless of where it’s posted. It’s a little shorter, but what’s the point?

In the end, changing mediums won’t stop music critics from being pretentious. What’s most important is the attitude, and it takes more than 140 characters to fix that.

SPINREVIEWS/SpinReviews/5: an interesting but ultimately misguided attempt to reinvent music criticism.—NP&RT

 

—Nick Petrillo & Ryan Taylor

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