Today's blog post is a three-part meditation on the purpose and effect of music reviews.
Today there are more sites dedicated to music reviews than ever before. We'll consider music reviews from the perspective of a reviewed musician (Alejandra), a music writer and social media expert (Steve Birkett), and a blogger, zine-ster, and musician (Eleanor Whitney).
Music Reviews: Alejandra's Perspective
I like my music. That’s why I release it: I believe my songs can make people happy.
I welcome reviews of my band’s concerts and recordings. Not only because music is meant to circulate the world, but also because it’s a rare chance for me to hear what people think and feel about my work. It's rare that I hear people express their raw responses using words, rather than applause, heckles, yelps or hips - even if hips don’t lie (and I believe they don't).
I like to hear what people think and feel about my music because it is inevitably different than what I think and feel.
For me, the best reviews of my music— or anyone’s music – go far beyond the evaluative – the best reviewers connect their deep and tangled experiences in life and music with what they hear. Their reviews are personal; but in their writing the deeply personal (even the subconscious) is shaped into something clear, coherent, and communicable.
I think the best reviews make sense and stir up feelings even in readers who never plan to hear the music under review.
Therefore, my favorite reviews of my own music are not those that simply gush with positivity, but rather those that display a thoughtful approach to sound, a memorable readability, and an angle on the songs that I hadn’t considered before, or hadn’t considered enough.
Even a line in review that truly boggles me and seems to have been written about another artist or song is (one hopes) a true statement and enlightens me about the real-world reverberations made by my music.
How I am supposed to know what I "evoke" or "communicate"? My own ideas about such things aren't relevant. It's all about the listener. Only a reviewer can tell me something about what some listeners may think, feel, put together, reject, and remember when they hear my songs.
Music reviews don't play a direct role in my music-making. Still, the most effective and honest reviews give me a convincing push as I move forward in music. But they are not written for me. The best reviews stand on their own, and like a song, are intended to stand for years beyond their creation.
Postscript: I put all my "good" reviews in the "Press" and "More Press" sections of this website. You can check them out if you're interested.
Below are a few reviews of a mixed nature. All of the contained interesting information that was new to me. That's really all I can ask for in a review, beyond stylish prose (a welcome bonus):
Post-Post-Script: Not all "good" reviews are created equal.
And this is the kind of good review I like to get:
the various speeds at which this album drives, showcasing all the cautious optimism and fragile emotion that continue to appear across the album. One of the more skillful aspects of the songwriting - and one that is apparent after only a couple of spins - is the ability to fuse the two somewhat contrasting sentiments together as though it were the only natural way to approach the subject of loving relationships.
This review appeared in the NYC-based music blog Heavier-Than-Air in 2009 when I released "Nothing Out Loud". After it appeared I became good friends with its author, Steve Birkett. Steve continues to write about music, now from the music and social media marketing side, for his excellent blog Above the Static.
Music Reviews: Steve's Perspective
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, or so the (possibly apocryphal) quote goes.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough evocative structures to believe that some interpretive dance types somewhere would be moved to create a piece about them.
Similarly, plenty of music moves those of us who lack the same creative ability, to wax eloquent about it in the form of prose.
Although music reviews are inherently secondary to the songs they attempt to address, they do serve a purpose. Scratch that... they can serve a purpose, when crafted well.
Music reviews attempt to express that intangible quality of the music in some descriptive form. They can open up dialogue around songs, helping listeners delve deeper into the nooks and crannies, releasing a better understanding of why they themselves enjoy it.
Music is perceived uniquely by each individual, yet still seeks to be understood in groups and discussion. Those who put descriptions to the sounds seek to bridge that gap for everyone else.
John Lennon once answered (much loved British DJ) John Peel’s question as to why he read Beatles reviews as succinctly as you’d expect: “I want to find out what our songs are about”. Even digested with a liberal dose of wry Scouse wit, there’s a truth there as to why listeners continue to be drawn to this ostensibly most futile of exercises.
Eleanor Whitney plays guitar and sings in the NYC indie rock band Corita. She is also a contributing music writer for Boxx Music Magazine and other publications. She blogs regularly at Killerfemme. Her new book, Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job will be released by Cantakerous Titles on June 1, 2013. Eleanor wrote a review of Alejandra's album Nothing Out Loud that appeared in Feminist Review in 2009 (see the "Press" section of this site for an excerpt").
Eleanor's Perspective: Why write about music?
At first I thought, “Why not?” I love music: I’ve listened to it and played it my whole life and music has inspired and informed everything from my decisions to move to Portland, Oregon and New York City, my feminist consciousness, to my knowledge of French slang. I love to write, so writing about music has seemed like a natural evolution to my music fandom and musical pursuits. I would also argue I am a far better writer than musician.
My music writing has slowed down a little bit as I prepare to release my first book, but I love writing about music because the writing process encourages me to really listen.
It’s not enough decide to like something, or not, but I have to back it up with examples of what I am hearing, what it reminds me of, and what that music does for me. It also gives me a chance to listen to music I wouldn’t otherwise consider, whether it’s underground electronic music from Detroit or obscure chillwave from Portland, Oregon.
Writing about music encourages me to scrutinize, critique and question my tastes as well as the music that I am listening to. It also makes me a more scrupulous musician. When I’m thinking about a songs structure or performance I can take a step back from my own creative process and really think about what the song could sound like to the outside listener. I’d like to think that this makes my band Corita’s music more inviting for our listeners, but of course, I’ll let other critics be the judge.