Missing the Point & Other Disasters

Normally, I’m not the kind of person to go out of my way to trash other people’s reviews.*  No matter how authoritative the tone, in the end, the review is merely the opinion of one writer.  Arguments can be made about the effectiveness about certain tactics or styles, but there is little point in quibbling when there is no single determinate answer to be found.

That said, there are certainly some dumb ways to approach writing a review.  Take the AV Club’s review of Turn Blue for example.  In a three paragraph review of a Black Keys album, the first third is entirely devoted to their lyrics.  To anyone that has ever spent time listening to the band, this is a patently ridiculous approach to reviewing the group (if you look at the review we ran yesterday, you’ll notice that we gave the lyrics only a passing mention).  That of course is not to say that lyrics are unimportant; it’s just that for a blues-rock group like The Black Keys, lyrics are usually an afterthought and are written in more as placeholders than anything (as mentioned in this interview with NPR).  Sure, those that are new to the group may not expect this to be the case, but the writer is reviewing the work of an established band with roots in a genre that doesn’t place an emphasis on the words.  This isn’t true of the blues only; when people listen to a techno or heavy metal song, they tend to not focus on the lyrics (though for the latter this apparently isn’t always the case).  Over a career that spans eight albums, I can hardly think of any significant lyrical turns of phrases or bon mots from the group, outside of a few catchy (and generally meaningless) choruses designed just to get the crowd singing along.

This book may have been used as research in one of the reviews

This book may have been used as research in one of the reviews

Not only are the lyrics unnecessarily emphasized in the review, but they are viewed through a lens that makes no sense in context.  The writer applies half-assed feminist theory in his critique, stating that the band portrays “a view of women that…is glaringly reductive” and that “women are mere caricatures, often painted as temptresses in desperate need of the guidance and fulfillment that can be provided by a man.”  The fact that the band hails from a tradition of the blues is tossed aside, instead of being cited as the primary reason why this would be the case.  One can make it a goal to point out the stereotypes of past generations or go against the perceived boundaries of certain genres, but when it’s clear from the outset that there is no interest in doing so, it doesn’t seem smart to knock a band for failing to engage in that particular fight, especially if one has trouble citing noteworthy examples.  Since in general The Black Keys are not particularly interested in their lyrics (and neither are their fans), it makes little sense to deride them for not bucking against the history of the genre.

This would be bad enough, but from an errant statement it becomes clear that the writer did not do the necessary research before writing this review.  In picking apart the song “It’s Up To You Now”, the author writes “he can’t help but feel exploited by a woman who’s left him,” and then uses that as his conclusion of the band’s foray into typical stereotypes.  Of course, there may be a particular reason why this sentiment may have been present–Dan Auerbach recently went through a divorce, and the tone of the album reflects that difficult ordeal.**  It’s one thing for a reviewer to not know this vital piece of information for an up-and-coming band, but considering that The Black Keys have been the biggest rock band in the country for the past few years (and were well-established in the indie community which is the AV Club’s audience well before then), it’s inexcusable to not know that information.

The other problem with this approach is the utterly reductive notion that if a woman is portrayed in any sort of antagonistic manner in a song, it is a symptom of a serious malady like sexism.  The Pitchfork review runs with this premise and makes the argument explicitly, stating “[l]yrically, the Black Keys’ casual chauvinism has gone from ‘Girl, you look so good’ to ‘Woman, you done me wrong[.]'”  This kind of assertion is troubling on some levels, and utterly ridiculous on others.  First, the idea that noticing the attractiveness of a potential partner is a concept that is inherently chauvinistic shows a total lack of regard for both context and human nature (yes, leering and catcalling is bad, but not all examples of noting attractiveness are inherently evil–without it, it’s difficult to imagine how most relationships would ever start); and second, that if when discussing a relationship one cannot attempt to assess blame on another party without coming off as a misogynist, then we are truly fucked.  Let’s brush aside the fact that this attitude is more paternalistic than anything, that denying the other party any agency and indulging in only the most protectionist of assumptions is a bad approach to any situation.  It’s utterly remarkable that the reviewer has attempted to brush aside the subject matter of 90% of music of the last half century in only a few words; if you take away the joy of falling in love and the despair in falling out of it, you’re not left with much to discuss, and we already had Rage Against The Machine cover politics and The Decemberists cover 19th century literature.***  Also, it ignores the various lyrics where Dan assigns blame to himself, but who cares, it doesn’t fit the narrative.

The entire approach reeks of someone attempting to pass off a superficial understanding of critical theory, as if they learned the vocabulary but failed to pay attention when the class discussion switched to their proper application.  It’s one thing to view cultural trends and their impact, but it’s quite another to expect everyone to suddenly align with the same worldview and create a product that conforms to it.  Merely invoking a general trope is not enough to warrant such condemnation; make your argument when you can cite something concrete and of substance instead of a lazy generality.

Again, this isn’t to say that lyrics are unimportant–it’s just that the people interested in reading a review of The Black Keys generally do not care.

*This isn’t true at all–I’ve been known to trash reviews to my friends on several occasions.  I just don’t write articles about them.

**It’s possible to interpret this as a possible contradiction to my main argument, that in fact the lyrics do matter.  However, I think this information is more important to understand the general tone of the lyrics (and the music as well), and that the individual lines themselves hardly matter at all.

***This wasn’t even my biggest problem with the Pitchfork review.  There were several issues I had with the discussion of the music itself–the clear problem that the reviewer had with Danger Mouse as a producer (a bias that is good to admit to, but then you wonder why if someone comes in with a negative attitude at the start why they are assigned the review), the idea that covering the Beatles is somehow a sign of artistic bankruptcy (and implicitly that nobody innovative ever covered the Beatles), but most of all that the keyboard in “Fever” is…”farty”.  I expressed serious concerns for the reviewers health (and for his ears as well) if he thought that kind of tone was “farty”.  At least Mr. Fitzmaurice had the good humor to favorite that tweet.

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