Bad Journalism

Shining a Light on Shady Journalism

Over the past decade, we have seen the internet become an integral part of everyday life, shaping and affecting not only our culture but many of our professions as well.  This is especially true of journalism, and not only in the traditional cries of how the Web is killing Print.  The very nature of online publishing has changed the way that journalists write stories and how outlets print them; the ephemeral nature of the media promotes a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach, with speed and clicks being the ultimate goal.  After all, pieces and features can be edited seamlessly behind the scenes–with the web one’s mistakes do not always have to live on (at least without an extra bit of detective-work), unlike print.

The question then arises of when is it okay to use the powers of selective editing, especially since it can so often go undetected.  The site RipFork lived up to its name in blasting Pitchfork for their handling of the new album from Sun Kil Moon, after catching their efforts in switching their review.  I encourage you to read their piece, but for those searching for a quick and dirty rundown, Pitchfork clumsily substituted their review of Universal Themes after an incident where Mark Kozelek called out a journalist onstage in between songs, and the fallout left a lot of music critics with a sour taste in their mouths.  In place of a presumably more positive review, Pitchfork ran a review which was less concerned with the merits of the particular album and instead conducted an inelegant meditation between The Artist and The Art.  As a critique of the music itself, it was not much of one.

We have a different philosophy when it comes to editing posts.  Our policy at Rust Is Just Right is to limit the kind of post-publication edits to only correct grammatical errors or make stylistic changes to clarify our points; otherwise, posts remain as written.  We stand by what we publish, and any modifications we make are done purely to better serve the reader.  For instance, we recognized Sun Kil Moon’s previous album Benji as one of the best of the first half of 2014, and we would never dream of going back and altering our decision.*  And to think, we are not even real journalists!

This controversy brought to mind another instance of this issue that I personally discovered.  At some point the site AllMusic substituted their review of My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, switching out one that gave the album a mediocre two-and-a-half stars with a more effusive four-star review.  I had some difficulty tracking down any evidence of the switch, finding only a non-updated reference from Metacritic, and I only knew to search out the discrepancy based on my own memory of the initial review.

The discovery of this swap left me conflicted: on the one hand, I have always felt that AllMusic’s role has been to be that of an objective reference source, so I appreciate that the new review reflects the critical consensus of the album; on the other hand, we should not discourage opinions that break from the mainstream, and we are all better for reading heterodox assessments, so there is merit to leaving the original review in place.  As much fun as I have with citing the fact that Robert Christgau still thinks In the City is The Jam’s best album and how he despises OK Computer, I respect the fact that he has not kowtowed to the majority and still supports his opinions.  I am not saying we should reward people merely for being stubborn, but I have a begrudging respect for those that stick to their guns.

The best solution then is probably to at least have a policy of transparency–if you change a review, it is incumbent on the publisher to provide a notice to the reader that a change has occurred, and to give an explanation why a substitution was made.  And since we are talking about the internet, it won’t even be a waste of ink.

*It is interesting to me that Kozelek received much more pushback for his comments directed at Snapes than the entirety of his “feud” with The War on Drugs.  With one, he said that a woman whom he never met (he does his interviews through email) wanted to fuck him after she crossed a line by interviewing his family, and the other he over a series of months directed vitriol to a band with whom he had minimal contact, culminating in recording a song entitled “War on Drugs Suck My Cock”.  One was considered a major sin by the music press, while the other was portrayed as mere bickering, despite the differences in degree.

Personally, the incidents with The War on Drugs left a sour taste in my mouth, and I stopped listening to Sun Kil Moon on a regular basis.  This partly explains why we never reviewed Universal Themes ourselves–since we only review records we seek out and purchase, there was no need to go out of our way and publish our own take on the album.  However, if we were professional music critics, rest assured we would actually do our job as professionals and review the album strictly on its own merits.

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A Defense of Live Music, Which Is Apparently Necessary

A few weeks ago, we linked to a piece from Talking Points Memo that featured the inflammatory headline “Face It, Live Music Kinda Sucks.”  As expected, the article does not improve from its initial comparison that “live music is the grownup birthday dinner of cultural events”, and it certainly does not fulfill its stated promise of providing an “airtight case” of that assertion.  Sometimes an essay can overcome its terrible arguments with some creative and compelling commentary, but there is absolutely nothing in the article that resembles anything that can be construed as entertaining.

Here is a breakdown of the author’s argument: 1). People don’t want to hear bands they don’t know; 2). Musicians can be boring/play for too long/other people suck; 3). Live music isn’t as good as studio recordings; 4). Good bands don’t get booked; 5). People suck and do bad things and somehow this is the result of live music.  This  last part didn’t get its own bullet-point, but was apparently tacked-on at the last minute to score some social commentary points, which is depressing in and of itself–you may have admirable aims in tackling issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of harassment, but if you use a lazy argument it just hurts your overall point, especially if it lacks relevance to the specific issue at hand.  It is completely unproductive, and results in turning off the potentially impressionable as only the converted hear the message.

Even if one ignores the extraneous social commentary, it is not as if the author’s primary arguments have any merit.  For the first point, there is the tautology that the author admits to in his own goddamn article that “nobody likes things they don’t like”, but there is no elaboration of this basic concept.  Sure, it can be annoying to hear crappy opening bands, but for the most part it is rare to hear genuinely awful bands, so maybe it is possible to endure a half-hour of light annoyance in order to hear your preferred choice.  Of course, as rare as it may be, there is always the possibility that you can find a new favorite band from an unknown opener; even if the success rate is rather low in this particular context, it is roughly equivalent to what you would find just scanning the radio.

The second and third points are even more ludicrous.  If you like a band so much that you are paying money to see them live, why would you complain that you may be forced to endure a three hour show?  Most fans appreciate hearing as much of a band’s catalog as possible.  Of course, the solution for someone who thinks that a concert is running too long is rather obvious: leave early.  The other argument has the appearance of some legitimacy, since it is true that there is often a fundamental tension in seeing a band live.  It is a struggle for musicians to satisfy the demand of sounding similar to the studio recordings with which their fans are familiar as well as making the live experience worthwhile by offering a unique experience, but seeing how a musician handles that clash of expectations is half the fun of a live show.  Some bands succeed, others do not, but that is how most things go in life.  However, the fact that the author cites Beck as an example of a musician’s failure to meet those conflicting expectations casts some doubt on his ability to discern as to what makes a good performance; over the years, Beck has done an excellent job of assembling various groups of musicians that do a fantastic job of recreating and reinterpreting his studio albums in a live setting, including during his recent Morning Phase tour.

The final point is just dumb, and is undercut by the author’s own admitted shittery.  Congratulations, you were able to book shows despite the fact that your band was terrible (and judging by the photo you submitted for this piece, I have no problem believing this to be the case).  In general, most venues care much more about their bottom line and simply will not book bands that fail to bring in an audience; half-assed sociological assessments do not usually enter into the picture.  Good work on earning a few hundred bucks here and there by putting on a terrible performance, Mr. Kennedy, but there is a clear reason why we in the public at large have never heard about your musical exploits.  Despite the fact that you didn’t give a fuck about your audience, it doesn’t mean that most bands follow your model.  I have seen Of Montreal perform a gig for dozens in a basement bar in rural New Hampshire and play a sell-out show for thousands in New York City, and they played with the same gusto and enthusiasm for both shows.  In other words, there’s a reason why they are the ones that still have a musical career.

Related to this discussion is the recent questions asked by some about the relevancy of live albums.  It is difficult to think of a less vital position to take, considering that if you do not believe in the endeavor of creating a live album for fans you can choose to simply not to buy the album–it is not as if the existence of these albums crowds out the market for other non-live albums.  But the answer is simple: fans find value in these recordings.  At their most basic level, live albums benefit from the extra energy that infuse the performances, from both the musicians themselves and the presence of the crowd; even if the listener is not physically present for the show, there is still some benefit in hearing a live recording because of this factor.

These albums also allow fans to hear exciting new variations of their favorite songs; the studio recordings do not have to be a “finished product”, and bands can tinker and deconstruct various elements and rebuild them into something new.  As an example, with each of their tours Eels emphasizes different parts of their sound and offer intriguing new takes on their songs, whether it be fuzzed-out rock on Electro-Shock Blues Show or delicate ballads on With Strings.  Live albums also offer fans the chance to hear amazing displays of musicianship and improvisation; there are those that are content with hearing one version of Pearl Jam’s “Black”, but there are thousands of others that enjoy hearing Mike McCready create different beautiful solos with each performance.  Plus, there’s always fun in hearing particularly memorable stage banter that a recording might capture, as many Pearl Jam bootleg devotees can attest.

The point is that live music is great any way you find it.  There is no need to be an ass and try to find reasons to hate it.

Possibly The Worst Three Paragraphs Of Music Criticism From Last Year

I refrained from discussing this Vox piece for weeks, mainly because it was the holidays and there is no need to try to make them a miserable affair.  There is also the fact that the general mission of this site is to focus on promoting music instead of finding ways to be negative all the time, so writing a critical piece on someone else’s opinion is something we would prefer to do only on rare occasions.  But the calendar is no longer a concern, and since Vox has decided not to bother making any corrections (more on that later), we figure the time is ripe to tear this article apart.

The title was an immediate red flag: “5 Songs I’m too embarrassed to name Song of the Year.”  It’s a fancy way of saying “I find these songs to be guilty pleasures,” when the entire concept of a guilty pleasure is a completely ridiculous notion, especially for a music critic.  As a critic, you have an opinion, and we expect you to defend it; if you like a song, it’s your job to explain why you like the song.  Usually we as an audience don’t have exacting standards, and will accept simple explanations along the lines as “it’s catchy” or “it has an infectious melody”; reasonable minds may disagree, but clearly this is merely a subjective assessment, and it’s hard to argue against it.  The “guilty pleasure” also operates under the assumption that there is an objective standard as to what is good, when that is certainly not the case.  Sure, critics like to discuss things in absolutes and will proclaim something to be good based on certain common criteria, but in the end this is a creative field that is subject to personal interpretation.  If these songs are your picks for “Song of the Year,” then say so–we can’t say that your opinion is wrong.

However, one can give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that perhaps the idea was that the article would provide a list of songs that, while not considered “Serious Art”, are at least fun or worth taking a listen.  Looking over the list, I see mostly songs with which I have only a passing familiarity (beyond the expected inclusion of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (because that’s a song and artist that now requires THINKPIECES in order to appreciate/bash)), but notice one artist that sticks out like a sore thumb from the list: Spoon.  Now here is an artist that would never be considered for a “guilty pleasure,” so there has to be some unique rationale behind this selection.  After reading the explanation, I can say that “unique” roughly translates to “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

The primary sin that Kelsey McKinney commits is contradicting herself between the first two paragraphs.  She first states that “[t]he groovy, guitar-heavy tracks are easy to listen to, but sadly just as easy to forget” (which I would say is debatable, but hey, that’s how music criticism works), but is followed later with “[b]y far the standout off They Want My Soul is ‘Inside Out,’ a mellow, dreamy rock song…instead of the catchy, lyric-heavy, piano-backed songs Spoon is famous for.”  Logically, the songs can’t all be easy to forget if there is one standout track, so that argument should probably have been woodshedded a bit longer.  Then there’s the fact that somehow Spoon is both “guitar-heavy” AND known for “lyric-heavy, piano-backed” songs (we’re going to slide over falling back on the “-heavy” trope for a second, but don’t mistake that for us forgiving that sin).  It’s hard for Spoon to be both of these things without sounding like a total cacophony, and even more so considering that they’re known for their “minimalism.”

What is even worse than these clumsily-constructed arguments is McKinney’s thesis that too many critics love Spoon and therefore give them a free pass: “They Want My Soul is an album with songs that are mostly passable not because they are great songs, or even good songs, but because they were released on an album that said SPOON at the top of it.”  From an outside perspective, that may seem reasonable–how else to explain that Spoon has gotten consistent praise throughout their career?  The idea that Spoon is actually a good band is too easy an explanation and should be dismissed, because this is clearly either a case of groupthink or an example of a massive conspiracy among music critics!  No, the problem with McKinney’s theory is that this is precisely the opposite problem that Spoon has–they’ve been consistently good for too long so that critics take them for granted and as a result they try even harder to find faults.  The piece’s central argument fails to hold up even under the barest scrutiny; the final point that “[p]icking a Spoon song for its production in a year where we had incredible productions from rappers like FKA Twigs and new pop stars like Rita Ora” just adds fuel to the fire, indicating zero understanding of what “production” is, especially when discussing a rock band.

Now, I could easily have let this pass and ignore this article, except that Vox kept promoting it for weeks and weeks after it was originally published.  So I was reminded every couple of days of this horrible article’s existence, and I was forced to wonder once again “if you don’t care for Spoon at all, why are you saying that you’re ’embarrassed’ to name one of their songs the best of the year, when you can just leave them off the list?”  Of course, that would have been too easy.

And to think, after all those promotions, they never bothered to go back and correct the spelling of the name of Spoon’s frontman.

*Also, we’re sorry for not even being able to go a day without mentioning Spoon.