FEATURE: Beauty School Dropout: Does the Modern Consumer Value a Journalist’s Opinions?



Beauty School Dropout


 ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash

Does the Modern Consumer Value a Journalist’s Opinions?


THIS is not me stroking my nose…


IN THIS PHOTO: Nubya Garcia/PHOTO CREDIT: Rodrigo Gianesi

with a digital gun: rather, a moment’s ponder regarding the place and validity of the critical voice. I am in a position where I need to provide (read: subject) the public my views regarding new music. I do more interviews and features (than reviews) but, when I do review a new artist; the work I put in is a lot more than, say, a piece like this – perhaps settling my argument right from the off! The reason I have put the saxophonist and musician Nubya Garcia is because she is someone lighting up the underground – perhaps the mainstream has turned their noses up and not really got involved. Her solo E.P., Nubya’s 5ive sold out on vinyl in one day; she is one of the most expressive players you will see and, in a year where we need artists to express themselves more than ever – her bold and physical approach to music is a perfect tonic! There is stuffiness, still, levied at people away from the mainstream/conventional market who do not fit in predefined circles and holes. Entire genres get buried deep down and, as I will cover next week; few artists are taking from other cultures and countries as boldly as they should – the fear of judgement or ignorance could be a factor. Among the seismic shifts required in the music industry; openness from the media, and fans, is near the top of the list.


I mentioned how, in the line of my work, I review artists and have to express my thoughts. It means a lot to them and, for those underground blogs; the pieces put out can make a big difference. I wonder whether the same can be said of the mainstream sites? I write for another site (Too Many Blogs) and know many of the artists I review there take heart from my words. Do we, as a people, still tune in to the airwaves of critical impression before buying our music? I raise that question because my psyche has been scuffed by articles and commentators who claim the days of music journalism are dead. The form is more than reviewing: features, think-pieces and interviews are an important part of the agenda. From my point of view; I feel there is a division between mainstream reviews/features and artists who deserve more. I have mentioned one musician who is not as heralded and popular as she should be. Many critics are still beholden to popular, obvious artists and, when they doing around for underground talent; are they really going far enough and championing the very best around?! I feel a slight mistrust when it comes to ‘certain’ sites and the way they source talent. Because of that; I do have a slight scientism when it comes to their album/E.P. reviews.


 My reluctance is minor compared to many who, in a digital and fast-flowing time, are relying on their own voices and approaching music differently. There are two other issues to raise: whether reviews are required when so many of us download songs (rather than entire L.P.s) and the opinion/truth of the piece. So many of, myself included, pick various songs from albums that we do not feel will deliver. Even the records we love…do we listen the whole way through and experience the entire thing?! Streaming sites are great but fewer of us are buying music, sitting down with it and blocking everything out. I remember a time when I would run to the shop, get an album and the rest of the day was invisible: all that mattered was the fact I had this record and was going to listen to every…single…note. Now, even if a huge album comes my way, I have already heard a few singles on the radio. When the album comes, I might skip them – as I am familiar – and pick a few other tracks. Unless I by a C.D. or vinyl – and force myself to listen to an album – a lot of my listening will be fragmented and bitty. There are albums I listen to the whole way through and I find, if I take a rather ‘careful’ approach to the record the first few weeks; down the line, for some reason, I gain a new appreciation and will go out and buy the album – and spend a lot more time pouring over tracks. It irks me so many people are not actually listening to entire albums: if we can get songs for free, and choose what we want, are we going to put stock in critics charged with assessing the album as a whole?! 


Sure; it is useful knowing which songs they regard but, after the first couple of paragraphs – are we paying attention and still invested?! I shall get onto the accuracy issue soon but, before then, another issue occurs: brevity and choice. The former is a reference to certain websites/magazines where their standards reviews are around two-hundred words. I know I am an extreme exception when it comes to reviews – twenty times longer than the figure I just quoted – but some compromise would be nice. Unless there is a big, much-hyped record out there…how much detail is being put onto the page? Some sites are, for some reason, limited to, say, five-hundred words for album reviews. Sadly, this is less to do with keeping the data low and saving space on the site: it seems to be the limit people can tolerate before the mind wanders off and they have walked away. Even with that pretty slim limitation; a lot of writers are not even hitting that! Some mainstream sites seem to be able to distil an album into the space of a couple of paragraphs. It is small wonder people voice their concerns and doubt the purpose of such ‘economy’. With so many sites on the market; it can be hard knowing who to trust and getting a handle on all of it. There are endless voices and, if you want a proper and authoritative assessment of an album…do you try and read ALL reviews or stick with a few sources?!


It can be a battle but, for some reasons, journalists are not really putting a huge amount of effort in. One can argue that signified the bite-sized nature of the modern world. We want something snappy, uncomplicated and precise. If we have to scroll through pages of words then are people going to bother?! That creates a conflict. If there are few words then you cannot get a clear view of an album and what it is about: if there are too many words, you risk losing people’s attention and them trusting their own gut. It is important people make their own minds up but I feel there is validity and worth in the trusted and solid review. I do not subjectively stick to certain sources but I know there are journalists who put in a shift and know what they are on about – and always head their way when a new album is out I am interested in. We are all aware of those albums that have been bigged-up and heralded when they came out; years down the line, we sort of realise it was a bit overdone and it’s not so good after all. The reverse is true, of course. There have been occasions where critics have got it completely wrong and missed the point!


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover to Beastie Boys' album, Paul's Boutique/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Classic records like Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique was given little love when it arrived in the late-1980s. It took a few years before people realised it was a work of genius. That is not the only classic album where the critics left their brains behind and failed to appreciate a masterful work. It can be hard to spot truly awesome albums because many have serious nuance and it might take a few listens for it all to come together. If you only have a set period of time to get the review down; you are not going to chart an album’s growth and unfurling brilliance. I can forgive a few cases but, in a lot of instances; critics have been so stuffy and snubbed an album that has gone onto rank among the very best – you wonder how they missed it and what they were thinking when that review went down! If some are drooling over albums that are not worth it; others are skipping past potential greatness – many are making inaccurate assumptions and really not listening to the songs. Maybe it is subjectiveness but I am listening to Blur’s 2003 album, Think Tank – which I mentioned very recently – and realise it is not in their top-three. The record was largely recorded without Graham Coxon (except Battery in Your Leg) and relies more on Damon Albarn’s guidance and influence. Many critics slagged it off and labelled it a pale and pretentious work!


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

It is an album that marries African influences with U.S. Rock; British Rave with all manner of textures and ideas. There are a couple of duff songs – Jets and Crazy Beat – but there is so much good in there! I can appreciate constructive reviews, where the reviewer has assessed it and made a valid point, but that is not the case a lot of time. When that was released (in 2003) sites like YouTube were only really starting up – people were still buying C.D.s and experiencing music in a more focused and authentic way. I still gravitate towards websites and want to know what others think before I take that leap. It is good to have a range of opinions and, if the reviews are decent, you can gather a consensus and whole. I am not one who is swayed and beholden to critical views – a sheep who follows their every word – but I rarely dive into Spotify and digest an album without some critical education. I realise I am in a minority, to an extent. A lot of people prefer to tune in to the radio and get a taste of the album there. They’ll hear the singles and, if they like them, maybe investigate the album. The trouble is; if you take that approach, something troubling happens: you rarely listen to all the other tracks and, even if they are not singles, that does not mean they are inferior.


It is a complicated and varied argument but I am seeing a lot of people criticise (ironically) the critics. I feel, the more options available to us – streaming services and outlets – the less we seem to rely on critics and reviews. So many are choosing the song over the album as a form of entertainment. Those who still favour the album are relying on their own views and occasionally look at reviews. I know a core who sticks with the critics but, at this time, there are fewer in that pack than previous years. It is a shame because so many musicians out there rely on great reviews and value what journalists have to say. We must make our own minds up but, at the same time, people charged with writing about a record should not be ignored – they have insight and angles a lot of us do not. I am not in the position where I need to fear the debate: my reviews (on this blog) regard new artists and there is a greater need to write these reviews – they are not in the position to crack mainstream media and I take an in-depth and thorough approach to writing. There have been some epic critical blunders – those who faulted Jeff Buckley’s Grace are morons; those who vacillated over Mumford & Sons’ debut have no use for their genitalia! – but, regardless of age and the past; I feel there is a lot to be said for the critics. Maybe they need to sort out the word limit and put a bit more muscle in; spend more time with an album and dig deeper. People can make their own decisions – and do not need to rely on critical opinions – but it is always useful having another side and thought. My fear is, as the year tick by; fewer people will rely on the critics and they will struggle to get people into the tent. A lot of my fondest discoveries have been as a result of a critical review so, to lose that, would surely be…


A huge shame.