FEATURE: All That We Should Leave Behind: Taking the Negativity Out of Music Journalism



All That We Should Leave Behind


Taking the Negativity Out of Music Journalism


ONE of the most upsetting things I witnessed…


this week was seeing a great musician have her work given short compassion and needless insult. Although Megan O’Neill bears no grudges and is not rallying against the journalist – I shall not name the culpable party – it was egregious seeing a short-tempered and crass shot at an album, Ghost of You, which has seen acclaim and widespread love come its way. There is a famous saying that states living well is the best revenge: the fact her record is on top of the iTunes Album Chart is a perfect banquet of delightful revenge. The Irish songwriter’s first full-length record will get an extensive tour that sees her hit the U.K. and Europe. Fans are throwing their arms around her work (and her) and O’Neill is vibing from that compassion. It seems, therefore, an act of petty and ill-educated insubordination should not throw the wheels out of motion. As I said before; the musician holds no bitterness but it seemed rather unsettling reading a review that reduced her work to such a low level. Music is subjective and open to contrasting interpretations: as part of this independence and emancipated openness comes the right to criticise and slight anything. I have been reviewing artists for years and have had to be constructive/tactful at times. When reviewing mainstream albums for the site Too Many Blogs; there have been one or two records where I have had to be a bit unkind – Liam Gallagher’s debut L.P., As You Were, was one that did not exactly blow me away!


What gets to me is how journalists and people feel they can be so mean-hearted and unconstructive. This might sound like me going all Zen and urging a 1967-like Summer of Love: what I am doing, actually, is urging something productive and fair-minded. If you hate a piece of work then why take the trouble to review it?! I guess, in a way, I am guilty of doing the same as journalists. If there is an awful Pop record or, say, Jedward launched an ear-violating piece of ‘music’ to the world; I would smile and chuckle if a journalist threw in some wittily-worded jibes and shots at the twins. It occurs to me that this approach and mannerism is wrong. Even if, by all objective means, an album/artist is horrendous then what value is there informing them as such?! There is something psychologically damaging and upsetting seeing someone ripped apart and devoured by inglorious, egotistical writers. There are albums, naturally, that we all dislike but the solution is simple: avoid them and do not take to the Internet to voice your bile. I have been disappointed by a few records this year – I had high hopes for – but felt best not to launch into a childish and angry rant. Megan O’Neill will survive an aberration of a review and brush off something so mealy-mouthed. What we can extrapolate is how influencing and anger-inspiring anger and negativity is.



There was an ocean of support for O’Neill following that bad review and, having listened to her album, I was genuinely struck and affected by it – no idea where this rogue reviewer got his opinions from and what was blocking his ears! O’Neill is not the only one who has to face the unedited and vetted world of professional music. Journalists all around the world are eager to pop a cap in the buttocks of sensitivity and think nothing of ravaging the clothing of dignity. They see it as edgy or part of what they do: if it was all sweetness and love-ins then that would be a one-sided and closed-off representation of music. Every artist who takes to the studio has good intentions and wants to make the best work they possibly can. They are not intentionally trying to piss us off and stoke the fires of critical rebellion. Some albums are, quite obviously, not as good as they should be. Journalists need to review the record and give their take on it – I wonder whether such strong and explicit language should be used when summarising an album. We are in an age where there are more trolls and offensive mouths than ever. The Internet and social media give everyone access to say what they want and, if one looks at YouTube for a few minutes, throw acid and cruelty at anyone with a pulse.



I have covered this subject before but, given the amount of aggression and overly-forceful views regarding certain albums; do we need to temporise and edit our words before they hit the screen?! I would say, given what we know of online abuse and how that can affect people, should those in a professional position think more concisely and rationally before they launch their words out there? It is okay to dislike a record but, if you are focused on going after an artist or providing no positives at all; I wonder what the purpose of the exercise is. I will leave this subject be but, before I move on, there is that argument as to whether the music press still holds sway. Many people buy/listen to music based on their own intuition and how many of us look to music journalists for the new recommendations? That might sound damaging for me but, when we look at social media’s power (for good and bad), it seems it is a more powerful and influential parapet. Even the legendary artists and albums received a few dodgy and short-sighted reviews – everyone from The Beatles and Beastie Boys gathered some less-than-loving opinions about their finest records. I want to quote a couple of articles when it comes to seeing the validity of the journalist and why artists can turn their attention to those who smite them. The Hollywood Reporter, back in 2013, opinioned whether we should place stock in the opinions of the critics:



The war between musicians and their critics has been fought almost as long as so-called “rock journalism” has existed. There is an extensive list of songs penned specifically about how much musicians detest their critics (Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” believed to be aimed at music industry pundit Bob Lefsetz, references a critic who “crossed the line over and over again”) but the omnipresent state of online social media has presented musicians with a no-barrier outlet that could effectively dismantle the role of the music critic.

M.I.A.’s Twitter battle with New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg is now infamous and a highly-cited example of this direct interface -- one that can be used both defensively and offensively. After NME reported in Dec. 2012 that Jack White had called Lady Gaga “all artifice,” White employed his Third Man Records’ website as a forum to deconstruct the unverified news.

 “If you're going to try to cause drama, at least get the quotes right,” White wrote. “I think journalists should also be held accountable for what they say. Especially publications like the NME who put whatever words they feel like between two quotation marks and play it off as a quote. Maybe somebody with more lawyers can take them to task, but I'll just use the Internet and Twitter instead.”

Has the role of the music critic changed in the era of Twitter, or is it just now easier for musicians to offer rebuttals to articles they dislike? And who, in the era of the Internet, where anyone can be a critic, is qualified to “review” music? As the age-old multi-use saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture -- the essence of a song or a melody is unknowable in words and will inevitably be lost in translation.



Veteran music journalist Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 and Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, recently unveiled a new music criticism website The Talkhouse to offer a theoretical solution to the above issue. The site, edited by Azerrad, will feature one post on an album per day -- and each piece is written by a musician.

“Naturally, no one knows more about music than musicians,” Azerrad wrote in a mission statement. “They talk about their own work all the time, but they rarely get to talk about other people's music. That's what The Talkhouse is all about: smart, distinguished musicians from all genres and generations writing about the latest releases. And there's a twist: there will be comments for each piece -- but only from the artist who's being written about. The idea is promote dialogue between musicians who may never have interacted otherwise, and for Talkhouse readers to have a ringside seat to this unique exchange”.

Six years prior to this piece; The Guardian looked at an intriguing option: should we attack and throw grenades back at the so-called ‘experts’?!

Despite TS Eliot's description of the critic's job as improving public taste, critics don't seem to have as much power as is often suggested. How else can you explain the success of the Crazy Frog? Big Brother has only been detained from obscurity by a barrage of criticism. We're continually told how awful it is to eat at McDonalds, but people still do - are these the same people who buy lousy records? Conversely, critically acclaimed records don't necessarily sell very well.



Critics provide a service to the audience, not the musician. In a way, it almost makes more sense for critics not to have a musical education, because they are reviewing an artist for the benefit of an audience who mostly don't have a musical education either. It has never been easier for musicians to record and distribute their music - a critic's job is to help their readers choose among the vast amount of music available. Perhaps critics would affect record sales more if they were more reliable - how about a way of rating the critics, like a meta-metacritic? Meanwhile, if you want the finer points of your musical prowess dissected, get a teacher”.

There is a lot to digest and discuss – regarding the purpose and strength of critics and whether they do a useful service – but I am still of the opinion that music journalists, regardless of formal education, have a place and should be listened to. I wonder whether we need to investigate those who offer nothing but unpleasantness and, if they dislike a record so much, then perhaps it is best left to someone who can offer a more constructive and pleasing review – even if they express a negativity in more intelligent and balanced ways. I hate being negative regarding music but I know there are occasions where I need to dispense with the nice-nice act and offer that artist something a little bitter – that does not mean I need to strip down and attack them without any chance for a fight and explanation.



The artist who started this piece, Megan O’Neill, has received near-universal acclaim for her Ghost of You album and holds no malice towards anyone who has strongly opposed views on her sound and magic. Oddly exaggerated and aggravated reviews make me wonder whether music journalism is mirroring the problems of social media: anyone can say anything and does not have to think about the effects it has on that musicians. I have studied music journalism dating back to the 1960s and have seen plenty of shocking reviews aimed at biblical and world-changing records. You cannot please everyone all of the time but you can show some consideration towards a musician – even if you do not feel their music warrants positivity and that much space. If you cannot be kind, as wise people say, then do not say anything at all. Artists, especially new ones, work their backsides off and want people to enjoy what they produce. Not everyone will love all their music but there is nothing useful or helpful seeing a review that is insulting or condescending. One of the saving graces is seeing artists singled-out (often by the odd reviewer) and, after that, getting a lot of support and sympathy; that leads to new interest and, ironically, takes their music to new audiences. We all have our views on various corners of music but, when it comes to those who lob snide commentary and ignorant views towards musicians are the sort of people we…


CAN do without.


ALL PHOTOS (unless stated otherwise): Getty Images/Press/Artist