How I judge music
Pitchfork’s internal editing system lets me see my past review scores all in one place. Since I don’t review stuff very often for them, I was a little surprised to see the numbers all in one place like that. It turns out I’m a high grader. Or rather, when I write about things I know I like (because that’s what I want to write about, if I can), then I tend to give it something in the 6-8.8 range. That makes sense to me. But it’s harder to make sense of what makes an album truly terrible. So I wanted to go down some things that most music writers have internalized, but that I feel like a lot of Pitchfork’s audience still can’t recognize when they scan a review.
Here’s Robert Christgau’s old grading system explained:
An A+ record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut.
An A is a great record both of whose sides offer enduring pleasure and surprise. You should own it.
An A- is a very good record. If one of its sides doesnâ€™t provide intense and consistent satisfaction, then both include several cuts that do.
[â€¦ further explanations, then â€¦]
A D+ is an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity.
It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record.
It is impossible to understand why anyone would release a D- record.
It is impossible to understand why anyone would cut an E+ record.
E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God.
An E- record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays repeated listening with a sense of horror in the face of the void. It is unlikely to be marred by one listenable cut.
After having written about music for a few years, and having attempted to write and play music myself, I can say for sure that putting out music is like putting out babies: every one deserves to be born.
What does this mean? I believe that creating music is inherently good and positive, and using criticisms like “this band should just quit” or “singer x would do well to pay her label back for this mess,” is lazy and unfair.
However, this does not mean your music shouldn’t be judged. My mom sews curtains and pillow cases, but she’s not trying to sell them or be Martha Stewart. By making and selling records you have agreed to the critical process.
So what is a sub-4 record to me? I believe that good people can make really bad music. Bad people can make really good music. But when bad people make bad music, they get sub-4.0, two stars, whatever, because when bad people make bad music, they are usually making harmful music, stuff that did not deserve to be born. They are usually also making music in a way that rings false with their personalities and reeks of desperation or pandering.
This is music from a band like Louix XIV, who began as an alt-country band, then switched to doing vaguely racist, totally misogynist sleaze rawk (Nick Sylvester rightly called them spineless in his review). Or lately, it’s bands like Brokencyde or Millionaires, kids so careless and attached to their own privilege that they feel fine picking and choosing tropes from hip-hop without acknowledging where they came from or why they exist (it is okay to brag about getting paid when your parents have always paid your bills?).
These are easy targets for sure, and it gets harder once I think about the genres I usually write about or that Pitchfork usually covers. The problems there are less about big red flags–racism, violence, etc–and more about authenticity. Now, I once had a track review cut and replaced (it was of “Intervention”), because it felt inauthentic to me1 , and my editor said I could never judge the “motives” of the band, because I couldn’t know what they were thinking. I say it’s hard, but not impossible, unless your internal sensor is just totally off. Anyway, that’s sort of like saying you can’t judge bad acting (hey, maybe they wanted to be unbelievable on purpose). Inauthentic music is the worst because it’s a rift between who you are and who you want people to think you are. And isn’t that hard enough to cope with in real life, with our friends and boy/girl friends and jobs, without writing it down, practicing it, committing it to tape, packaging it, and selling it? These records and songs, these are the ones that should have never been born and they’ll always be the ones most critically savaged.
I’m losing track of what I wanted to say here, so it’s basically this: I hardly ever give low ratings to albums or hate bands, but when I do, it’s because of a falseness that crosses from the artist over to their music. But I try to not judge music on whether it should have been made in the first place–the answer is nearly always “yes,” though sometimes “no.”
- This is a problem with a lot of sophomore albums: they made the first one while no one was watching, now they’re, whether they know it or not, looking over their shoulders. And to me, by the second album, a lot of Arcade Fire’s chest-thumping was for chest-thumping’s sake.â†©