As music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have grown, music-reviewing platforms like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and YouTube have become increasingly popular. These sites have become the be-all end-all for the listeners who worship them – and with due cause. Most of these sites are run by professionals who understand the technical qualities that make up good music. This is why music-reviewing sites claim to be objective in their ratings. However, many of these reviews reflect the personal preferences of the reviewer or opinions of the platform itself, thus sacrificing objectivity for subjectivity. And although it’s valid for reviewers to have their own individual opinions, it becomes a problem when these issues are published as fact – as most of them are. For this reason, the rise of music reviewing is detrimental to a listener’s relationship with his or her own music taste. Reviewers are thought to be in a position of power, holding an influence over the general population of listeners. So when the opinion of the reviewer conflicts with the opinion of the listener, the listener begins to feel “wrong” or inferior. This offset power balance between the reviewer and the listener has the ability to drastically change the listener’s opinions – all based on an arbitrary rating. But maybe we shouldn’t be assigning number values to music at all. Maybe there’s more to music than how “good” it is, or how consistent it is, or how much The Needle Drop likes it. After all, music reviewers represent an insignificant proportion of the listening population. So why should such a small group of people get to decide whether an album is a worth listening to?
Take Anthony Fantano (theneedledrop on YouTube). Aside from establishing himself as “the internet’s busiest music nerd,” he doesn’t hold any greater power than the average listener – he’s just a man who listens to a lot of music and chooses to voice his opinions on a public platform. This isn’t problematic in and of itself, but becomes an issue when listeners use Fantano’s reviews to shape their music taste and structure their listening experience. Because of Anthony Fantano’s powerful internet presence, listeners feel pressured to agree with his (often controversial) opinions, and end up changing their own tastes as a result. Listeners then adopt Fantano’s way of listening to music in place of their own, which takes away from the innately personal experience of listening to music.
Anthony Fantano, like many current music reviewers, has an extremely niche music taste, geared towards Rap, Experimental Hip Hop, and Hard Rock, which heavily influences his ratings. He also pretty much has a heavy rotation of generic reasons he doesn’t like certain albums. He frequently criticizes well-liked albums for being too “boring,” or for “drowning in influences.” However, many people like the slow, dreamy albums that Fantano thinks are boring, or enjoy new music heavily influenced by artists of the past. Sometimes the reasons that music is deemed “bad” by reviewers are the same exact reasons that people like them. This leaves listeners with a dilemma: should they stick with their gut and maintain their opinions, or let a “reputable” figure mold their music taste? Fantano, like other reviewers on YouTube or other sites, only exacerbates the problem.
Although there are objective ways to review music, like instrumental proficiency, audio quality, vocal quality, and creativity, whether individual people like music or not is based on personal preferences and experiences. We need to consider why people even like music in the first place. It’s not because it’s consistent, instrumentally perfect, or has good vocals – at least it’s not for most listeners. The average person, while listening to music, doesn’t look for any of these aforementioned technical qualities. For the most part, people like music because it’s catchy, or it makes them want to dance, or it reminds them of a good memory. They listen to music to satisfy an emotional craving – one that can’t be quenched with instrumental perfection or anything of the like. In short, people don’t like music because it’s objectively “good,” people like music because of the way it makes them feel. So how could a handful of Pitchfork reviewers possibly encapsulate these feelings in a single number?
Many of the reviews put out by Pitchfork or similar sites use metaphors or complex sentences to describe music, that don’t really attest to the quality of the music at all. For context, here is a particularly egregious quote found on Pitchfork’s Kid A album review: “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.” Quotes like these take up the majority of album reviews today, and while these quotes would work well in a thousand page Stephen King novel, they don’t adequately describe music.
Modern music reviewing typically details the experience of only one reviewer. On sites like Pitchfork and Complex, reviewers are overly specific when describing their own listening experiences. While it’s interesting to experience the thoughts going through one listener’s head, there is nothing inherently more important about a Pitchfork employee’s listening experience than that of the average viewer. And when sites post such personal listening experiences, it damages the listening experience for the general population. Listeners are left searching for something deeper – a personal experience described by the reviewer – that they likely won’t get when they listen. It leaves a void in the listener – a feeling that there’s something they’re missing from the listening experience, or that there’s something they don’t understand. Reviews leave listeners with an obligation to experience music a certain way, when really, this isn’t realistic. In reality, the reasons that people like music are inherently personal, and no two people listen to music in the same way. A good review should help the listener by guiding the listening experience. Perhaps music reviewing platforms should abandon the extensive personal anecdotes in favor of reviews that are more helpful to the listener. By making their reviews overly personal, music reviewing platforms have failed their purpose of relating to their readers. And by doing this, they are taking away from the experience of music as a whole.
“Kid A sounds like a clouded brain trying to recall an alien abduction.”
It’s demoralizing for listeners to see someone like Anthony Fantano completely tear their favorite record apart based on personal biases.