Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Evolution of the Music Review


Several months ago I found an ancient music review online, stored in the vaults of a defunct Steely Dan fanize called Metal Leg. Defunct.

What was I doing there? Looking for Steely Dan reviews of course.

It's a late night and I'm in the groove with the Dan. I'll keep us reminded of the background music for this post throughout.

"I learned to work the saxophone...and I play juuuust what I feeeeel..."

This review of the Aja album, written by Mr. Ken Emerson for the Boston Phoenix and published in 1977, impressed me because of Emerson's thoroughness, his almost literary analysis, and his near-academic writing style as applied to pop-culture.

I enjoyed it so much I was ready to mark it as something novel and unique, the pinnacle of review writing. In fact, this one was so darn good the guys who run the fan site put it up even though it's completely negative! But then I got to looking at reviews by Emerson's contemporaries, and I was met with similarly dense articles. Emerson's still takes the cake for quasi-scholarly, philosophical music reviews, but all in all, reviews used to be much more than they are today.

Since I do not listen to anything composed in the twenty-first century, and since twenty years is a wide enough time gap for comparing our reviews, I did a comparison of the Dan review with a 1995 review of one of my favorite 90s bands, Alice in Chains. This review was written by Mr. Jon Wiederhorn and published in Rolling Stone magazine. I chose it because I still remembered this 1995 review, though I had read it when I was only fifteen years old.

Why did I remember a review from thirteen years ago? Because I couldn't stand the writing!

"kick off your high heeled sneakers, it's party time...give us some funked up music, she treats you nice..."

The Essay

The two reviews are typical of their eras. They differ in which aspects of the albums are given the most attention (i.e. lyrics, music, historical context, biographical context, etc.), types of analysis applied, and the reader's expected level of familiarity with the "text."

I will start with the last point, it will be illustrated without much effort from me once all the other points are out of the way. The authors have different expectations of the readers. We will see how the seventies author assumes that we have already listened to the album, or at least have a close familiarity (whether it be amicable or acrimonious) with Steely Dan, and that the review will give us a better understanding of the music we've heard. The nineties author assumes that we have not heard the Alice in Chains album, that we are perhaps not even familiar with the well-established band, and that his review will help us decide whether to buy their new album.

Perhaps Wiederhorn didn't hear Billy Joel when he sang, "you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine."

Now the second and first points (I've been reading too many "backwards point" essays lately), the difference in the types of analysis used and in the time spent on different aspects of the album. Luckily the structures are similar so we can easily compare and contrast.

"when Josie comes home, so bad, she's the best thing we've ever had . . . she's the raw flame, the live wire . . ."

"To twist 'Reelin' In The Years' out of context, the 'everlasting summer' of the '60s was 'fading fast' when Steely Dan began writing the decade's obit in 1972." Both reviews begin with a bit of a history lesson about the bands, but the Dan review places the music within the context of the post-1960s counter-counter-culture era. After a genius, biting introduction ("And the record is Steely Dan's first failure because Becker and Fagen have lost their arrogant sense of place and purpose."), we get a lesson on the futility of utopia and free love, and a back-handed kudos to the Dan for ". . . amassing a devastating critique of the sensibility of the '60s and . . . proffering their own as infinitely more sensible." I love that! Dan the revisionists, the reformers, the inception of "Danism."

The Alice in Chains review begins with this bland piece of historical reference: "The older generation always complains that hard rockers are an angry, unstable bunch prone to violent, antisocial and frequently self-destructive behavior." How generic can you get? While Chains members were not known for any particular acts of violence, self-destruction was certainly at the top of Layne Staley's to-do list. This, I suppose, is the author's segue into the subject of drug addiction as a background for the bands achievements and hardships. All of this is summed up in two short paragraphs.

In the body of the reviews both authors discuss song lyrics and sound, in some cases track by track. Again Emerson's analyses poke the brain! And Wiederhorn's just lie there.

Emerson picks apart the Dan's lyrics, launching into an essay-within-a-review on Steely Dan's history of misogynism, with albums like "Can't Buy a Thrill" as cases in point. The feminist or gender theory analysis here goes so far as finding phalluses in the lyrics of five or six songs, in the forms of guns and needles.

Some psychoanalysis happens as well, mixed with the author's analysis of the musicians themselves. Songs about holed-up criminals and doped up sax players lead Emerson to wonder how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker relate to these characters, what their motives are, and why we spend so much time inside their heads.

Wiederhorn's analysis of Alice's lyrics and the relationship of music to musician is again bland and superficial. "If Jar of Flies was the key that unlocked the group's creative potential, then this new disc is the musical rebirth. What really makes Alice in Chains a poignant artistic statement is the band's unflinching candor." How melodramatic.

Finally, the thing I remembered most about the Chains review was the description of the sounds. The language Wiederhorn uses is so thick and soupy, and although the album he is describing could also be called thick and soupy, I still am grated upon by his word choices. They are even more ridiculous to me because the review is written to convince the reader to buy the CD -- so the reader has not heard the music, and Wiederhorn thinks he can sell the album by describing it like this: "Alice's songs are still dipped in a quagmire of surging guitars and throbbing bass, only this time they're laced with layered, fluorescent licks and soaring vocal harmonies . . . " and then, "'Grind' shimmers and shudders beneath a web of trippy wah-wah guitar . . ." and then, "a nightmarish vista that begins with a sluggish riff, peaks with a sprawling solo layered over demonic chatter and ends with an atmospheric mélange of wailing guitars."

Can't stand it. And if you've ever heard Alice in Chains you'd know that these descriptions could be of just about any one of their songs.

Emerson's only attempt at describing sound is mixed in with his essay points, and it seems, like the entire review, to be addressed to a veteran of the Dan. During his argument about Steely Dan's studio quality sound and how their being "hermetically sealed" in a recording booth had cut them off from the music world, he describes the chorus of what he thinks is their greatest recorded performance, "My Old School": "a lurching, almost epileptic, guitar solo against a backdrop of bemused saxophones. "

And that's it. It does smack a little of Wiederhorn's style, but the Dan-fan who reads this knows that this kind of sound is atypical of Steely Dan's music. The description is funny because it's unlikely but true. And I'm pretty sure Emerson was trying to be funny -- not trying to impress us with his pocket thesaurus of Ten-Thousand-and-One Grungy Words.

If this sort of comparison interests you, or if you are an avid music review reader or even just a lover of music, I suggest checking out the two reviews for a better idea of what I'm trying to get at here.

In conclusion, I think these reviews show (among other things) that by the 90s music had become a commodity, and that musical literacy was on the decline, even among writers on the Rolling Stone staff. And now, in the era of the endless playlist, we go through tunes like paper plates. But in the 70s, that great musical decade which I am sad to have missed by a mere ten months, people bought LPs and played them again and again (often enough to do a "close-reading" of the texts if you will), and stuck to their music genres like religious beliefs.

" . . .they stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast."

Now onto the Steely Dan/Eagles feud.


  1. Hi Robyn!

    I'm so excited to see a post on music. It's one area of interest that I'd like to work on. I've never quite been able to grasp what makes a song good or bad. Sure, in a generic sense I can (I love Bob Dylan, The Beatles, classical pieces, etc), but I've always longed to develop some sort of musical appreciation.

    Isn't it amazing what you can come across online? Loved the visual of listening to the Dan while posting a blog. It made me smile. October just seems to put me in an overall good mood (bet that's a hard visual ;-p).

    I find it amazing how a good critic can write a near literary analysis of just about anything (music, food, movies, so on and so forth). They're hard to come by nowadays though. I've often heard that reviews were once an art in and of themselves. Now, you're lucky if you can find one with any amount of depth. Half the time, they're about as deep as "it sucks".

    Ick, Rolling Stone. Not one of my favorite publications.

    I never thought I'd read a blog entry comparing the different styles of review. This is incredibly interesting. Great idea! I also have to add a little aside here. I've said it once, I'll say it again: I love your vocabulary. Anytime I learn a new word, I feel my day has been made :)

    It's so great how excited you get when making a point. As a reader, that draws me in and holds my attention. If the writer is passionate about their subject, chances are their reader will be sucked in as well.

    A review discussing feminist theory, symbolism, and psychoanalysis as well? It cannot be!

    I actually physically shuddered at Wiederhorn's word choice. I find it so incredibly annoying when people use words that (a) they have no clue what they mean and obviously didn't bother to look them up or (b) simply dug out of a Thesaurus, probably the one built into Word. Though, I guess I'm kind of a hypocrite, seeing as how I used to do the exact same thing while writing. Thank goodness I have an editor for a teacher.

    Okay, wah-wah? Is that made up? I most look like the RCA dog right now, tilting my head with a confused frown on my face as I look at the computer screen.

    Another fantastic post, as always. Oh, and an early HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!


  2. Holy crap another amazing, amazing piece of analysis... you have to stop being so brilliant, it hurts my brain.

    Noting expectations of readers seems so crucial, because it hints not only at two ways people consumed music but of two ideas of how people lived with music--which you bring out in longing (which I share!) for that age in which "people bought LPs and played them again and again (often enough to do a "close-reading" of the texts if you will)." In a way it has been sublated over the years. In the 70's there's the sense that listening to a new album is an event--and you listen to the whole thing. One of the big things to go over the years has been the album as a unit for response: now we live in the era of the song, the individual song and (as you say) the playlist composed of these songs (which is a bad version of the mixtape--it's just highlights one after the other, no ups no downs, no b-sides). I feel like listening to music then is like reading a whole sonnet sequence, say, or a novel front to back in one or two sittings, when it becomes now like little excerpts you would find in an anthology--except that even these don't gesture towards some larger whole like the anthologies (by their nature, though less and less as they claim to be more and more "representative") do. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. Well then in with the Alice in Chains review you have consumption: the album is pre-screened for you, and you select what you want on that level still but with the crucial difference--you don't try it out, there's less of a sense that the album can fail as a whole. Now, we've replaced (as I said about the playlist--I'm just repeating my point), negated and conserved the function of the album but composed it of these selections or pre-screenings: we want a whole experience of the album but we don't want any bad (or, since the non-hits of an album are not at all therefore bad, any non-good or non-hits) with it. Blech.

    That's probably obvious, but I always wanted to say it, and you're awesome post, with its amazing comparative view, made me feel like I could (though it is no where as eloquent and interesting as what you have to say)!

    I loved your point on the critical vocabulary, which for the Dan dude presupposes familiarity, and just seems vacuous when it comes to Alice... It's so amazing to hear "laced with layered, fluorescent licks and soaring vocal harmonies . . ." next to the other stuff, it's (as you point out) almost entirely (ENTIRELY!) lacking in meaning, even though it is pyrotechnic. A pocket thesaurus of Grungy Words indeed--though I gotta say I'd buy that if they made it.

    Anyway--amazing amazing! And, an early happy birthday as well! Except it is quite late, considering this was in 2008...


    My fav line:

    We're gonna park in the street

  3. Thanks for the feedback Mike,and for noticeing all the points I was trying to make but didn't develop fully (I remember I got nervous about how long this entry was getting to be).

    The two points I've been wanting to write more on are "the endless playlist" v. the album experience, and then, as part of my "Defense of Rockin'" series, I wanted to use this great Emerson review as evidence of the kind of quasi-scholarship among rock "readers" that sets rock n' roll apart from other popular art forms -- I am desperately trying to prove that the consumption of it is essentially not it's fault (that's true for good rock anyway), and all of this is part of the bumpy road to proving rock is art, and not just in the relativistic "everything is art" sense.

    This might be one of the sillier paths my brain has taken lately, and I may end up having to go head to head with Adorno. Yikes! Wherever this path takes me, if not to a conclusion, I'm hoping it will at least make the path itself seem not so silly in the first place.

    At our undergrad research conference a fellow English major brought his guitar and played the blues in between sections of his presentation on racism in and commodification of early blues music. Perhaps these are the kind of approaches that will get some people to take these studies seriously. He told me he went that route rather than a more aesthetic route for that very reason. I may have to butter up those cultural folk I just complained about so much, and use their tricks as my "in." I already attempted a sort of feminist look at two songs ( ), but that becomes problematic for me, because I certainly don't want to alienate myself from the musicians who use sexist language -- and that would thin my record collection pretty quickly!

    And again, you're too kind. It's great to get comments from you because it makes me work a little harder at making sense (not that I'm always successful at that), and at watching my logic (which is often of the pretzel kind).


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.