Some of the most popular music reviewers fail to complete their jobs as critics and work perpetually on strict formulas that continue to improperly examine the art. They leave details out, give irrelevant information, speak in ways too subjective for anyone to understand and often lack a fundamental understanding of what they’re listening to.
The argument against music critics is not a new idea. Popular musicians have often argued that the art form is too subjective to be reviewed. Music is one of the most subjective and hard-to-describe mediums out there, but it can be critiqued. Movies, TV shows, games, paintings, sculptures and all other artistic mediums can be looked at through a subjective lens and they’re some of the most commonly critiqued mediums.
Subjectivity isn’t the problem. Critics can easily touch on subjective aspects of art by examining the features considered culturally and societally to be good. Most people would agree that Pulp Fiction is a good movie or that the statue of David is a good sculpture and those aren’t objectively correct opinions, but there’s strong intelligent arguments made by educated people about why certain art is considered good using objective reasoning. In every medium, there are objective aspects society collectively values and those aspects should be known, understood, pointed out and examined by the critic.
Music can be effectively critiqued and it absolutely should be. The problem is that most of the popular critics in the industry are already years into making the exact same kind of incorrect critiques and won’t stop anytime soon. Some are moving in the right direction, but most are far off the mark.
The most popular music critic in the world right now is Anthony Fantano, also known by the name of his YouTube channel, Theneedledrop. Despite being the most prominent critic in the industry, Fantano embodies almost everything wrong with most current music reviewers.
In a 10-20 minute video, Fantano will not once mention any kind of music theory, how the music was made, why decisions in creating the music were made over others, how kinds of production would sound over others, how different decisions in music production would make the listener feel or anything like these topics.
Instead, he’ll often give a biography of the artist, use vague subjective adjectives to describe the music and interpret what the artist wanted to say with their music. This formula is so terrible because it gives the reader almost no relevant information about the music. Sure, hearing the meaning of the song or album is important to the artistic message, but it’s almost nothing when considering what the actual experience of listening to music is like.
Fantano fans might say that he does talk about how the music sounds, and he does, but as mentioned earlier, he only does this in a completely useless way. It might sound like nitpicking, but Fantano’s use of vague, subjective buzzwords is abysmal. Entire pages could be filled with the multitude of meaningless words Fantano uses to describe the music he’s reviewing. He’ll say things like the music has personality, flow, a lot to say, is trendy, is bland, is bold, is dreamy, is mystical, is fun and the list could keep going on forever.
The worst part is that Fanano never plays clips of the music he’s reviewing or gives any kind of reference to what part of the music he’s talking about when he uses words like these. So he could be talking about an entire album and say something like it has a “trap-influenced” sound to it. In what songs? In what parts of those songs? How would you even define that term and how would you differentiate it from another sound? Fantano gives the viewer nothing to work with and after watching one of his reviews, they would have absolutely no idea what the music sounded like and how it compared to other music.
Fantano and critics like him will tell you a little bit about the artist, what the music they’re reviewing means and that’s about it. The popular music-reviewing website Pitchfork does almost the exact same thing. This isn’t to say that these reviewers have no value, they just aren’t doing the job of a critic and shouldn’t call themselves that. They perform duties similar to that of Genius, a site that explains the meaning and context of musicians’ lyrics. They’re something closer to music historians than music reviewers.
One of the best music critics on the internet right now doesn’t even call himself that. Charles Cornell, a musician on Youtube who sometimes reviews popular music, does everything a music critic should. He’ll explain chord progressions, how production was done, how the instruments work and if they’re being used in a skillful way, how the music interacts with our emotions and so much more. He’ll even pick certain parts out of a song and play them on his own instruments so the viewer can hear them individually.
The reason Cornell does this and so many others don’t is because they can’t. Music is far more complex than many people realize and understanding how it’s made on this level is incredibly difficult and might even require formal education at a university to begin making informed reviews.
Music reviews by Fantano and those similar to him is like a political science student giving a review on how an engineer builds a space station; they just don’t know what they’re talking about and can’t give any valuable critiques.
Evan Holden is a sophomore political science major. Contact Evan at email@example.com.