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:Feature Article: “A Rose by Any Other Name” Do We Need Numerical Music Ratings? (Thoughts and Questions on the Aesthetics of Reviewing)

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“A Rose by Any Other Name”
Do We Need Numerical Music Ratings?
(Thoughts and Questions on the Aesthetics of Reviewing)

By William Nesbitt, Professor of English

Many music magazines use some sort of a scoring system for their music reviews usually followed by a descriptive summary.  The basis for the system is often a numerical scale such as one to five or one to ten, sometimes with half-points.  Other times, we might see symbols used such as skulls, or bats, or daggers, or the commonly used stars.  What goes into these ratings and what is their worth?

We are all raters and we are all rated.  As children we are assigned grades.  As adults we receive numbers such as credit scores and hourly wages or salaries that may be dependent on productivity/completion rates.  We are measured, judged, ruled by numbers (when people ask what do you do, they are really asking how much money you make and how you make it). 

Numbers are short, but incomplete descriptors.  Not always as useful as they are quick, there is a hollowness about them.  They give us information fast but superficially.  A census, for example, may tell us how many people live in an area, their genders, races, ages, and income levels but it does not tell us about their lives, who they are, how they live, their failures, their successes and joys, their dreams, their secrets.  A lifespan tells us how long someone lived but nothing about their quality of life.  Perhaps we are made of numbers, at least in part, and that is also how people partially view us.  What of the rest, the remainder of ourselves that is not a number, the unknown portion?  It’s a subject W.H. Auden takes up in his poem “The Unknown Citizen” about a group who has all of the markers about a man and assume this means that he was happy.  They report that “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be / One against whom there was no official complaint.” On paper, then, at least he appears to have lived a fulfilling and satisfying life.  After reporting on his insurance plan and the number of children he had, the group asks, “Was he free?  Was he happy?” but they conclude that “The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

We attempt to rate happiness or quality of life on a fixed scale, to assign it a number, but life is messier than this.  Our lives overflow their borders and spill over the sides.

Art, literature, and music work in a similar fashion.  Although they may use mathematical principles, they are not math; they are not a number.  Math is math.  A song may be in 4/4 time, at 100 BPM, and last 4:18, but will I like it?  I cannot tell strictly from the numbers.  A symbol that performs the role of a number creates the same situation:  if I give a movie, or album, or television show five doubloons out of five doubloons, all the reader knows is that I rate it highly for some reason and that perhaps I have a penchant for pirates.

When I find myself looking at a review on, say, Amazon, yes it is interesting and to some extent useful to see how many people rated the item and what percentage placed it into which rating category.  However, to really get any real use from the review I need to read the comments, some of which are very detailed, informative, and specific.  Other times not so much.  Perhaps someone rated it one star because it arrived broken, which tells me nothing about the item itself.  Perhaps someone else simply said, “Good,” and left it at that, which is to say that person had a positive reaction for some undisclosed and unknowable reason.

Music reviews appearing in magazines instead of on product sites tend to be more objective and fleshed out than that.  But not always.  Some reviewers give purely emotional responses.  The fact that I was in a particular place, at a particular time, with a particular person, doing some particular thing when I heard a particular song or album is interesting, tells you why it is important to me, and while you may appreciate my honesty, it does not help you to understand how you will react to the work.  We all have these personal connections to songs, albums, and bands and these stories are often worth reading in their own right—one of the great reasons we listen to music is to make a  connection—but for a different reason.  If they do not belong to an altogether different genre, they at least require balance, other support to provide context for everyone who is not me and has not had my specific set of experiences.

Likewise, reviews that tell us a given aspect of an album is “beautiful,” or “amazing,” or “wonderful” use empty adjectives.  They tell and do not show the qualities of the music.  One has to earn those words; such words can be appropriate when either preceded or succeeded by a description, but by themselves they are empty and only indicate that for some unspoken and unwritten reason the reviewer felt positively.  One’s thoughts about “good” and “bad” music, music worth our time and music not worth our time, cannot be thoughtfully expressed only as numbers and/or fuzzy qualifiers.  If one must assign a number, concrete explanation should accompany it.  The numerical must arrive with the narrative.

So how do we rate records?  Some reviews include a number and short explanation of that number, a number whose meaning is standard-wide for the publication and universally applied by its writers.  Others just give us a number and we are supposed to understand that a 3.5 out of 5 means X.  I have seen reviews that go so far as to make distinctions to a thousandth of a decimal point (e.g., 7.831 out of a possible 10.000).  These systems use a complex process employing a number of metrics, combinations of scores, weightings, and multipliers.  Are we getting carried away here?  Such a system strikes me as over-designed.  Rating an album should not be like doing one’s taxes.  Streamline it.  I wonder if the primary joy for these reviewers is measuring music and generating data rather than listening to music.  I can be a stickler for detail but this is too much even for me.  At least such reviewers are thorough, I suppose. 

Does one, should one, consider criteria other than the music such as packaging, album design, cover art, liner notes, clarity of sound, loudness, whether lyric sheets are included or not—the meta concerns, the super text?  Do we consider an album in its own context, the context of the genre, and/or the rest of the artist’s catalog?

Then there are the politics of reviews and reviewers.  I visit music sites and read music magazines that always give a release or a live show from a Big Name a Big Rating, a Big Number, and a gushing, positive review.  These bands can do no wrong.  These same bands tend to give interviews and/or exclusives to these same sites and publications.  Is there a connection?  If so, is this an ethical concern?  At the same time bands working to establish themselves may have to do more to earn the same score; they may even get a lower score and become sacrificial lambs in order to help offset the inflated numbers of the Big Names and manufacture some artificial sense of objectivity—see, not every group gets a perfect score—for the website or print magazine in question. 

(A miscellaneous note on first-person writing:  Be bold.  Use I.  Attempts to reference oneself without using I via phrases such as “this writer” are clunky and outdated.  You are a person.  Claim your humanity.) 

I sometimes wonder if we worry that writing negatively about a band we like means we are somehow disloyal, that we are not true fans of the band.  Remember that we can unequivocally support a band, but not enjoy all of their music.  Blind obedience and allegiance, praising the emperor’s new clothes entirely misses the point of a close analysis and disrespects the spirit of the music we review.  At the same time, we should remember the story of Oscar Wilde who came across a sign in a Colorado saloon that read, “Please do not shoot the piano player.  He is doing his best.” Take care not to crush a new artist’s spark before it can grow into a full flame.  There are plenty of uneven, even awful, debut albums made by bands who later produced genre-defining work just as there are bands coasting off their legacy.  In short, be balanced, or at least strive for some mix of negative with positive comments and vice versa.  Perfect tens and pure zeros are few and far between.

I strive for delivering the truth, my truth as I see it, and following it where it leads.  You can agree or disagree or kind of agree or kind of disagree, or strongly agree or strongly disagree, but I will not lie to you.  I am not going to say the earth is flat when I know it is round.  I will not say something is good if I do not think it is good.  Likewise, if everyone happens to be moving in the same direction as me, I am not going to go in the opposite direction simply for the sake of going against the grain.  I don’t write for the mall or the museums.  I don’t write for the masses and the popular vote.  I don’t write for the elitists.  I don’t write for myself.  I don’t write for you.  I write.  And that is not the same as adding 2+2.

Numbers can be quite useful and also make things easier—imagine taking a trip and having no idea how long it will take to get there or trying to manage money with no sense of a budget—but even numbers need context.  What do numbers mean?   A measurement of four feet is indisputable.  Five dollars is and is not.  Is five dollars a lot of money?  It depends.  How much do you have?  What are you buying?  How badly do you need it and when?  Can you get it somewhere else?  Is this five dollars in 2017 or 1717?  Then again, is four feet the distance you must remain underwater and hold your breath for an hour?  Is it the distance to salvation?  If standards such as currency and distance, to say nothing of time, are up for discussion, what about four out or five stars?  What does that mean?

As with all ratings, record ratings are quick and rough shorthand for a much larger, complicated story and network of factors.  However, people aren’t always going to take the time to listen to an album, review your work, or meet you.  They need something, however arbitrary and thin, to quickly and quietly put you in or put you out, to see if you or your album is worth their time and other resources.  That is their function.

Mathematics must contain its own beauty, a different and distant beauty perhaps.  Or perhaps not.  Theorems and equations have proportion, balance, consistency, logic, grace, perhaps even surprise—all the familiar hallmarks of images, sounds, and writing worth our attention.  Though numbers, like pictures, songs, and words, may also be twisted and manipulated, they explain.  They illuminate.  They help us to understand ourselves and the world in which we live.  Nonetheless, a temperature reading of ten degrees and a song about snow are not the same as the feeling of a cold, white walk in winter through ice; they are only substitutions, not the actual experience itself.  Like math, great art complicates the simple and simplifies the complex.  It is a representation, a record of experience, and a trigger for our imagination and memory.  Still, numbers have their place.  I may never see a northern white rhinoceros, but for many reasons it is good to know that there are exactly three of them living (two females and a male, so there is hope).

Even so, you must remember that you are not a number.  I am not a number.  Art is not a number.  Life is not a number.  We transcend numbers.  We are stories, we are narratives, we are songs.  As Margaret Noodin says in “Cream City,” we are “workers and wanderers stealing days / forging dreams big as melting stars / sometimes fantastic / sometimes familiar.”

Believe in your voice.  Your voice is not a number.

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