by carl wilson

Poll Positions

Frank Kogan: Definitely more interesting than Metacritic.

Aaron's "Best Band in the World" formula has the simple brilliance of many good inventions: It starts from the premise that the jobs of a good pop-music maker are, "First, making vaguely interesting music. Second, getting people to like them." It then expresses the combination of these two factors by assigning a value to the highest Billboard chart position the artist's latest work attains, and that artist's rating on Metacritic. (Which is certainly the only exciting thing I've ever seen anyone do with Metacritic.)

There are a couple of obvious things wrong here, though, even if we ignore the aspect of only rating the random rock bands Aaron's chosen to put on his list. (Ghostface's latest album, for instance, would rate higher than any of them, wouldn't it?) But I'll accept that he's just demonstrating the system rather than doing a full-scale study. There's also the fact that the whole system is stacked in favour of "album artists" as opposed to "singles artists." Which is a flaw inherited from Metacritic. (Using Pazz & Jop instead, for instance, could remedy that one.)

But much more crucially: Calling what charts measure "popularity" is mostly fine, but what the hell makes a high Metacritic or Pazz & Jop rating a reliable indicator of "interesting" music? It's equally possible that the music simply conforms to the critical consensus, which arguably is less interesting (even "vaguely") than what is more divisive. Rather, it seems to be just a measure of another form of popularity. (The fact that Eminem ranks lower on Metacritic than the White Stripes does not seem incidental.) I'd rather choose one great critic - for fun, let's say Frank Kogan - assign a numerical value to all of his opinions and add those to the chart numbers. Frank's interest is more interesting than any aggregate interest.

But then the list itself might become too interesting - because it would reveal how little agreement genuinely exists on what "interesting" means.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 16 at 03:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (39)



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Posted by addresssearch on May 5, 2006 03:42 PM



Teen Spirit actually has pretty much the same chord progression as "Godzilla" by BOC, if I"m remembering correctly.

Those clean chorused guitar things are reminiscent of Andy Summers, who was definitely one of the people to popularize that sound.

Sting? Solo stuff not so hot. Sting with the Police? Consistently good. Just goes to show you that sometimes there really is no "I" in team (if only Ryan Adams could figure this out). I'm sure that's why the band broke up. Ultimately, there was a lot of friction, some of which must have involved Copeland and Summers telling Sting that his cheesier impulses sucked.

That's the thing, at the beginning of the band, I'm sure the power dynamic was much different than it was by the end. Summers and Copeland were far more experienced and prominent than Sting was. They pretty much discovered him playing in some bad jazz fusion art rock band or something out in the countryside (if I"m remembering correctly).

But as they got more successful, obviously Sting's power increased, since he was the songwriter and the front man. So at a certain point, who needs those dudes that are always telling me things I don't want to hear when I'm the meat of this whole deal. I'll just do it without them.

Unfortunately, it turns out that even though Sting might have been 80% of it, Copeland and Summers contribued the magical 20% that made it both commercially successful and critically/artistically successful (to bring things back full circle to what started this whole thread).

Posted by j-lon on April 20, 2006 06:30 PM



I think with Sting there's kind of a letdown level that goes into the rough treatment. People know he's talented, so what he churns out is more annoying because of it. Of course, he's been churning it out for so long that his earlier promise might be forgotten by many. Although in retrospect I don't even find the Police so appealing. (You know, they sounded good on the radio after four Huey Lewis singles, not so good if they followed Talking Heads or Joe Jackson.)

Posted by zoilus on April 20, 2006 05:48 PM



Carl, I'm not saying he's not a cheeseball who's made a lot of crap music. Cause he is. But he's got mad, mad melodic chops. (And bass chops.) ANd a great, totally unique singing voice. I mean, there are some pretty decent pop songs amid all the dreck on his solo albums. I don't dig the aesthetic, but I think he gets rougher treatment than many far less talented schlubs...

Posted by Jody on April 20, 2006 03:18 PM



I can completely hear the Police in the verses of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Think of the vocal tone in "C'mon along, bring your friends..." and the tone in, say, Walking on the Moon or Wrapped Around Your Finger... But the connection is violently cut when the chorus explodes in the Nirvana song.

Jody, I want to believe you about Sting, but my heart won't let me.

Posted by zoilus on April 20, 2006 01:23 PM



Re: Nirvana/The Police: totally! I've always thought this. Listen to the chorus of "Lounge Act" on Nevermind. It's a complete bite of "On Any Other Day" (Regatta de Blanc)! If the chord progression isn't the exact same, it's *real* close. As is the bassline, and melody line.

I think the Police were a huge influence on a lot of American indie rock bands of Nirvana's generation. (I remember Juliana Hatfield calling them her biggest songwriting inspiration.) God, what a great band they were! They must have at least 40 great songs. I think Sting has been unfairly maligned. But I digress...

Posted by Jody on April 20, 2006 08:59 AM



Police, hmm, I'll try to hear it but so far am not.

Exploding -- or at least dramatically upticked & exuberant -- choruses of the 1890s: "Hello Ma Baby [hello ma honey, hello ma ragtime gal]" by blackface vaudevillians Howard & Emerson; and "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay," composer & author unknown, possibly originally a brothel song. Both huge hits.

"Hello Ma Baby" was featured in a Charles Ives piece (Central Park in the Dark) and a Warner Bros. cartoon featuring a dancing frog. Maybe Warner Bros. is the source for the '60s pop adaptation!

"Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" was a schoolyard chant in 3rd grade, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1973. Someone sings it in an Eng.-lang. version of a Chekhov play, but I assume that's an Americanization. Need to look into the song more deeply.

Posted by john on April 19, 2006 04:40 PM



Re Nirvana and "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a friend of mine interviewed Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke shortly after Nevermind hit, and Coleman mentioned that at first "Teen Spirit" sounded exactly like a Police song to him. (Not a specific song, I don't think, just "a song by the Police.") Which, if you listen with that in mind, actually seems eerily apt...

Posted by DW. on April 19, 2006 02:00 PM



(And/or, like Carl said, Black Francis getting it from Keith Partridge.)

Posted by john on April 19, 2006 12:56 PM



"Be My Baby" is a great example. "Stand By Me" comes close. "Good Vibrations," I wouldn't count, but that's another subjective call -- I hear the intensity as building more gradually. I tried to think of Stones examples but couldn't -- Satisfaction is almost inverse, with its insinuating chorus and shouted verses. Get Offa My Cloud explodes from beginning to end. Nothing by the Who comes to mind either. Maybe "It's Not True." My Generation has an explosive coda.

GLORIA! -- Van Morrison (Them).

I defer to Pixies experts -- I don't know them that well! Only owned one cassette back in the day and haven't listened to it in years. It makes total sense to me that Cobain got it from them, though I still like the idea of TV-watching (I'm assuming here) elementary school Kurt absorbing the zeitgeist from thinking Susan Day is a cutie.

Posted by john on April 19, 2006 12:34 PM



I don't actually fault critics for wanting to be influential and exciting. It's inevitable to seek cultural capital, just as the artists do (otherwise you'd surely be in another field), and more interesting to be forceful. I just hold out hope that the ambitiousness can manifest itself in other ways than creating false idols, making one-sided arguments and being full of bluster. It has to go deeper than either playing judge and jury or just playing the gawshdarn naive fan going on about your "favorites." And to me that has something to do with investigating why we like what we like, and what happens when we like it, how music is social, and how society is musical...

On the other track: Wouldn't the explosive chorus go back to girl groups, Phil Spector, Brill Building, et al - that era? It's a dynamic move I associate with them (and yes, as opposed to Rock Bands - although I'm still not convinced it's not there in some forms in the Stones or the Who, and surely Good Vibrations qualifies on the dynamic level, with its barely-there verses, though the chorus is by no means *pounding*). Isn't it there in soul and Motown, too, to some degree? Great point about songs that start with the chorus, though, John - I think that's definitely the pattern that the explosive chorus tended to follow in British Invasion-era rock, that you'd launch with it if it was going to sound like that.

It's also something Cobain said he swiped from the Pixies, so it may be more that Black Francis was the one absorbing all these influences...

Posted by zoilus on April 19, 2006 12:05 PM



Hate to be a naysayer, particularly since I agree that it's essential in music writing to question the received wisdom, but I think that the CW on the "explosive chorus" (i.e., step on the distortion pedal and let rip) trope in Nirvana songs -- that it comes straight out of the Pixies -- is dead on. John, have you ever seen any reference to Kurt listening to the Partridges? Wasn't he a Zep-worshipping metalhead in his formative years?

J-lon, a question: what are the "compromises" that you imagine Jon Pareles or K. Sanneh has made in order to become a Times mandarin (other than having to tight-ass up their prose styles)?

Posted by Jody on April 19, 2006 11:52 AM



I was thinking about Petula Clark last night and this morning it occurred to me:

I Know a Place

Explosive choruses both!

(Petula Clark's hits make me jump & down and dance around the kitchen.)

Is a pattern emerging? Bacharach, Petula Clark, the Partridge Family, Little Anthony & the Imperials. I'm thinking the Explosive Chorus may have been a form practiced mainly by the non-singing professional songwriters, until Cobain. And on the Popside of the Pop-opolis, across the tracks from Rockville. (Though it's an inherently intense, "rockin'" form, none of the practitioners I'm remembering relied much on electric guitars, and though the singers "rocked," Classic Rockism requires an electric guitar for Rock.)

I'm feeling more confident about my Partridge Family - Cobain theory.

Also note: Even though it appears to be a creature of the "office" songwriters, it's a form completely unrelated to the classic Broadway/Hollywood/Tin Pan Alley songform.

Another Beatles slam-bang chorus at the beginning of a song: Good Day Sunshine.

Posted by john on April 19, 2006 11:39 AM



I don't necessarily prefer "favorite" to "best." I just think they are distinctly different endeavors.

Personally, I accept the politicalness of it and don't have much of a problem with it. It's just how it works, and frankly I think it's what many people want: to be told in clear terms what to do and what to think, because nobody has time to think deeply about everything.

I personally don't feel that way about music. But I certainly feel that way about things like health insurance. Somebody just tell which one is best. Barry's Schwartz's book, "the Paradox of Choice" is all about this issue.

Ultimately, the thing that fascinates me is the issue of cultural power itself, what it can do, and how people find themselves possessing it.

I've known more than one critic where the will to power was quite strong, even if it was unacknowledged (or perhaps an unconscious shadow motivation). Of course, denying any interest in holding power is a time honored strategy for acquiring it. I think it's a particularly popular approach in the realm of the alt/indy world where it's perceived as unseemly to desire power too obviously.

Bottom line, you don't just stumble into being that person at the NYT who gets to pass judgment on things. You have to want that power and be willing to do the things that are required and make the compromises that are necessary to hold it.

Along a different track, what's up with the beard in Indy rock? All of a sudden it's everywhere, at least here in Seattle. How did that happen? Is it trickle down from Iron and Wine dude? Is Steve Turner from Mudhoney responsible? I don't know. But to the extent that certain people can just start doing something and then by virtue of doing it influence a bunch of other people to do it, that to me is some serious cultural power.

I don't know about anyone else here, but I sure wish sometimes that I had the power to make that sort of stuff happen.

As a critic in the right position, sometimes one actually gets to do just that, and I have to imagine that being first like that feels pretty good.

Posted by j-lon on April 19, 2006 06:37 AM



DW, the explosive thing is really subjective: Lucy & Hide Your Love are good candidates, but, for me, not as explosive as "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" or "Teen Spirit." "Hide Your Love," only the "Hey!" really explodes; "Lucy", the chorus is SO different -- different time signature (3/4 verse, 4/4 chorus) -- that the effect is more non-sequitur than dramatic explosion. But, as they say, your mileage may vary! (Baby You're a Rich Man is another possible candidate. And All You Need Is Love. But not explosive enough, for me.)

Only Beach Boys explosive chorus I can think of: Let Him Run Wild. Again, Keith Partridge is closer to Kurt. To my ears.

Nope, wait, another one, a cover that way, way out-explodes the original: Do You Wanna Dance.

Subjective disclosure: I love the Partridge Family and Nirvana hits, and the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Little Anthony, and Burt Bacharach. I do not love Toto or contemporary Broadway or animated musicals.

Posted by john on April 19, 2006 12:39 AM



Jeez, you got me on the Beatles thing. The only examples I can think of offhand where the chorus comes in & really ramps things up are "Lucy in the Sky" and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" (and re the latter, if you said ballads don't count I might just have to agree with you).

I feel like there have to be other examples elsewhere of the exploding chorus, but none are leaping to mind. I'll have to think on that a while.

J-Lon: I don't really disagree with what you're saying, but isn't ANY substantial criticism at all unavoidably political, in that it creates or challenges a hierarchy?

I mean, I also prefer "favourite" to "best," but while everyone has favourites/preferences, not everyone gets to write about theirs in, say, the New York Times.

I'm not convinced there's any way around the hierarchy thing, except for everyone to keep on arguing about what the hierarchies are or should be & hope that readers are sophisticated enough to realize that "in my humble opinion" is implicit in any critical pronouncement. I'd prefer that to, say, no criticism or evaluation at all.

Posted by DW. on April 18, 2006 11:41 PM



The explosive chorus is rarer than one might think. Who could be more pop than the Beatles? And yet I don't think they have any songs that really qualify as "Explosive Chorus" songs.

Maybe I'm being picky, because they did write some slam-bang choruses, but the ones I can think of all START with the chorus, and the Nirvana formula is to go along and then EXPLODE.

Beatles slam-bang choruses: She Loves You, It Won't Be Long, Any Time at All, Help. All start with the chorus.

Contrast these with what I think of as the archetypal Explosive Chorus songs: I Say a Little Prayer, and Hurt So Bad (Little Anthony and the Imperials).

And then, the Partridge Family: I Woke Up in Love This Morning, I Think I Love You, Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted. 3!

Maybe my brain isn't working right, and I just can't think of obvious examples, but the brilliant "formula" of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Sliver" seems to me to have few precedents, Partridge Family as prominent as any and more consistent than anybody I can think of. I'm open to hearing other examples.

Re: subjectivity -- I'm all for critics trying to understand how and why other people like music that they don't happen to. Just don't let someone else cast your vote, that's all.

Posted by john on April 18, 2006 09:58 PM



To me "favorite" is a word that describes a personal state (i.e., arelationship between a person and a work). It implies a pluralism of sorts (i.e., we can all have a favorite).

"Best," on the other hand, is political/polemical statement. It implies a hierarchy (there can be only one best or one list of best). Creating the list of "best" will always involve power and politics (or at a minimum, the maker of the list is making a political claim). In cultural terms, it is asserting an absolute inside ("best") and an absolute outside ("not best").

Appeals to seemingly objective factors are one possible rhetorical strategy for asserting the dominance of one thing over the other. So it's not surprising that people appeal to objective factors all the time when playing this game.

The thing that constantly amazes me is the degree to which so many rock critics seem completely unaware of the the role they play in this sort of cultural battle. There any number of typical approaches to persuassion. One is the appeal to authority figures and experts. In the context of consuming music, critics play this role and this role always carries a lot of political baggage.

Perhaps many critics are simply loath to admit this role in public for fear of compromising themselves professionally (e.g., by undermining their authority). Perhaps they are simply loath to admit it to themselves, because at least for some the image of culture warrior is perhaps unseemly (or perhaps even more unseemly is the image of upholder of the cultural status quo).

Posted by J-Lon on April 18, 2006 07:36 PM



Me again. Just wanted to stress that despite the nitpicking above I don't mean to imply that I disagree with this --

> But reviews should be of one's reactions and Top 10 lists should be of one's favorites; otherwise you're not being true to yourself, but true to some notion of somebody else's sensibility.

-- in any way, because I wholeheartedly agree. I guess I'd just argue that reviews and top-10 lists aren't the whole story...

Posted by DW. on April 18, 2006 06:29 PM



One question I'd ask about the Partridge Family is whether they were really influential or whether they simply drew from the same larger classic-pop-format well that Cobain and others would draw from later.

You can ask that about any artist, of course, since everyone draws from a finite number of wells. Some are both derivative AND influential in their own right; some are not. My own gut feeling is that the Partridge Family falls under "not," but I could be convinced otherwise. Certainly I have no problem with the IDEA of the PF being influential.

> I'm with Matos. Better to stick with the reality of one's personal reactions.

That's my inclination, too. When I wrote before that my own hypothetical best-of list would probably include some Important Records, I should have clarified that it would probably HAPPEN TO include some Important Records.

However, don't critics especially need to think about how "the reality of their personal reactions" overlaps & collides with & is affected by the larger cultural & social context in which music is heard? And if they don't, aren't they "only concerned with their own corner of pop" in their own way?

Posted by DW. on April 18, 2006 06:24 PM



Carl, you posted while I was typing -- I didn't see your post -- glad to see you're open to the Partridges.

I'll meet you halfway, that's better than no way, there must be some way to get it together!

Posted by john on April 18, 2006 05:56 PM



I think about influence all the time too. I heard "All Tomorrow's Parties" on the radio yesterday and was really struck by how much the lead guitar (Reed, I think, but am not sure; maybe Morrison) owes to McGuinn of the Byrds. Taken in a more abstract, less dramatic direction, but a similar tone and modal basis.

Is Toto important?

Similar number of hits as Nirvana, more albums, longer career. Maybe not as influential on as many bands (or maybe they were; not sure), but what if they played a role in the evolution in the power ballad, and what if the power ballad is the main form of contemporary Broadway and animated musicals? I don't know enough to say for sure, but once you start assessing importance, it's hard to know where to stop. Unless you're only concerned with your own corner of pop, which is fine, But.

And it's a big But.

Rock criticism of this ilk often pretends it's the whole story. And it's not.

I'm with Matos. Better to stick with the reality of one's personal reactions. If you have something fresh and interesting to say about History and Influence and the Importance of This or That Band or Guitarist or Album in this or that scene, that's great too. But reviews should be of one's reactions and Top 10 lists should be of one's favorites; otherwise you're not being true to yourself, but true to some notion of somebody else's sensibility.

A criticism of Nirvana that doesn't take into account Cobain's mastery of the classic pop song form is missing half the boat. And why not the Partridge Family? Cobain's choruses are more Partridge-y than they are, say, REM-y or Beatle-y or Replacements-y or Sex Pistols-y.

Posted by john on April 18, 2006 05:51 PM



John's argument about Partridge Family influences on Nirvana is a good illustration of the flexibility of the concept "influential." I've got little doubt that the Partridges and the Monkees were formative on a certain generation (both in terms of what they like and of what is considered cheesy), the one around my and Kurt Cobain's age. Yet people don't talk about the "influential" Partridge Family, because that case hasn't been made. So there's a consensus distortion in influence, too.

It's easy to say something is influential when artists namecheck it all the time; on the other hand, you could sometimes say an artist is namechecking another artist as a cool name-drop and not acknowledging a larger element in their sound that isn't so cool. Influence is subjective in a way chart position is not; for instance, I think there's a lot more hip-hop influence in rock right now than either critics or many of the bands themselves might really have accounted for.

But you're right, I do find influence at least a bit more solid, objectiveish indicator of significance than other factors, and I use it very frequently to make the case for a little-known artist to a readership - you might not know or care about Captain Beefheart, but we're running a feature about the new box-set retrospective because you might know or care about who influenced the Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, XTC, the Pixies, etc.

Posted by zoilus on April 18, 2006 05:36 PM



not that it really matters, but I'm pretty sure that there at least an objective concept of "influential". I.e. I doubt the truth of the expression "X influential on Y" changes relative to the speaker. It is almost certainly also the case that this is unknowable given our lack of access to the internal psychology and complete history of Ys... but I think a specification of the requirements of "influential" could be given...

Posted by andrew on April 18, 2006 03:58 PM



> "Important" and "influential" are subjective too with the bonus of being unknowable.

Well, sure, you could argue that "perceived to be (but by whom?)" should automatically go in front of just about any adjective in this discussion. And of course critics and listeners SHOULD be arguing about this stuff all the time, and not taking anything for granted.

But surely you can make SOME generalizations about what's "influential" & "important"? Nirvana's a good example -- they're kind of a bete noire for me, since from day one I always thought they were mediocre & overrated. But I still don't delude myself that they weren't "important."

Posted by DW. on April 18, 2006 11:26 AM



"Important" and "influential" are subjective too with the bonus of being unknowable.

I maintain that the Partridge Family was influential on Nirvana. The grainy baritones shared by David Cassidy and Kurt Cobain, and, more importantly, the classic pop song structure, pioneered by Burt Bacharach and Little Anthony and the Imperials, of quiet verse and EXPLOSIVE chorus. Kurt would have been the right age to have totally absorbed the Partridge Family as a kid, and he was a master of the EXPLOSIVE pop chorus.

"I Woke Up in Love this Morning" -- if you Nirvana is an "important" band, it's an "important" record.

I respect critics who try to understand why other people may like something that they don't, but to limit that goal only to "people within my market demographic" is insular. Which, I understand, is the goal of a lot of rock writing: To define the boundaries of hipster insularity.

Posted by john on April 18, 2006 10:42 AM



> I'm always amazed at how often readers expect a critic's word to be objective. five years ago on an old blog I, bored out of my skull over a few weeks, posted three top-100 singles lists for the '70s, '80s, '90s. it got me into an email debate with someone who insisted that there was, by some law unknown to me, a difference between "best" and "favorite," and who was mad at me because the lists were too subjective.

I think you could argue for a distinction between best and favourite in that "best" would encompass not just personal taste but also some sense of widespread and lasting influence (the same thing that Aaron W. is getting at with the post that started this whole thing, I guess).

Readers and critics alike tend to get hung up on this -- I mean, if you ask 100 film critics about the "best" movie, half of them will say Citizen Kane & the other half will say Casablanca, but if you ask about their "favourite" movies odds are they'll be less inhibited and you'll get a more interesting list.

I know my own list of best/favourite records would probably include some that most would agree are important & influential, and some that I'd cheerfulyl admit are just footnotes to the larger story.

Posted by DW. on April 18, 2006 10:21 AM



subjectivity can be used as smugly as pseudo-objectivity, but I do think it's important for critics to try and be honest about their own tastes being theirs alone. still, I'm always amazed at how often readers expect a critic's word to be objective. five years ago on an old blog I, bored out of my skull over a few weeks, posted three top-100 singles lists for the '70s, '80s, '90s. it got me into an email debate with someone who insisted that there was, by some law unknown to me, a difference between "best" and "favorite," and who was mad at me because the lists were too subjective. this kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME. why? because people hear "best" on VH1 or whatever and think it has actual brand value, I'd guess. weird, huh?

Posted by Matos W.K. on April 18, 2006 02:32 AM



was it this article?

i enjoy metacritic and p&j; but as you say, it's important to see them for what they are, ie. a representation of certain biases. you have to know how to read them to extract any meaningful data from them -- for instance, the Isolee record was #3 on Metacritic's Best Reviewed Albums list of '05, but it doesn't mention that it was probably reviewed in a lot less places than, say, the new Rolling Stones album, and that the writers who went out of their way to write about it were already excited about it; it probably didn't get heavily serviced to print media. what those lists do tell us to some degree of accuracy is which albums had a lot of buzz in the crit community.

still, i'd hate to do away with year-end lists. sometimes it can be very productive having to rank and weight your preferences; it makes you realize what was good and important about certain albums. i'm always bitching about indie rap but my '04 and '05 number ones were Madvillain and Kanye respectively, and only after making a list did i have to admit to myself that those records were more important to me than say, Crunk Juice and Tha Carter II. i like to think of list-making as an entertaining branch of pataphysics; it has no real meaning, especially when organized with multiple people, but it can be fun to muck around with the findings and see what comes up.

Posted by dave m. on April 17, 2006 08:55 PM



My objection is to the ways in which critical biases are self-perpetuating. You say, "It's all well and good to point out that this group has a bias. But that doesn't erase the reality that this group of people does have cultural power..." No, but what it can do is to make that group of people more aware of their biases, and perhaps less likely to equate the preferences that come out of those biases with some kind of near-objective measurement of quality. And if those people then acknowledged that limitation to their readers, perhaps they would be appropriately relinquishing a certain kind of cultural power.

While I find Metacritic and Pazz & Jop interesting and useful in some ways, they threaten to make critics even more smug in their assumptions about their tastes by providing some chart-like quantification, so that the number-one Metacritic record starts to be claimed as "the best," as if it had been scientifically demonstrated. Aaron's formula counterbalances that somewhat, but it takes that premise as a bit of a given.

Increasingly I think it would be more legitimate at the end of the year for me not to name my "top 10" records from the previous year, but to suggest the ten best articles or posts I'd written. Of course, that wouldn't be very helpful to anybody's marketing: Career-wise, doing those "best" lists is functional, because it is what publications and the music industry want from us. So J-Lon's getting to the appropriate terms. The question is, what is the activity going on when we play by those rules? I'd say, not criticism.

A study came out recently showing how much social patterning determines our tastes: Scientists played people a bunch of music they'd never heard before, in one group indicating which songs had been popular with previous listeners, in the other group not. As you might expect, this altered which songs people chose as their favourites - what you might not expect is *how intensely* it determined those answers - that is, how mimetic musical taste seems to be. I'll have to look that one up again.

Posted by zoilus on April 17, 2006 04:37 PM



Significance is always debatable. People make history. Music doesn't do it on its own. At some level, all music is as valid as all other music. But all music isn't received equally by all people. And all music isn't remembered equally in the history that people write about that music. The significance of things is a social construction.

Given that this is so, power relations will always matter in this stuff. It's all well and good to point out that most music critics are white middle class dudes between 25-50. It's all well and good to point out that this group has a bias. But that doesn't erase the reality that this group of people does have cultural power, and that they do have an effect on the conventional wisdom about what music is and isn't important/significant.

It's all well and good to say that perhaps this group has too much power, or that it is out of step with the market with regard to hip hop, etc. But the power is still there. And in terms of things like canon creation and defense, I don't think it's unreasonable at all that the metacritic number would be more or less on par with the billboard number.

If this weren't so, then artists like Television and Richard Thompson would have pretty much disappeared from music history a long time ago.

Seth Godin has a book called "All Marketers are Liars." In that book he argues that storytelling is one of the most effective marketing tools in existence, especially if a story resonates with someone's pre-existing frame of reference.

At the end of the day, critics and music writers tell stories about the music they listen to. People read these stories. If they resonate with their frame of reference, they are more inclined to seek that music out and to a certain extent their frame of reference with respect to the music in question may well be shaped by the story the writer has told.

Indeed, the very vocabulary they use to describe it will probably be borrowed in part from the reviews they have read about the music (and if the critic is lazy, some of this vocabulary probably will have been originally borrowed from the press materials circulated by the label with the music).

That the writer is at least ostensibly objective and not connected to the company selling the music or the artist who produced it, adds legitmacy to the story. This is why these kinds of stories are so valuable as marketing, and why there is such a symbiotic relationship between the press and the music industry.

That most critics evidently think of themselves as marginal figures of little power and importance only serves to make their stories that much more legitimate.

I suppose it is telling that in the original post rap groups evidently weren't considered rock and roll and therefore weren't included. But that doesn't mean that there aren't any rap groups that would yield a high number under the formula, or that that number would be any less useful. I have to think that Kanye West would receive and even higher number than the White Stripes. And I'd probably take a similar conclusion away from that number.

Public Enemy is no less a critics darling/market success band than Wilco or the White Stripes or lots of other bands. And part of their lasting presence relates to having been successful in both those arenas.

To me, that's the take away. Certainly, you can be commericially successful and critically reviled or vice versa. But who in their right mind isn't hoping to have their cake and eat it too. To the extent this little formula tries to encapsulate that balance, I think it's kind of fun and also somewhat useful.

I mean isn't that the whole point behind something like metacritic, to try and give people some aggregate sense of the critical consensus around a give work? Isn't that the point of Billboard charts, to give people an aggregate sense of popularity in the market? Both of these things are really marketing tools. Both define a market space. That was the whole point of chart creation back in the day. Charts establish a market space and therefore a bounded area in which marketing can happen with some focus.They creative some seemingly objective measure of popularity.

There's a book called "the 7th Stream" by Richard Ennis that talks about this in the context of the birth of pop music radio.

Most consumers are risk averse. What they really want is to buy something that other people already want. Reviews and charts help to let people know that a given work is already desired by someone else. They probably appeal to slightly different parts of the adoption curve (reviews appeal to slightly less risk averse consumers who don't need to see that everyone else has already bought something before they buy it, but who would like to read a little story about a work before spending money on it).

The psychology of the review is to say buy this because someone smart says it's worth buying and if you buy it you'll show that you are smart too. The psychology of the chart is to say buy this because everyone else is buying it, and if you buy it you'll be part of that popular crowd too.

But if something gets good reviews and sells well, it says that you can be both smart and popular by buying this. Nirvana.

Posted by j-lon on April 17, 2006 02:54 PM



Is this argument about criticism actually leading anyone to a conclusion about something? That would be radical.

Seeing as Carl willingly admits to being an R&B;/hip-hop "dabbler" anyway, I'm not sure what position he's in to criticise, anyway.

Posted by PJ on April 17, 2006 12:29 PM



of course, while i'm typing this, you go and make roughly the same point ("critical consensus, in a thumbs-up-or-down sense, tends to say more about the sort of people who tend to be critics than it does about the music.") sorry.

Posted by dave m. on April 17, 2006 12:02 AM



sales is a measure that cuts across a wide swath of people, because all kinds of people buy music -- young, old, fat, thin, rock fans, new age fans, etc. pop critics working for daily newspapers and magazines, however, are mostly urban white men aged 25-50 who primarily listen to rock music. all aaron's system does is take the sales chart and lop off any artist with a largely non-white (R&B;), non-rock (hip-hop), non-middle aged (teen pop, emo, mall-punk) or non-urban (country) fanbase.

it's definitely a useful number in one sense: if you're a freelancer looking to pitch a music feature to a general-interest publication, any band that scores high in this system will probably be a shoe-in with your white middle-aged urban male editor. because as metacritic scores mostly prove, your editor probably thinks that only white middle-aged urban people read magazines and newspapers, or at least, that they're the only ones whose taste in music matters.

Posted by dave m. on April 17, 2006 12:00 AM



Hmm. "Significance" is possibly even more debatable than "interesting." What the White Stripes signify is pretty negligible - which is not saying I don't like them, because I do. But I take your point: Aaron's test makes more sense as a measure of, let's say instead, "cultural wave-making," trying to account for the twin engines of mass popularity and the aggregate power of critics to confer respectability, canon-formation etc. I think my complaint in that case would be that he's wrong to weight them equally - he should have left the Billboard factor at 200 and the metacritic factor at 100 rather than averaging them out.

Other possible systems, besides choosing a single critic (or a "top ten" list of critics or whatever): A count of the number of articles and reviews rather than what their ratings are; the number of mentions of that artist by other artists in interviews etc.; rates of sampling and cover versions...

I'm stretching Aaron's silly putty to the breaking point here, but it is good geek fun. All I mean is that critical consensus, in a thumbs-up-or-down sense, tends to say more about the sort of people who tend to be critics than it does about the music. (As of course can also be said of mass popularity.) Criticism's value isn't in what the critics rate highly or lowly, but in the discussion around those evaluations, and that part can't be quantified.

Which is what makes the fetishization of Pitchfork's decimal-point ratings so absurd and annoying.

Posted by zoilus on April 16, 2006 11:25 PM



I think that Aaron's point was to somehow rate the cultural significance of an artist any single moment (the moment being variable with the data taken as reference). As stated by the previous poster, whether or not any artist in Aaron's list make any impact on the long term is entirely up in the air. i think that Aaron's formula would actually make more sense to use on a week by week basis and then use a cumulative rating to create a more global significance rating.

Posted by Simon on April 16, 2006 07:44 PM



Interesting. Tim Midgett of Silkworm came up with this take a couple of years ago:

and was kind enought to provide a "Musical Correctness calculator at

Sadly it all subjective and ultimately a joke.

Posted by s.v. on April 16, 2006 05:46 PM



Good pts Carl. Nevertheless, I do find it kind of interesting. The list he generated does seem to be a pretty good measure of current rock bands that have managed to be popular both commercially and critically.

While this is by no means a definitive measure of historical importance, it does seem like the bands that enter the canon, if you will, often do combine success in both these areas.

Sometimes history is kind to a band that was commercially successful but critically reviled. Often a critically acclaimed band gets lost as time goes by. But the groups that manage success in both areas seem most likely to be venerated as time goes by.

I mean, I don't particularly like the White Stripes, but it seems pretty undeniable that they are that rare band that has managed to parlay critical success into commercial success.

Posted by j-lon on April 16, 2006 04:33 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson