Country California

Country music. Seriously.

Matt Bjorke on Music Criticism: Abridged

I got such a kick out of this humor(?) article by Roughstock’s Matt Bjorke that I wanted to quote it in its entirety, but copyright law being what it is, I decided to do us both a favor by offering an abridged version of it instead. Great for the busy professional who wants to be infuriated on the go.


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I was going to do an article about how cold-hearted music critics write from “an ivory tower of callous snarkiness and backhanded compliments,” then I thought better of it.

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For some reason, I’m still writing about the topic I just claimed to have rejected.

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Rhetorical question? Yes please.

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People like the mainstream, so you shouldn’t criticize it. Because a lot of people like it.

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The mainstream is called the mainstream, not Left-of-Centerville or Backhanded Compliments R Us or… oh look I just said the SH word. I’ll bet you think I’m cool now.

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I like McDonald’s, but not Republicans.

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I don’t like it when people think they know it all.

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People who disagree with my take on country music should pack up and move on. (I think I know it all.)

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I don’t like clever writers, as you might guess from my “Left-of-Centerville” coinage a few paragraphs ago.

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In-depth music coverage offends my sensibilities. Country music doesn’t merit serious discussion.

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Let me wrap up by trying to endear myself to you. Also, let’s throw in a nonsensical (and quite belated) George Bush jab, and one more “ivory tower” reference for good measure.

A few quick points in response:
1) I don’t see much gratuitous meanness in music criticism, and on the odd occasions when it does crop up there’s often reader backlash (especially visible on blogs). As long as the criticism is music-based, I’m all for putting it out there and seeing what people make of it. They are, of course, welcome to reject it.
2) I like discussions, but they don’t just happen by themselves; one opinion emphatically stated often serves as the catalyst. ‘Reviews’ that read like press releases are less likely to get people talking, since they have the appearance of cozying up to the artist rather than trying to engage an audience of discerning music fans.
3) Loving something well means comprehending its weaknesses, so the “love it or leave it” argument doesn’t hold much water for me in relation to a musical genre (or, for that matter, anything else).
4) Country music merits as much thought as people are willing to devote to it. Some of the most important and telling truths about the form hide in “simple little goofy songs” so easily dismissed.

Since Bjorke’s article did not include a comment section, feel free to discuss it here. You’ll probably want to read the full version before doing so.

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  1. Poor Matt. I do agree with you C.M., but still… poor Matt.

  2. I’ve just done my first review of an album I didn’t like at all, and I did feel a little bad about it. But in the end you have to be honest.

  3. Ooops. my reply somehow doesn’t have the first part of my response. So here’s the whole thing again.

    I didn’t think the column would ever get read but since I have to come up with something, I decided to ‘rant’ on fellow writers who I feel are perfect examples of the ‘I am better than you’ kind of writer. They can be found all over the place. Most people who start blogs tend to write passionately one way or another about something. Passion doesn’t have to or usually include sarcasm or “snark.” It just comes off as rude or, as I put it in this column “holier-than-thou.”

    That’s what got me upset and the column was a good way to exercise my thoughts on the matter. So as to not let it fester in me any longer. My attempt at humor seems to have failed, at least a little bit. I guess my real-life humorous streak didn’t come across here.

    As for some of the responses:
    I actually agree with points 3 & 4. #4 particularly with the ‘simple little silly song.’ I think that simple little silly songs can be just as good, if not better, than something meant to be profound. I also think anyone who thinks that they know particulars about how a song is created is just blowing smoke because they can’t possibly know why a song was written or even recorded by the singer. Cynicism has a place but constantly thinking that you know these things is a fallacy.

    I do hope most bloggers realize that I wasn’t attempting to write about them or see me as somebody who simply re-writes a pr piece for or about an artist. That’s never my intentions. I also used to write for a place that required ‘positive’ reviews on everything we wrote. That former boss is now fired (for that explicit reason) so basically if I truly abhor something (or feel too close to it) I will pass the review on to somebody else because a product is neither as bad or as good as I may think it is (usually).

  4. Well, Matt, you’ve hit the big time now. People are blogging about you.:)

    I have to say that I didn’t agree much with your column, but then again, I’m one of those snarky “critics” that you’re talking about.

    I guess it’s good to get things off your chest though.

    I hope there are no hard feelings about what I’m going to say, but here are my quick thoughts:

    You have a different style/philosophy on all of this than I do, for which there is definitely a market, but I think it’s necessary to call it like it is with music; otherwise, there’ll never be a “revolution.” As I’ve said so many times before, I love country music. So, when I hear it being marred by terrible productions, mediocre songs and artists who have seemed to forget the roots of the music of which they claim to be a part, I get passionate. I get just as passionate when I like something. I think that’s how people can count on reviews. If one is middle of the road about everything, how am I supposed to know if the music being reviewed is actually good or bad? My favorite critics are actually critical, either positively or negatively, and I get to know their tastes, therefore, getting an idea of how much their taste align with my own. To suggest that reviewers who write negative reviews (because no critic is always negative) should just find something else to write about isn’t very fair and is reactionary. I think you know that they don’t dislike country music. None of us is in it for the money–that’s for sure, even those who do it full time aren’t getting rich (as I’m sure you know as someone who is lucky enough to be paid for writing about country music).

    With that said, I can’t deny that I get a bit hot under the collar when someone goes overboard with a negative review of something I like, but I guess that’s what’s so great about blogs and their comment sections.

    • Quite so, Leeann

      I like many kinds of music, but I find that I rarely like music that is pretending to be something that it isn’t.. I really don’t dislike Rascal Flatts (they are rarely even on my radar) but their music isn’t any more country than was Michael Jackson’s music

      Reviewing albums really is a labor of love because you’ll catch flack no matter which way you go. I gave the recent ‘Naked Willie’ five (5) stars and was accused of debasing the value of a five star rating. Meanwhile, if I do less than bubble and glow over the latest album by a current sweet young thing or handsome hunk, I get blasted for that, too.

      In reviewing albums, I use the Harry Belafonte rule – listen without looking – let your ears judge , not your eyeballs

      • Paul,

        I can guarantee two things: I never judge a CD by it’s cover (I may comment on how badly it’s designed or put together) and I always try to give honest opinions on stuff. I just so happen to genuinely appreciate something about almost everything, even if it’s not adhering to the country that most of us fell in love with. Then again, I was very much a pop kid growing up.

  5. Leeann,

    Like I said to you in other places, I wasn’t writing about you and I do appreciate all reviews, even if I don’t agree with them. I guess that even though I love the music I write about it, I get passionate about stuff that may be different than you get passionate about and that’s what discourse is for. I think I mainly get mad at writers (of any type) who are negative for negativity’s sake or those who are both negative and wordy about why they hate something.

  6. I’m glad to see that this has started off as a productive, civil discussion. You guys are much classier than I give you credit for being; I thought there’d be carnage by now.

    Unlike Paul, I actively dislike Rascal Flatts, so expect no impartiality there.

  7. Matt, you’re famous now! (lol)

    I will take exception to your comment: “Oh, they’ll use the ‘but people like McDonalds’ analogy to try and yell me down like some republican-paid robot at a democratic health care reform town hall meeting, but I will hold my ground.” Anyone willing to do even a little digging will see that its the Obama/Democrat union thug faithful that are being paid and bussed to the “town hall meetings” where they are given professionally produced signs and bullhorns. Many of these Democrat idiots have also been physically assaulting their opponents as that’s just what union thugs do. The conservatives that attend those meetings are there out of personal passion to block the Obamacare debacle and derail that socialist overthrow of our health care system as it stands. I do my best to ridicule that dirtbag Obama every chance I get as my token part of aiding his continuous approval ratings decline…

  8. Matt,
    I didn’t take it personally, but I did feel like responding with some of my disputes with the column, as someone who writes, sometimes passionately, about country music.

  9. CM, I’m thinking you wrote your “classy” comment before reading Rick’s?

    • Well yeah, but at least Rick was sort of responding to something in the post this time. That’s a step up on the classiness scale.

      • Moreover, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Rick is correct.

        Anyway, the topic here is music criticism. I think we would all agree that it has no value unless the reviewer gives the truth – as he/she hears it.. There is nothing I hate more than to read a review that goes something like this:

        “This is ****’s 14th album, and like each of the prior albums it is amazing album. I don’t know how **** does it, but each album is better than the one before it. Every song on this album is terrific and blah, blah, blah …”

        In fact, if I see the word ‘amazing’ in a review or comment , I usually just stop reading. There are very few things in life that truly amazing. Books(stores/articles) and albums(songs) aren’t among them

  10. While I’m not inclined to agree with Rick, I don’t have a problem with people I disagree with thanks to having parents and grandparents that I rarely politically agree with, but it’s the highly insulting rhetoric he uses that shuts me off to the ideas that he’s trying to convey. At least with my parents, I can usually try to find some common ground in the rare times that I find myself in a political discussion with them, because they have their beliefs, but they don’t resort to name calling and extremism in the process of trying to convince me. I guess Rick is only preaching to his choir when he randomly throws his political rants into country music discussions, because he’s certainly not changing minds on the other side or even the minds of moderates like me.

    Sorry, for being hypocritical and jumping off topic myself.

    Back to Matt Bjork’s column…:)

    Actually, Paul, I agree with you. If something reads like a press release or high school kid praise session, I’m out. I want to read opinion on a review, but an informed one, whether it’s long or short doesn’t really matter to me, as long as it comes from an honest place.

    • Leeann, I find it interesting that you are turned off and perhaps even more willing to join the opposite side of the political views that Rick states in “insulting rhetoric”, perhaps when Matt talks about reviewers that are overly critical and snarky, he finds that sort of review not only biased but stated in “insulting rhetoric.” I know that I do, and when reviewers constantly criticize some artists for material, production and/or vocal style and sound, they eventually begin to sound like someone with a closed mind: in that they can never find anything redeeming or positive in those artists but at the same time they overlook and even praise failings just as grievous and critical in their own favorite artists.

      I think when some reviewers become too passionate about their own particular favorite genre or genre niche, they lose the ability to accurately or honestly assess other branches of that genre and their reviews then not only do the subject they are commenting on a disservice, they also can reflect badly on their own favorite artists and musical style. When said reviewer’s distaste has matured to the point where they cannot look objectively at their subject and do it justice, this is when I feel they should pass it on to someone who may not be a disinterested party, either negative or positive, but their interest has not progressed to the point they cannot do their job with integrity and create a review that is not only informative but also reflects their own taste without coming off as “insulting rhetoric”

      • I never call anyone names. I promise you that.

        • Furthermore, that’s only the beginning of what’s missing in your comparison. Even Matt acknowledges that music is a totally different, and less important, animal than politics. So, to compare the approach of discussing them is like comparing apples to oranges.

  11. This has been a very enlightening post – particularly the comments.

    As for review writing, in the short time I’ve been at it, I’ve learned there is an extreme to both sides. Case in point is the new Reba album. Anybody who knows anything about me knows I am a big, big Reba fan. But her new album just didn’t merit a glowing review, so it didn’t get one from me. To that end, I have the hard-core Reba fans (yes there are some worse than me) attacking my review because I didn’t love each and every song – and they can get nasty at times. On the other end, I have the casual Reba fan and people who were more disappointed with the release than I was who think I was too easy on it with my criticism. So it’s impossible to try and please all your readers – and if you’ve pleased them all, you’ve obviously done something wrong.

    I’ve found the best way (and believe me, I am still learning as I go, with a long way to go still yet) to review a new album is to relate how the music affected me personally, rather than what I think other peoples’ reactions will be. I’ve never been great at guessing what the mainstream will latch onto anyway, so a ‘this is how I feel about it’ review is the only way I can honestly review an album.

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