Groove Column: on accentuating the positive (December 2010)

Morning coffee and promo. These emails are an adjectival arms-race: this DJ is ‘unique’, that one ‘transcendent’, this ‘more than just a musician… capable of communion through sound.’ Wow. You left out ‘can walk on water and cure the sick merely by touch.’ Hyperbole is a PR’s job, but wouldn’t it be refreshing to read something like ‘he’s a nice bloke and he plays good records for a reasonable fee. You should book him’? A one-sheet that said ‘well, she rushed this – it’s not really as good as the one you liked a couple of years ago’ or ‘this has the same drum pattern as thirteen others you’ve been sent this week, but please listen anyway.’

Every now and then I gush at length about new records on my blog. But I’m lucky: it’s not my job. Well, not directly. I choose what to praise and if there’s nothing to heap superlatives upon I don’t have to write at all. And you won’t find me listing records I don’t like in Enthusiasm either. I’m a cheerleader, not a critic. I’m not afraid of being labelled a hater – thin-skinned, over-entitled Generation Y’s catch-all diss to anyone suggesting they might not be completely perfect. It’s more that writing negatively is a privilege that should be used wisely and very sparingly. Indulged for it’s own sake, it’s downright corrosive. Just look at the comments section of any internet site.

I learned this young. Weaned on the NME, whose reviewers demolished the bad in startlingly good ways, I arrived at college fancying myself to be the next Steven Wells and started writing reviews for the University newspaper. I gave a vicious rhetorical kicking to a bland funk band I saw play live one night. But when I got the paper it was my review that had been eviscerated. I called the editor, outraged, to be told he knew the singer was clinically depressed and it simply wasn’t safe to print what I’d originally written. Wasn’t safe. There was a person on the receiving end of the words I chucked out into the public domain. I had thought only of my own cleverness.

Sun Ra once admonished one of his band-members for labeling a pop record ‘some hokey shit.’ ‘That hokey shit is someone’s hopes and dreams, don’t be so hip,’ he replied. I hope never to forget it.

9 Responses to “Groove Column: on accentuating the positive (December 2010)”

  1. Henry says:

    Food for thought. Another enjoyable read, thanks Ewan.

  2. james teej says:

    i couldn’t agree more… thanks for the read. cheers!

  3. rick grant says:

    what a lovely quote that is

  4. NS says:

    Once a record of mine got called “Vibe-Ruining Garbage” GodDamn that killed me. Garbage. Nice article Ewan, Nice point.

  5. Bootsy Colin says:

    Pretty much agreed! reasons for a bad review, as opposed to no review, round here:

    1. destruction or stealing of a good original in a commercially oriented remake.

    2. personal rivalry or hatred of whoever made the record (haven’t gotten to use this one yet but hope to someday)

  6. Phil Morse says:

    Too true. Negativity breeds negativity. Karma and all that. If you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say it at all.

  7. Ray says:

    I was invited by a very famous online music magazine to review an event in the UK. The DJ that was starring is also very famous in the house music industry and the event was very hyped. I couldn’t wait to see him play and was looking forward to writing the review of what I was almost certain would be a great night. However, the headline DJ in question was truly awful. There were long pauses between tracks (he was smashed for most of his set), he trainwrecked 50% of his mixes and when I’d had enough and went to bid farewell to the promoters, he couldn’t even put the needle on the record, at which point the promoters were escorting him away from the decks. Very embarrasing.

    When I wrote the review I almost couldnt face slating him and his unproffesional performance. I knew that it could have an effect on his career as the review would be read worldwide. However, I had to go about it in a tactful way and I think I got across a true reflection of the night without being rude or nasty to the guy.

    However, when the review was aired on the website I got a seriously snotty email from the DJ protesting that there was nothing wrong with his performace and he thought everyone enjoyed themselves!

    What I’m getting at is that even if you do have a conscience as a writer/reviewer and try to speak the truth without looking like a ‘hater’ you can still be subject to criticism. I guess some people just expect you to say its amazing even if its not.

    I really like what Ewan has written and agree that its very important to remain positive, but as I’d been offered the review I thought that I had a bit of duty to say what I thought at the time ought to be said. However since getting the email from the DJ I sometimes wish I’d never bothered.

    I guess I’m just saying that there is a fine line, and reviewers should walk it cautiously, even if only to protect their own conscience.

    Sorry if that doesnt make a deal of sense… I’m badly hungover.

  8. zee says:

    Respectfully disagree.

    Although like you Ewan I normally choose to comment/review things I like (unless I’m asked) I’m also sick of the overly positive reviews and feedback which is somewhat a trend. Also, most of the positive reviews seem to be rather empty on content being more of a generic praise whereas negative reviews usually got some points as to justify themselves. Artists should learn to deal with negative reviews and understand that review is just that — a subjective opinion of an individual. I don’t think we’re helping anyone by “sparing” them from our honest opinion, quite the other way round — the reviews and feedback loses its purpose if not honest..

  9. James says:

    I think Ewan is right that when it comes to vitriolic attacks on records most times it has more to do with the reviewer than the actual music. Either someone is trying to gain some notoriety or is in a fued. “Vibe-Ruining Garbage” is not really criticism it is just abuse.

    But having said that there is room for criticism especially in dance music. A good example would be Jakob Korn who I think is great. I haven’t seen one review that noted how similar all his releases sound (which doesn’t bother me)or talked about the identical handclaps etc.

    But maybe there are so many releases that not to review or critique a record is itself the criticism. Why bother when it so much easier to review a record you like?

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