Random Rant: No, Being Average Isn’t Worse Than Being Bad

Published on July 31st, 2013 in: Critics/Criticism, Gaming, Music, Over the Gadfly's Nest |

By Paul Casey

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If you have been reading music publications for any length of time, you will be familiar with the following:

“Much like the worst direction you can go in is no direction, so is inoffensiveness worse than taking a stand, and thus the boring album is in a way worse than even a terrible album. An album that is full-on awful will always get minimal scores, but an album that is accomplished but boring is going to attract the dreaded three-star review—so often the calling card of the most inessential music of all (if your album is best described as “pleasant” then you’re in serious trouble). A one-star album can’t be boring, because even if the music is godawful, it’s WHY it’s awful that is itself entertaining—a one-star review is inherently entertainment, which is why you’ll always read one when you’re skimming the reviews column. But who the hell wants to read the three-star reviews, particularly as they’re all identical (“IT’S NOT TERRIBLE, BUT IT’S LACKING. IT FALLS SHORT, BUT IS A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION”). And boring as fuck.

The opposite of enjoyment is not disgust; it’s tedium, because in a life so cruelly short, there’s nothing worse than being forgettable. The most disgusting pizza I’ve ever had was the one that accidentally had dish soap in it (SECRET FAMILY RECIPE), yet of all the ones I’ve eaten, it alone has survived the years as an amusing anecdote. It’s the middling three-star stuff you won’t remember. The albums from artists you respect that you’ve had forever but played once (REM are like your parents—you know they’re good, but you never listen to them). A reworking of ratings systems might help, but if we’ve gone this far without rating entertainment based on how entertaining it is, then why start now? The accepted method of rating albums isn’t terrible, of course, it’s just lacking. It falls short, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’d give it . . . 3 stars out of 5, let’s say.”
—”The 5 Worst Kinds of Album Every Music Fan Has Bought,” Cracked

This is something that is seen frequently in other media, too:

“I wish Fuse was worse. Obviously, I’d prefer if it was better, but after playing through its six-mission story campaign and various co-op survival matches, I suspect that was never going to happen. This is a game of small ideas and low ambition, and that’s rarely fertile soil for a good game.

So, instead, I found myself wishing the game could at least be genuinely bad. There’s always something to say about a bad game, some story or insight that can be teased out of its missteps and mistakes. Games like Fuse, on the other hand, are simply there—inoffensive, unmemorable, and devoid of purpose. The review word count yawns ahead of me, dependent on a game about which there is virtually nothing of interest to say.”
“Fuse review,” Eurogamer

Something that is average, by definition cannot be bad. If one means to say that they believe something to be a bad work due to a lack of ambition, they do not mean to say that they think it is only middling or average. Using these words mean that you acknowledge that a work is competent. It is adequate and acceptable. If a writer means to say that he believes that a lack of ambition is not acceptable, he has chosen the wrong words and is confused as to their meaning.

It is not hard to find a reason why this tedious fallacy is so common among critics. One is tasked with evaluating an album that does not provoke any deep feelings. It does not present them with an obvious way to spend their 500 words. The music is not particularly controversial. It does not allow them to talk about those Important Issues that prove their writing acumen. Even if you dislike say, Tyler The Creator, he still presents interesting subjects. Misogyny, race, and censorship can all be addressed in ways that allow a writer to find something to talk about, even if that writer is hopelessly lost when it comes to the music on the speakers.

An average album does not fill them with passion and make them glad to be alive. It does not present an easy subject for ridicule, something so bad that they really don’t have to review the music at all. They do not want to spend their word count on evaluating the quality of this competent but not superlative creation, but to use as many vicious put-downs as they are able. As the unfortunate Eurogamer writer above explains, it is just too gosh darn hard to write about something when you are not able to use your writing crutches. At least Mr. Whitehead is honest about his reasons.

This view, when honest and open, is at least a practical one. A writer is acknowledging a lack of talent and work ethic when this argument is used. They do not necessarily believe it to be true. The people who do believe it to be true are so often those credibility fetishists who we have talked about before.

Ability is far less important to these people than representing something authentic. Coldplay are not the worst because they are musically incompetent, but because man, they don’t even try to be more than competent. This is partially stuck in the technique of giving up ground in an argument in order to further a larger point. Acknowledging their competency prepares the way for the killing blow, which is not to do with the music they make but what they represent: safety.

Safety as a guiding principle for a critic is tough. It is dependent on what publication you are writing for. It is dependent on which scenes you consider relevant. A Rolling Stone writer is not going to have the same criteria as one who writes for Pitchfork or the A.V. Club. Genre prejudice is a big problem. A magazine that still considers a Keith Richards interview a worthy cover story is not one that is likely to appreciate the importance of modern R&B or Electronic music. Outside genres can be as unsafe and experimental as you like, but if the writer does not possess that language, he is hardly likely to appreciate it. Consider how many Classic Rock heads are incapable of viewing the many offshoots of Jazz as anything other than incomprehensible clattering. When “safe” can’t be used as a put down, “pretentious” is put in its place.

Average being worse than bad is then informed by the biases that determine worthwhile expression. That Coldplay clearly have a handle on memorable songs, possess a good live presence, and entertain millions of people around the world is irrelevant. Calling something middle-of-the- road should be understood as separate from a judgment on ability, and instead simply another way to say “These guys are not cool.” As the contemptible Cracked excerpt quoted earlier suggests, this kind of person is more concerned with having an amusing anecdote to highlight his own wit than anything else. These people would rather sit through Twilight to prove their superior taste and credibility than watch something they liked.

These tired cynics seem barely capable of understanding anything that doesn’t specifically cater to them. These are the writers who instead of reviewing the thing in question, talk about their day. Of course their lives are of greater importance than hearing about the movie they were asked to review! This shows contempt for their audience, and their profession, but it also shows contempt for the creative process. These poor souls are terminally locked in a state of boredom by competency. If only they had been approached first, they could have helped. “Just make it less safe.” Simple.

Consider also that this jab is often directed at people who are unequivocally far above competent. There are a fair number of people who maintain the view that The Beatles were merely average. This is, of course, laughable. Their impact on music in the 20th Century, their very large catalogue of songs and albums which are stuck in generations of human brains, and continued relevance to a diverse selection of musicians should make that obvious. This allows one to see this dull snipe as what it is, a badly reasoned philosophy dependent almost entirely on arbitrary, clique-based commandments. So please writers, critics, and reviewers, let us leave the idea that “average is worse than bad” for those people who can’t make their word count. Let us leave the fuzzy HOT/NOT HOT tedium for insecure cynics. If we think something is bad, we should have the courage to call it bad, not construct a fatuous justification for why something in the middle is worse than something at the bottom.

4 Responses to “Random Rant: No, Being Average Isn’t Worse Than Being Bad”


  1. Chelsea:
    July 31st, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I don’t know if I entirely agree with this.

    Earlier this year I reviewed the new album by a prolific band whose previous work was brilliant. When I actually GOT the record, it didn’t measure up to the high quality of their previous work. At times it sounded like they had sanded down the things that made their music so interesting and instead made a grab for big radio hits. When they performed the more radio-friendly material it was the aural equivalent of a guy in a suit that doesn’t fit. Had the album come out from an up-and-coming band, I would have shrugged and said “They’re decent, maybe the next album will sound a bit more confident and cohesive.”

    When I initially wrote my review I described the album in question as “stunningly average” (in comparison with this band’s track record of excellence). Rereading the draft, I thought “average” wouldn’t mean much to someone unfamiliar with this band, and I changed it to be more descriptive so that readers understood what, specifically, didn’t work — that the songs sounded like they’d been rejected from previous albums, that the band was performing like they made this album to fulfill a contract and/or have an excuse to tour the states, and that the trendier material didn’t work. In this case, describing this particular album as “average” wasn’t dismissing it, but explaining why their previous albums were more representative of their work.

    You said: “These people would rather sit through Twilight to prove their superior taste and credibility than watch something they liked.”

    This may be true some of the time, but there’s also some work that doesn’t work for any number of reasons that’s more interesting than material that is well played and handsomely produced. When I listen to Coldplay, I hear the sound of cash registers. Their music sounds as though it was written and recorded in a lab, and even though their music is competently written and well recorded, there’s no interesting point of view. By comparison, the Frames’s body of work has some material that really doesn’t work. Their albums are fascinating because you can not only hear the places where didn’t quite make the mark, but you can hear what they were trying to do and what they got right. A band like the Frames has so much passion that it’s hard not to get swept up in their work and find even their less perfect work endearing.

    TL:DR; there’s always room for interesting failures.

  2. Rev. Syung Myung Me:
    July 31st, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Yeah — I tend to think that most failures are failures because they tried for something and just couldn’t do it — average, on the other hand, tends to mean they didn’t try at all and nailed it. Or they tried for safety. And honestly, that’s just often boring. For example — given the Twilight example — I would rather watch Ed Wood’s oeuvre than Twilight. His stuff is bad, but it’s usually not super boring. (Well, depends on the movie.) Twilight, on the other hand, is competently made, it’s just… dumb. You get the impression that Ed Wood was extending beyond his skill set — not necessarily LEARNING from that extension, but at least extending. Twilight and stuff like it seems just phoned in. Like no one really tried anything, just sort of knocked out some shit that’ll make a bucket of cash, and called it a day.

    And Chelsea’s right — there are times when a great band can do an “average” record, and it’ll be a letdown because you know they’re capable of more. (Sort of like how sometimes you get down because an album is… fine… it just sounds like everything else the band has done before.)

    I don’t think that, say, when anyone says that Coldplay sucks (and they do, and I’ll say it now: They suck), they mean from a technical level. They’re all very competent. But, y’know, I’d rather listen to the terrible album by some dudes who barely know how to play their instruments because at least they’re trying something.

    …..but of course, better than all this: I’d rather listen to something GOOD. (And that’s also why I don’t run Negative Reviews on Kittysneezes. Because even if Bad is easier to talk about, it’s… well… easy. And there’s a lot of GOOD stuff out there, so why don’t we talk about that?)

  3. Paul:
    July 31st, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Hi,

    Some thoughts:

    First thing to say is that this is intended partly as a linguistic point. If Coldplay suck, they cannot be average. Calling something average means that it cannot by definition be less than average. If one wants to make the argument that Coldplay are bad, they should make that argument.

    “Earlier this year I reviewed the new album by a prolific band whose previous work was brilliant. When I actually GOT the record, it didn’t measure up to the high quality of their previous work. At times it sounded like they had sanded down the things that made their music so interesting and instead made a grab for big radio hits. When they performed the more radio-friendly material it was the aural equivalent of a guy in a suit that doesn’t fit. Had the album come out from an up-and-coming band, I would have shrugged and said “They’re decent, maybe the next album will sound a bit more confident and cohesive.”

    This is a little bit apart from what I’m talking about, which is something that does not have a large history of expectations. This is more to do with whether something is disappointing, rather than whether something is average. Which is probably why you made sure to define the context of the disappointment with something that was in most ways an acceptable recording. It emphasizes a little the the problems with using average as a commonly understood criticism.

    “When I listen to Coldplay, I hear the sound of cash registers. Their music sounds as though it was written and recorded in a lab, and even though their music is competently written and well recorded, there’s no interesting point of view.”

    You see this is a big problem, because I plainly don’t hear cash registers. I hear some pretty nice melodies. And pretty nice melodies are better than bad melodies. I heard the first Coldplay album some years ago and I still have an easy time recalling at least half of the songs on the album. The Eagles had a commercial sound. Crosby Stills Nash & Young had a commercial sound. Motown had a commercial sound. The Eagles get the credibility shot a hell of a lot from a certain kind of crowd, and so do CSNY though probably less because of Neil. I have known some people who say that they vomit when they hear Hotel California. They associate it with an ideology which disgusts them, so they are unable to actually hear that the song is pretty fucking great, from most every perspective that goes into creating a song.

    Saying that Coldplay betrays some ideology or doesn’t have a point of view implies that we have already established the right point of view for a band to have. It is difficult to write someone off based purely on this objection. Coldplay on the whole make love songs, in spite of their foray with Brian Eno (who is super credible). Their point of view doesn’t need to be anything other than that, just as it was not necessary for I Wanna Hold Your Hand to be about anything other than holding somebody’s hand and getting a thrill. Passion is as close enough to subjectivity as we probably get as humans, and while I kind of get the sense that you mean something angrier with a faster tempo, I don’t see that as synonymous with the concept.

    -
    “Yeah — I tend to think that most failures are failures because they tried for something and just couldn’t do it — average, on the other hand, tends to mean they didn’t try at all and nailed it.”

    I question whether most failures are trying as hard as you suggest. There are A LOT of terrible things out there that are incompetent from every perspective, and that includes ambition. They aren’t fun. They aren’t amusing. They don’t represent some worthy ideology. They fail to entertain even ironically.

    Coldplay clearly do try. They try to write memorable melodies and they try to entertain the thousands of people who go their concerts. And they seem to be succeeding for a lot of people. Out of interest, how could Coldplay go from not trying to trying? What is the magic ingredient?

    “Or they tried for safety. And honestly, that’s just often boring. For example — given the Twilight example — I would rather watch Ed Wood’s oeuvre than Twilight. His stuff is bad, but it’s usually not super boring. (Well, depends on the movie.) Twilight, on the other hand, is competently made, it’s just… dumb. You get the impression that Ed Wood was extending beyond his skill set — not necessarily LEARNING from that extension, but at least extending. Twilight and stuff like it seems just phoned in. Nothing about the reaction to Twilight from fans, and even from folks who despise is, is average.

    I was going to write something about Ed Wood as I expected some mention of his work. It is a bad choice for a contrast with Twilight, because there are far more people who laugh AT Plan 9 From Outer Space than laugh with it. Glen Or Glenda, the same. How many people who will go to a screening of one of these movies to have a chuckle, would bother to seek out his other work that aren’t famous examples of bad movies? Would his ambition hold their attention when they didn’t have those famous hooks? Many people are just as dismissive of his work, and like Twilight consider it simply an object of ridicule. Interestingly, for a lot of people find Twilight has passion in large amounts. If they were turned on, they were turned on. Ed Wood incidentally, was working in a genre that was thought creatively vacuous and a purely commercial endeavour.

    “Like no one really tried anything, just sort of knocked out some shit that’ll make a bucket of cash, and called it a day.”

    I don’t think it is nearly as easy to make a bucket of cash in movies or music or any creative medium as you think it is. Even if you take something which you do not value, it often takes a hell of a lot of work. You do not need to place a value judgement on that work, for that effort to exist as part of the process. It exists objectively as the demands of the medium. Mixing a record is just as laborious whether the sounds on that thing are considered worthy expression or not. It takes a long time to prepare a hit single or a hit movie, and a lot of hard work. So I do not believe it is possible for something to make buckets of cash, and NOT TRY, even if the end result is aesthetically lacking. The Ed Woods are the outliers, and are not representative of those who are completely lacking in ability. His status is as much a product of the way in which the crowd attaches itself to and alters work that is given the title of cult classic.

    We are getting perhaps to the intangible part of creativity that “trying” represents some epiphany, or some form of emotional turmoil that is clearly present on the resulting product. But again this is dependent very much on the genre or medium you are working in, and appearing tortured is just as possible to fake for any half decent story teller. Doing the work and competently performing the basic components of creating IS the trying. There is an unfortunate tendency to dismiss things which are not seen as serious, as for instance much of sex/dance focused R&B. That the best examples of the genre are insightful and powerful exactly because of their lack of pomposity is unfortunately missed. The focus on musical ability, good production and performance, is hidden for these folks because they only see the surface of the thing and that it does not seem to be talking about anything significant.

  4. Chelsea:
    August 2nd, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I was having a less-than-great day at work yesterday and wanted to wait until some of my frustration had passed to respond to your response.

    My initial statement that Coldplay sounded like their music was made in a lab was the kind of glib statement that illustrates your point. What I’m about to say might also support your observation that “I don’t think it is nearly as easy to make a bucket of cash in movies or music or any creative medium as you think it is. Even if you take something which you do not value, it often takes a hell of a lot of work”. But, well:

    One of my coworkers really likes Coldplay and frequently listens to them in her cubicle. I don’t know if she’s listening to albums or to a playlist or mix CD, but in hearing them in 2- to 3-hour chunks, I’ve noticed that many if not all of their songs are in the same two keys, they all have the same chord progression, all of their melodies “resolve” (for want of a better word — begin and end with the same note), they’re all produced with the same slick hand, etc. After listening to them for a while, I started to think “okay, it’s 2:37 into the song, where’s the anthemic br- OH, THERE IT IS.” So after hearing a bunch of their songs back to back, it does sound like they write with a formula in mind, and that formula precedes any creativity.

    “Coldplay on the whole make love songs…”

    As a side note, and I know this has nothing to do with your thesis, when they have attempted to write more political material their lyrics have come from the perspective of an upper-class dude who has never attempted to examine his privilege. I know a lot of artists have written about political and social issues from a similarly lofty viewpoint (Joe Strummer, obvs), but it just seems like Chris Martin is coming to his social consciousness from a blindered perspective that he’s never tried to address. While you weren’t writing about this specifically, it’s one of the things that really puts my teeth on edge when I concentrate on Coldplay’s lyrics.

    “in spite of their foray with Brian Eno (who is super credible).”
    Funny thing about that: http://chalkhills.org/FAQ.html#q18

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