By Paul Casey
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.