Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

What Happened to the Negative Music Review?

Critics rarely have a bad word to say about today’s albums; Out of 787 albums analyzed this year, Metacritic hasn’t given a single one a red score.

By

Neil Shah

Megastars, such as clockwise from top left, Radiohead, Taylor Swift, Drake, Adele, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, benefit from frequent positive reviews. Photo: Getty Images (6)

If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.

Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.

Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.

“It’s actually news at this point when an album does get a bad review,” says Dan Ozzi, a writer at VICE’s music site, Noisey.

The dearth of negative music reviews is due to a number of factors. In the digital era, outlets covering music have become decentralized with fewer dominant players and more outlets running reviews. That’s helped create a new power dynamic between pop stars and the press—one where stars are less dependent on critics and critics are more eager to please artists.

‘It’s actually news at this point when an album does get a bad review’

—Dan Ozzi, of VICE’s Noisey music site

Reviewers generally herd together—especially in praise of megastars like Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift—instead of dissenting or championing less-known artists. With shrinking staff, growing competition and limited space, publications may simply not write about a bad album at all, says Jim Merlis, a veteran publicist who has worked with Nirvana and the Strokes.

A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.

“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”

Music fans can try out new albums on streaming services such as YouTube or Spotify, so often music critics aren’t as necessary as consumer guides. In the age of Twitter , Amazon.com and review aggregators, individual reviews by elite critics may matter less.

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Major stars increasingly drop albums out of the blue—a strategy that neutralizes critics and can give artists more control over the reception of their work. “Critics don’t have the time they used to have,” says Dennis Dennehy, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Interscope Records. “You’re losing clicks every day that your review is not out.” When Kendrick Lamar released his much-lauded “DAMN.” album in April, many outlets, including the Journal, posted a review that day. Quicker reviews can sometimes be less thoughtful and hard-hitting, critics say.

Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other.

Some artists, including Beyoncé and her sister Solange, above, have taken to interviewing each other rather than give interviews to the press. Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Some negative album reviews happen. Last month, for example, the music website Pitchfork gave Arcade Fire’s new album, “Everything Now,” a 5.6 out of 10—a U-turn from the 9.2 score it bestowed on the indie-rockers’ prior album, “Reflektor,” which had divided fans. Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran also have received low scores from Pitchfork.

But the negative reviews are so few and far between that they rarely impact overall scores from an aggregator like Metacritic, which draws music reviews from 56 publications and converts each review into a 1 to 100 score. (The scores are averaged into a single “Metascore” which can be green, yellow or red).

Public shaming on social media can dissuade critics from being negative. While discussions between critics and angry artists once were private, now they are public, with pop stars sometimes haranguing critics on Twitter. Even without an artist prodding them, fans can attack a writer online. A critic being paid $75 for a quick review may seek to avoid being berated for a week on the Internet, critics say.

There are still some negative reviews: Pitchfork gave the new album ‘Everything Now’ by Arcade Fire, above, a 5.6 out of 10. But such reviews are so rare that they don’t register in overall Metacritic scores. Photo: Carrie Davenport/Redferns/Getty Images

With arts coverage shrinking, music critics and journalists have an economic incentive to chase web traffic by writing positively about megastars, experts say. Pop stars often have bigger Twitter followings than politicians. If a star re-tweets or puts on Facebook a positive review or think-piece, he or she can drive millions of fans to a website.

Several observers complain that the line between critics, who review works, and journalists, who report news and conduct interviews, has blurred. TT Torrez, music director for New York hip-hop radio station HOT 97, says she’s seen bloggers praising albums that were “awful” to build relationships with artists. “You have a lot of people that want to be so connected to the industry… that they don’t give their 100% honest opinion,” she says. While negative stories can go as viral as positive ones, they can affect access to artists, exclusive premieres and advance album copies.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior pop editor at TiVo and a long-time music critic, says a positive development is that critics have become more diverse and fairer to subgenres such as nu-metal that were dismissed in the past. Critics, he says, should focus on what an album means, not just whether it’s good or bad. Yet he worries that the narrowing focus on megastars—all those positive reviews, nuanced think-pieces and fun lists—is fueling a trend where pop’s 1% get more and more popular at everyone else’s expense.

“Music criticism, like journalism in general, is the first draft of history,” he says. “Without some sort of writing about what’s happening in the culture, we’re going to be poorer in the future.”

Write to Neil Shah at neil.shah@wsj.com

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