Archive for July 3rd, 2004

“Hipper than thou” music reviews on NPR

Jul 03, 2004 in Music

Hip, But Inscrutable: Music Reviews on NPR

A piece by NPR ombudsman Jeffery Dvorkin examines listener attitudes towards modern music reviews on NPR and the often obtuse style they’re written in:

‘But for some listeners, the full reviews were incomprehensible, even bordering on a parody of “intellectual” music criticism. The reviews’ tone is arch and “hipper-than-thou.” They seem to tell most of us not to bother listening — this information is not for you, but only for the people who are part of the scene.’

Anyone who reads Pitchfork on a regular basis can agree with Dvorkin’s analyis; most indie music reviews are arcane and rambling. As someone who reviews music on a semi-regular basis, I find common ground with both camps.

On one hand, I never understood how someone could write a 700-word review and fail to give the listener a concrete sense of whether the album is actually worth buying. On the other hand, modern music criticism requires the grasp of a cultural framework that is unfortunately out of the grasp of most casual music listeners. The artists in question generally lie outside the mainstream, and their music cannot always be categorized in simple, radio-friendly terms.

It is said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Expressing opinions about a non-literary, non-visual medium takes a bit of creativity, and the use of colorful language is one way to accomplish the task of describing music. Reviewing music is an art in itself, though some reviewers focus more on the flowery language than the consumer recommendation that they should be making.

Personally, I subscribe to Lester Bangs’ spirit of music review as evangelism. The idea is to turn readers on to great new music they may not hear otherwise. But reviewers can’t forget the necessary task of providing some sort of consumer recommendation as to whether the album is worth buying.