Reviewlets

In a recent post, David Bruce Murray grapples with the age-old question: what makes you qualified to write a music review? Naturally, how anyone answers this question is going to implicitly defend the approach the writer himself takes (myself included; see below). Thus DBM, who has cornered the market on short reviews of sg - first on his website and now in the SN - thinks that, among other things, being able to write short reviews is a key qualification to review music. I enjoy breezing through a few short-take reviews as much as the next music lover, and DBM’s in particular are by far the best in the sg bidness. But increasingly I wonder if the music reviewlet serves any meaningful function, especially in southern gospel.

The short-take review is premised on the idea that people want or need some direction in making decisions about what music to buy. Thus most publications that include music reviews prefer several short reviews that pass brief judgment on an album (there are a few exceptions; The New Yorker, for instance, still retains a regular long-form music essayist). And this may make a certain amount of sense in genres with fans who really follow the aesthetic development and artistic quality of the music closely (even here, though, I’m not so sure the internet hasn’t mooted the function of the traditional review, since fans can form online communities and pool expertise and information that in aggregate far exceeds what any single review can provide in a couple hundred words … but that’s another debate for another time).

But in sg, gospel music fans know what albums they are going to buy before the music is ever released and they base their purchases on a whole host of factors that have little or nothing to do with the formal or aesthetic quality of the music - the very thing the reviewlet is justifiably focused on. I was talking to an artist the other day about the different product price points groups use. He remarked that some groups have raised their cd prices as much as 20% (while not, I assume, putting 20% more time and money into their recordings) and they haven’t seen any measurable decline in product sales because sg audiences are buying the musician, not the music. Exactly. Whatever reasons people read the SN’s’ music reviews, for instance, it’s safe to say they are not by and large reading to find out which new product is the best investment for their musical dollar.

Which is good thing, because the SN is the last place you’d want anyone to look for candid reviews. DBM’s presence on the reviews page has raised the quality of the writing there considerably, but given what he had accustomed to his online readers to expect from him as a reviewer before he joined the SN, his reviews for the magazine have perhaps been most notable for making the SN’s big wet kisses smack just little less loudly. He will doubtless disagree, naturally. But read this review of the Pfeiffers that DBM posted on his website last month and ask yourself if it would ever see the light of the day in the SN. Of course if the SN editors are smart (and they are) they wouldn’t ask DBM to review the Pfeiffers in the first place, and even if they did, DBM would have his reliably good sense to advise him – and them – against it. Then again, that’s sort of my point. If everybody tacitly agrees the fix is in at some basic level – and if, at the same time, your readers are playing by a whole different set of rules anyway – why keep going through the motions of music reviewlets?

I wish I had time to write more reviews, and I admire – and envy – DBM’s ability to listen to and write about so much music. But I stick to writing a few long-form reviews every so often rather than a bunch of short ones regularly not because I can’t write to length (I was a not entirely crummy newspaper reporter and editor in another life) but because I’d rather read – and write – one thoughtful, sustained engagement with a good or even just-ok album than a dozen reviewlets, even if half the albums get rave reviews. This means, among other things, that I have to choose carefully. I don’t reviews albums unless I think they’re worth readers’ time and unless I have something to say that people can’t find anywhere else. This doesn’t mean I always like what I hear, but then again I don’t think the best reviews are really about three or four stars, thumbs up or thumbs down. As an approach to gospel music, essayistic reviews are, for me, about treating the music as more than a tuneful starter course before the main meal of the Sunday morning sermon, or as the soundtrack to one’s daily commute (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

Which gets us to the biggest inadvertent problem with the reviewlet in any genre really: it perpetuates the faster-glibber-newer ethos of the American music industry (sg included) whereby artists and record companies deluge the market with ever more, and more mediocre, music in a way that sure seems intended to dilute consumers’ expectations for quality by creating a surfeit of ever shifting sounds. Don’t like it? Don’t worry … something new will be released in just a second. When nine out ten albums are craptastic, people start to care and less and less that a “good” album may only have one or two genuinely fine songs on it (this is especially true in the age of the a la carte online music store). And the reviewlet concedes this state of affairs from the get-go by assuming, like the music industry, that less is more: of quality in one case, of engagement in the other.

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Comments

  1. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Doug,
    You missed my point to a degree. I don’t think short reviews are ideal. I was actually grumbling a bit about the limited space issue of writing for _Singing News_ at the end of my article.

    That being said, if I didn’t have the ability to write short reviews, I wouldn’t be getting paid. I probably should have prefaced that particular point with “if you want to get paid for writing reviews, another qualification is…”

  2. Jim2 wrote:

    “craptastic” unfortunately defines much of what is being released - just because someone can sing and interpret a song masterfully is no guarantee that they can write anything meaningful. But rather than pay royalties to an outside writer, they try to keep it in the family/label/group and end up with a subpar effort.
    It’s like trying to build the Parthenon using adobe bricks. Weak material = weak project which leads to weak sales, or limited to hardcore fans

  3. scope wrote:

    ” . . . the SN is the last place you’d want anyone to look for candid reviews.” What? Next you’re going to tell me that the Fan Awards are fixed! ;)

    I agree that SN is a valentine to the business, not a legitimate new source or objective observer. Unfortunately it’s the best we have.

  4. Ole Gator wrote:

    I think DM does an excellent job with his reviews, given the space limitations he has to work with. Having said that, the Gospel Music Times receives product to review all the time with notes stating how they want the GMT to review the product since they are aware the GMT will publish the good, the bad and the ugly about the product. Sometimes, even the worst artist, wants someone to tell them how their product “really sounds.”

    After the reviews, GMT often receives thank-you notes from some of the artists that were “ripped apart” in the reviews, saying they appreciate an honest opinion. I don’t agree the SN is the “best we have,” just the most polished.

  5. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Gator,
    Thanks for saying that. The space limitations do stifle much of what I’d like to write.

    How do you feel about the full length reviews I post on my own website where I’m not limited by space? Is a review like the one at the following link honest enough? http://www.musicscribe.com/blog/wordpress/?p=1045

  6. Ole Gator wrote:

    Excellent review. I remember the same project was reviewed in GMT, almost a carbon copy of yours. Contrary to what most people believe, the majority of the artists are actually looking for for the truth from someome that knows music rather than the flowery words 99% of the review sites provide. Keep up the good work David, you do a fantastic job, a great service to the Southern Gospel community.

  7. Robert Davis wrote:

    I can honestly say I have never purchased a CD because of a review. Reviews are subjective and are only one person’s opinion. I did look at Netflix and Blockbuster online’s reviews of movies rented by customers before I would rent a movie until I discovered that I must not be in the majority when it comes to my taste in movies. Still, the star system on the movie sites are 100s, maybe 1000s of people’s opinions. Not just one.
    DBM, if your getting paid for it, more power to you.

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