Music Features

The Curse of Seven (NR10)

As a reader and enthusiast of quantified subjective art, I love ratings, if for nothing else than as a basis for argument.  Putting numbers on our temporary feelings and arguing about them as if the basis for which is factual rather than subjective is a pastime that will never die.  Who doesn't love lists?  Isn't it great to get all in a huff about "How can they possibly say My Life In The Bush of Ghosts is the eleventh best album of the '80s?  Obviously, it is the sixth!"  Ratings are similar.  They're also practical for a reader.  No Ripcord, for example, posts many reviews that are just outside the scope of my interest.  If a release gets an 8 or more or a 3 or less, however, I will inevitably read it to find out what the writer liked or loathed so much about a release, even if I'm fairly certain I will never bother listening.  Also, you have to slap some kind of number on a review to get posted on Metacritic.

The Curse of Seven

As a reviewer, however, I hate ratings.  Reviewing music and film, while fun, is also difficult, if only because of self-imposed standards.  Anybody who voraciously consumes media can relate to the conflict.  The first impression of an album may be the most important, but it is often deceptive.  Our opinions are not fixed on a graph, and inevitably they shift over time.  Often the real impression of a work, particularly musical, emerges through time, as one lives with a work or ignores it.  Sometimes albums that initially seemed insubstantial or uninteresting click in the brain and demand re-listening (maybe they "unfold" and "reveal more layers" as we are so fond of saying).  Sometimes albums that announce themselves as wonderful exhaust themselves after a few playbacks.  Some things sound better in specific states, like drunk or heartbroken or both, but wilt in the sober, distracted light of day.  Some things seem technically excellent but refuse to honestly connect in any mood.  All of these factors are liable to shift when one isn't looking.  Every revisitation has the potential for surprise.  Merely expressing an opinion prompts a bit of anxiety, because there is always the possibility a future revisitation might find you completely disagreeing with yourself.

I understand there are some writers with a carefully considered criteria for their ratings.  Roger Ebert occasionally goes into detail about the meaning of his ratings on an industry scale of eight half-stars.  The currently popular (and preferred by myself) ten point system is a practical adjustment of the Rolling Stone 5 star (10 half-star) system, allowing for a very precise and useful assessment.  Thing is, I myself have never been that precise or useful a writer.  Some critics are gifted writers with an uncanny skill for witty assessment (on the No Ripcord front, Alan Shulman seems like one of those).  Some writers get into it because of their enthusiasm for good criticism and find themselves surprised at how hard it can be to distil their feelings about a work (me).  I've never had a dependable way of contriving ratings, so I've resigned myself to keep practicing and hoping I'll get better, though it seems like my ratings get more useless when my output increases.

Chuck Klosterman ended his odds 'n sods collection IV with the beginning of an old abandoned semi-autobiographical novel in which the protagonist was a drug-addled small market film critic who has given every movie for a few months a square two stars.  I can relate to this exhaustion and passivity, though I have skewed more positive at No Ripcord.  It isn't that I don't enjoy listening to new music whenever I can, but that I often find myself having a hard time pulling myself out of what I've been immersed in recently to place it on a scale.  As for the positivity, I don't think that's a unique thing for me, as fearless leader David Coleman has implored us before to be bold enough to contribute negative reviews.  Over here, however, the handpicked staff (not sure how I slid in, but anyway...) is not getting paid, and does it because they love it, so there is little pleasure in panning a release.  We're much more likely to seek out things we're interested in, or take a chance on an unknown property we might enjoy, so we're already skewed positively.

I do relate to Klosterman's fictional alter-ego and his constant middling reviews, however, in that I have found myself reviewing too much and giving it all a non-committal rating.  Looking back at my reviews, I notice that many of my favourites (Justice, Bjork, Flying Lotus, Goldfrapp, etc.) were slapped with a 7, the most vanilla positive rating there is.  7 is, on retrospect, my default positive-but-haven't-wrapped-my-head-around-it-yet rating.  It communicates that I like it, but says almost nothing beyond that.  6 and 8 definitely have connotations (good but unremarkable versus great but not mind-blowing), but 7 says close to nothing beyond "I kind of dig it, but I'm not sure."  I hereby apologize for every 7 I have given and boost the above examples to a 9.  If I looked hard enough, there are probably a few more 7s I could go ahead and knock down to a 5.  In an effort to shake myself of this kind of indecisive cowardice, I am now declaring a moratorium on 7 for the remainder of 2009.  It is a holy number in several religions, a beautiful single-digit prime, and a great Prince song, but obviously not a useful rating to me.  Whenever I am tempted toward it, I will get real honest with myself and try to figure out if something is really good or just kind of good.  Hopefully, I will emerge into No Ripcord's second decade a bolder and more useful critic.