Feb 8, 2023 Music
When I worked at the CD and DVD store in Merivale Mall in Christchurch, we used to have a trick. A single sentence that could get any album in the store sold; a line that would immediately convince any casual browser to part ways with $30 without so much as a ten-second listen to track one. Maybe it was the fact that we were selling music in one of the most affluent suburbs in the country, where people’s credit cards are more ready to tap than Fred Astaire, but the power of this phrase was undeniable.
“This is a great album,” we would tell the punters. “It’s the sort of thing you can just put on in the background or that you can sit down and have a real good listen to.” Like witchcraft, it worked every time. But those words mean nothing. It’s a contradictory phrase that can be used to describe literally any music. If you sat down and had a real good listen to what we were saying, you’d realise it was bullshit.
And yet the discs flew off the shelves. Maybe it was because our clientele weren’t the sharpest tools in the gottage. At one point, a woman came in saying she was looking for an album. I asked her who it was by; she said she didn’t know. I asked her if she remembered anything about the artist.
“He’s Black,” she replied.
“What kind of music is it?” I asked.
“I couldn’t say.”
And so, disc by disc, I took her through the work of every single Black artist in the shop. Finally, I sold her a BB King album, but even then she wasn’t sure. Could a story scream “Christchurch” any louder than that?
Still, there was a thrill in recommending music that I actually liked. I sold dozens of copies of Liam Finn’s I’ll Be Lightning by describing his loop pedal performance on David Letterman, at a time before people could instantly look up the video on their phone. I sold The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe to film geeks buying obscure DVDs. Sometimes I felt like one of those bartenders who makes you a cocktail based only on your vibe.
Working in a record store still seems like the coolest job you can have. I’m nostalgic for a time when a verbal recommendation could get someone to drop money on an artist they’d never heard of. That seems pretty quaint now, in an age when opinions on an album come out moments after the album itself is released. The very second the new Taylor Swift is released, thousands of people give it a power listen and publish their review on Twitter.
Music criticism itself, however, is essentially dead. To see evidence of this, visit the review aggregation site Metacritic. If you scroll down the list of albums, all of them have positive reviews, everything is green for good, and almost nothing has a median score below 70 out of 100.
Of course they do — it makes complete sense. The publications the site is drawing on probably put out the message to their writers: “Who would like to review the new Rod Stewart album?” And lo and behold, the person who reviews it is probably someone who likes Rod Stewart.
At the same time that music reviews have become meaningless, they are now being taken more seriously than ever before — by rabid fans. In the case of a famous artist like Taylor Swift, as soon as an even slightly measured review of a new album appears online — one that doesn’t think it’s flawless — the writer will have to lock or remove their social media profiles if they don’t want to be hounded with death threats or have their home address published online. All because they think some of the lyrics were clunky.
Because truth-telling reviewers are so brutally attacked, extremely positive reviews begin to seem suspect. The same hour that Taylor Swift’s Midnights came out, in October, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and The Independent all published 100% positive reviews. Maybe I’m just a suspicious grinch, but possibly those reviewers didn’t think it was a perfect album. Perhaps they didn’t want to be told to end their lives on repeat that week. But if reviews cannot be trusted and record stores are few and far between, where can you find an actual recommendation these days?
Here’s one. In the case of Taylor, the truth is that Midnights is completely fine. It’s a retread of her past styles, done in a way that feels like a collection of B-sides. Every song on it sounds like something she’s done before, but worse. It borrows sounds from Lorde and Billie Eilish but uses them half as well. If someone asked about it in a record store, I might direct them to something like Muna or Maren Morris instead.
Another thing you can say about the new Taylor Swift album: it’s the type of music you can put on in the background or you can sit down and have a real good listen. Three stars.