|On Reviewing CDs
by Bert Thompson
A critic is a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste. — Whitney Balliet
Recently on one of the internet mailing lists, there was a posting to the effect that reviewers
should not write negative appraisals of CD’s, something along the lines of “If-you-can’t-say-
anything-good-don’t-say-anything-at-all.” On the face of it, this seems a reasonable
proposal, one that certainly had occurred to me when I began to review recordings a couple of
decades ago. Implicit in it, of course, is the notion that one should not “criticize,” should
not point out flaws.
Contrary to popular opinion, the verb “criticize” does not mean only to find fault, although
that secondary meaning is the one most often uppermost in people’s minds when they hear or
use it. The primary meaning is “to analyze and judge according to certain standards.” Thus
an art critic analyzes and judges a painting, a drama critic a performance of a play, a music
critic a musical performance, and so on. Similarly, a reviewer of a recording, which after all is
a music performance, is a critic.
However, this definition raises two other questions: what are these “standards” and who
decides or formulates them? Unfortunately, there is no single authority one can turn to for
them, nor have they been formalized. The individual critic has to arrive at these inductively
and make them apparent to his* reader. Therefore he cannot simply say, “This piece is good,”
or, “That work is bad.” Rather he must add the all-important “because ….” And in so doing
he should thus make clear to his reader, at least by implication, what he perceives these
standards to be. Then the reader is free to accept or reject the judgment. What often
happens, I should imagine, is that one eventually finds a critic whose tastes and judgments
(that is, perception of these standards) very nearly parallel one’s own, and one will come to
rely on that critic’s reviews, as I have often done.
Another question some raise about criticizing is whether anyone has the right to criticize. I
would answer that everyone has not only the right, but the obligation, to do so. When an
artist creates a work and offers it to the world, he is, at the same time, inviting criticism. (If
he does not wish such criticism, then he should keep the work private, offering it to no other
eyes—or ears—but his own.) The audience is obligated to respond: the artist has a right to
know if he has been successful. (He may also benefit by seeing any shortcomings, the first
step in remedying them and becoming a better musician.) At a concert, a critical response is
immediate—applause or lack of same. No greater endorsement can be had, perhaps, than the
standing ovation. Similarly, the music critic expresses in writing his appreciation of the
performance after the event in a review. His response will possibly be the more measured one
since he will not be caught up in the emotional fervor an audience may be experiencing at
the time of their applause: he has had the time and tranquility to reflect on what he has
heard, that is, to “analyze and judge” without distraction. But anyone can—and should—
express an opinion provided he backs it up, supplying the “because …,” the necessary support
I mentioned above. Of course, contrary to what many people profess, one person’s opinion is
never as good as another person’s, as will become apparent when both opinions are examined
closely, especially when they are at odds with each other.
Expressing an opinion publicly is not without risk. A potential catastrophe that always lies
in wait for the critic involves his ego (and reputation): what if he gives a negative review to
what later is hailed by the rest of the art community as a tour de force? (It has happened.
Manuscripts that were rejected by publishers before finally being accepted by one include
Faulkner’s Sanctuary, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and Melville’ Moby Dick; and some
movie reviewers initially shot down Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, and Titanic.) If one is
shown to have made an error in judgment, all he can do, once he sees the evidence, is admit
his faux pas.
Another thorny question is one I wrestle with, if infrequently: should I submit a review if it
is almost wholly negative? I hesitate to do that, but at the same time since I was given the
CD for review purposes, I believe the artist should have feedback. I am always delighted to
write a positive review—it is so much easier to do—and reluctant to write a negative one.
Fortunately, one seldom encounters a recording that has no redeeming qualities.
Speaking of negative reviews, I recall a positive outcome that resulted from one that I wrote
(back in the days of LP’s). While not exactly “panning” the recording, I was a bit
“underwhelmed” by it. The artist was a sacred cow to a man who read my review and then
went to some lengths to contact me and take me to task for it. He asked me how I could have
had the temerity to disparage this giant of jazz or anything he did. After some discussion, I
managed to persuade my critic that (1) I was not disparaging the man, his stature, or his
musical ability, but (2) I was simply expressing my opinion of that particular album and
telling how I arrived at it. While he was not completely won over, he did concede that I had
presented my case although he was not fully convinced by it! But the main thing was the
result of the whole exercise: we became good friends and remain so to this day. Would that
this were the outcome of all such reviews!
To sum up, criticism does not, and should not, mean only faultfinding; but it does mean
evaluating. And for the artist, such response, positive or negative, is one he should
welcome. Of course, he doesn’t have to agree with it!
*I am well aware that there are many female critics and artists, and I do not mean to slight
them by using the masculine pronoun forms only. I find it too clumsy to add “or she” or “or
her” each time, and to alternate between them, as some writers do, is confusing. Therefore, I
stay with the traditional usage of the masculine form to imply both genders.