03 August 2012

An Experiment in Reviewing – Popular Songs

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend and frequent guest-blogger, Kirk Woodward, has submitted a new article that combines two of his special interests: review-writing and popular music. Alongside his long-time interest in the work of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, about which he’s written in the past for ROT, Kirk has been a fan of the classic pop group the Beach Boys since the 1960s, so he naturally checked out their new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, but instead of writing a review of the recording itself, Kirk’s taken the tack of reviewing the reviews, in particular, one from the British newspaper The Guardian, long renowned for its arts coverage. As you’ll read, Kirk has some objections about the ways in which arts reviewers, in particular, pop and rock ’n’ roll music writers, ply their trades. I know you’ll find this an interesting and provocative take on the practice of music reviewing—and you’ll get Kirk’s assessment of the Beach Boys and their new output as well. ~Rick]

It used to be said that everyone in New York City had a play in a back pocket. Nowadays everyone in New York City, and everywhere else, is a reviewer. Numerous websites invite anyone – really, anyone – to write an allegedly critical opinion of anything and publish it on the web. There is even a word now, “trolling,” for the sort of reviewer who routinely posts insulting “reviews” for the pleasure of attacking people’s work, no matter what it is or what it may be worth.

This cheerful process of people with no accomplishments giving their uninformed opinion on a work that, in many cases, took years of difficult creation, often seems like a harmless enough spectacle, until something or someone we like is reviewed, like (as someone remarked about Bertolt Brecht’s appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee) a zookeeper being examined by a committee of apes. When we actually know something about a work, or even, worse yet, care about it, the process may not seem so harmless.

I wrote about principles of reviewing in a book called The Art of Writing Reviews (available at Lulu.com). In this article I’d like to apply ideas from that book to a particular situation – in fact, to a particular CD, a recently released recording by the Beach Boys called That’s Why God Made the Radio (referred to from now on in this piece as Radio).

Because the album was released in conjunction with a reunion tour by the band to celebrate its fiftieth (well, fifty-first – they began working together in 1961) anniversary as a musical group, the album (people of my generation call them “albums”) has received considerable attention. In its first week of sales it charted at #3 on the Billboard sales chart, the highest an album by the group has ever placed in its first week of release.

I want to approach the reviewing of the album from a methodological point of view, but, as will be seen, it’s not irrelevant to give my personal opinion of the album right off the bat: I think it’s a wonderful recording, outstanding in many ways. Note, please: that’s not a review, it’s an opinion. It’s how I feel. Reviews must do more than just report whether the reviewer likes the work at hand or not.

Or must they? Let’s think about that, using as a basis for discussing the album, which I will now describe for those who haven’t heard it. First, a description of the album: it is divided thematically into three sections: Prologue (three songs), Summer (five songs), and Fall (four songs). (These are my divisions, not anything identified on the recording.)

The Prologue begins with a haunting, melancholy duet between voices and piano reminiscent of the French composer Erik Satie, called “Think About the Days,” setting up a theme of looking to the past. This theme is amplified in the next song, the rocking, majestic title number “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” written over insistent triplets (think of the old song “Silhouettes”) and full of chord changes difficult enough that I still haven’t been able to completely map them out on the piano.

The last song in what I’m calling the Prologue is almost the opposite of its predecessor: “Isn’t It Time” uses for rhythm a deliberate four-four beat; for instrumentation, a ukulele (plus guitar, percussion, and bass); and for vocals, as close to a doo-wop sound as the Beach Boys get.

The Summer section begins and ends with what one might think of as songs typically representative of the Beach Boys, “Spring Vacation” and “Beaches in Mind,” the latter preceded by the equally sun-oriented number “Daybreak Over the Ocean.” None of the songs in the section, however, have the typical “Beach Boy sound” of the famous recordings of the sixties. “Spring Vacation” begins with a relaxed, swinging groove that makes its leisurely way into a driving chorus, one of many songs on the album that start relatively calmly and move into an irresistible last section. So, for example, does “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” which is Caribbean flavored and practically leaps from the verses that set up the story, to a multi-layered chorus that begs to be danced to. “Shelter,” which follows, matches a sweet lyric to a slightly Mexican sound. “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is a dreamy up-tempo ballad, and “Beaches In Mind” is a loose rocker with an emphatic chorus.

The third section of the album, which I’ve called “Fall,” begins with a mid-tempo song called “Strange World” that sets up the theme of unsettledness that fills the rest of the album, a theme continued in “From There to Back Again,” featuring a sensational vocal by the seventy-year old Al Jardine, who also supplies jaunty whistling. The song is actually a sort of mini-suite, with a kaleidoscopic section of fragments at the end that further disconnect the listener from the earlier summer theme. Next, another massed vocal chorus, reminiscent of the one that opens the album, introduces “Pacific Coast Highway,” a deeply melancholy song about getting on the road and leaving. Finally, “Summer’s Gone,” a lonely song of resignation, leads to the sound of the ocean, and the album ends.

In summarizing the album I’ve tried to do briefly what any review should first do: come to terms with what the work under consideration is, before beginning to make judgments about it. I’ve tried to describe as best I can what the album is trying to do, what its intention is. I should add to that picture that the album also wants to present the well-known Beach Boy harmonies in as many facets as possible, and it does: the variety and quality of vocal writing in the album is not to be matched, as far as I’m concerned.

Now, how has the album been reviewed? Many reviews have been favorable. However, a distressing number have focused on a few themes:

The Beach Boys are old. Reviewers, apparently, never get old, and so they are able to spend time talking about the fact that other people age. One sees, perhaps, the news value in pointing out that a group with “boys” in its name has an average age of around seventy. What, however, does that fact have to do with the work at hand? A reviewer shouldn’t be reviewing the Great Circle of Life, but the album.

As I was working on this piece, my daughter played for me a CD of aggressive, minimalist rock by a band she had seen. I assumed the members of the band were kids. Not at all, she said, they were considerably closer to my age!

So the question is, what would we think of the work if we didn’t know biographical facts about the artists? I think it’s always worthwhile to try as far as possible to approach a work by familiar artists as though we didn’t know anything about them. The mental exertion involved in approaching a piece in that way can be huge, but the alternative is critical laziness. It’s easy to describe how old someone is – it’s less easy to describe the work they’ve done.

And related is a second theme often cited in reviews of Radio:

The Beach Boys have spent years suing each other. Again, true in part, but what in the world does that have to do with a new album? It exists. Is it worth listening to or not? Or should we hope they sue each other some more so we can hear them testifying in court? And is that a reviewer’s business?

The Beach Boys often write dopey lyrics. This complaint doesn’t point to subject matter, but to what used to be called infelicity of phrasing. (Beach Boy songs come from many writers, the most prominent being group members Brian Wilson, one of the greatest rock composers, and Mike Love, who tends to specialize more in lyrics. The other major writer on Radio is its producer, Joe Thomas.) It’s true that sometimes the various writers for the Beach Boys create wonky lyrics, like everyone else. Sometimes they write lovely lyrics. In “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” I really don’t like the rhyme

It’s paradise when I
Lift up my antennae

which reminds me too much of bugs. On the other hand, the next lines of the song seem to me to redeem the verse:

Receiving your signal
Like a prayer
Like a prayer

The larger point is this: a reviewer may not demonstrate the allegedly inferior quality of a popular song lyric by quoting it. Lyrics are meant to be sung, and only make sense in the context of a song. “A wop bop a loo bop a bop bam boom” is a brilliant lyric in the song ”Tutti Frutti,” no matter how it looks on the printed page.

The “Summer” songs are trivial; the “Fall” songs are profound. Here we come to an issue of more significance than the previous ones. There is substantial critical opinion – completely wrongheaded, in my opinion – that “serious” work is better than “light” work.

Think, for example, of Academy Awards for Best Picture. When Annie Hall won that award, it was an astonishing event, because the Motion Picture Academy consistently ignores comedy and rewards turgid spectacles that practically announce themselves as “important.” The same phenomenon can be seen in other fields of art, and certainly in popular music.

The Beach Boys have spent much of their careers taking light subjects (the sun, the beach, surfing, and so on) and presenting them with overwhelming imagination and beauty. Yet they are only accorded major recognition when they furrow their brows and announce that life can be sad. (The group has never won a Grammy award, and Brian Wilson only won for a piece called “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” that was voted Best Rock Instrumental Performance although there clearly are voices on it.)

The idea that “serious” work is more valuable than “light” work is a prejudice and a critical evasion, nothing more. It will not bear examination on its own. The best reviewers do not fall for the notion. The treatment for such prejudices is to remember the three questions that Goethe said a critic (and a reviewer) must always ask about a work of art – in this order:

1. What does it try to do?
2. Does it do it?
3. Is it worth doing?

Here, for an example that illustrates all these points, in a negative way, is a review of Radio from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/may/31/beach-boys-thats-why-review. It was written by Alexis Petridis on 31 May 2012:

It’s easy to be sceptical about the Beach Boy’s reunion. Indeed, if you look at the messageboards, diehard fans seem the most distrustful of the lot, which figures: for all the warmth and open-heartedness of the band’s best music, if there’s one thing being a Beach Boys fan teaches you, it’s scepticism. There are only so many times you can be told Brian Wilson has been restored to full physical and mental health, the better to make himself and a lot of other people a great deal of money, before you develop what the Clash called a “bullshit detector”, and Beach Boys fans have been told that on a regular basis – and with a great deal of evidence to the contrary – for the last 36 years.

Anyone looking to the music itself to check for signs of cynicism need only turn to “Spring Vacation”. It opens with a verse in which Mike Love claims to be “living the dream … cruisin’ the town, diggin’ the scene”. The Beach Boys’ music has often involved a suspension of disbelief – all those songs depicting a perfect, gilded California youth, written by a man whose own youth had been mired in physical and mental abuse – but this seems to push unreality to its limit. You find yourself wondering why on earth a 71-year-old would be cruisin’ the town and diggin’ the scene: perhaps he’s plannin’ on askin’ them to keep the noise down so an old man can get some rest. Then it moves on to the subject of the reunion itself: “We’re back together, easy money,” he sings, as indeed you might if, after years of playing fairgrounds and casinos, you found yourself shifting $70m [£45m] of concert tickets simply by hooking up with the cousin you have spent most of the last 20 years suing. “All I can say is, we’re havin’ a blast!” he offers, which isn’t what a recent profile in
Newsweek – depicting Brian Wilson “in various stages of distress” on stage with the band – suggested.

If the lyrics are disingenuous, the song itself isn’t up to much, the music slick but unremarkable. The first two-thirds of the album passes in similarly ho-hum style, notwithstanding the wordless introduction, “Think About the Days”, which is beautiful. The title track is a decent pastiche of Wilson in his prime, its cascading chorus equal parts “Kiss Me Baby” and John Barry’s “Theme from Midnight Cowboy”; “The Private Life of Bill and Sue”, however, a satire on reality TV, makes you want to curl up and die of embarrassment.

But just as you’re about to dismiss the album entirely, something extraordinary happens. The final three tracks – “From There to Back Again”, “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” – form a kind of suite that is easily the best thing Brian Wilson has put his name to in the last 30 years. Episodic, occasionally lapsing into silence, filled with shifts in tempo, the melodies impossibly beautiful, it takes the melancholy at the heart of Wilson’s greatest work – from “Pet Sounds” to “Til I Die” – and repurposes it. In contrast to the rest of the album, which relies on creaky nostalgia, it concerns itself with ageing (“sunlight’s fading and there’s not much to say”, sings Wilson on “Pacific Coast Highway”), death and the Beach Boys’ legacy. “Our dreams hold on for those who still have more to say . . . it’s time to go,” offers “Summer’s Gone”, undercutting all the gung-ho, we’re-havin’-a-blast guff that comes before it in the same way the wistful, autumnal intro to ”California Girls” seemed at odds with that song’s sunkissed lechery. Wilson’s vocals sound engaged with the subject, which seems faintly incredible given that on every other recent record he’s made, he’s sounded like a man forced at gunpoint to read his lyrics off a broken autocue.

For all its flaws,
That’s Why God Made the Radio is an infinitely better way for the Beach Boys’ story to end than their last album of new recordings, 1992’s disastrous country outing Stars and Stripes Vol. 1, or indeed the last album that bore their name – Mike Love, Bruce Johnston & David Marks of the Beach Boys salute NASCAR – on which the trio rerecorded old hits for the benefit of a chain of US petrol stations. Exquisite beauty nestles alongside stuff that’s wildly misjudged, painful honesty alongside the constant burnishing of a myth about youth and sunshine and a California that everyone stopped believing years ago, the whole thing wrapped in stories of non-existent fraternity, harmony and good vibrations: it’s the Beach Boys in a nutshell. Perhaps without realising it, That’s Why God Made the Radio tells you almost everything you need to know about America’s Favourite Band.

I don’t think I need to repeat the points I made earlier, particularly the point that for the writer, “serious is better.” What I do want to highlight is how much of the article’s evaluation of the album is opinion without criteria, or with criteria dubious at best. For example, Petridis slams “Spring Vacation” for being unseemly for a singer in his seventies. Are we then reviewing a musician’s age and not the music? Does it matter that one of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, sounds like he’s maybe twenty years old? To paraphrase the old baseball pitcher Satchel Paige, how old would the Beach Boys be if we didn’t know how old they were?

Aside from the point about ageism, what criteria is Petridis using to criticize a song that glorifies the singer’s supposed way of living? He criticizes “Spring Vacation” for the singer’s attitude; does he use the same criteria to criticize rap musicians who brag about their prowess and their popularity, whether their claims are true or false? I’m guessing he does not. And why is “Bill and Sue” an embarrassment? Because it’s a satire on reality TV? That’s the only clue Petridis gives us. What are the criteria involved in that judgment?

I understand and in a way even admire the way Petridis has structured his review. He wants to tell a story to keep his readers’ attention, so he forms a dramatic narrative out of the album and out of what he knows about its participants. He succeeds in his intention, too. He does write an article that holds the attention. However, he is not really reviewing. He is storytelling. His narrative takes the place of the job of critical evaluation.

And I sympathize with his approach, because there simply is not time or space enough in the life of a regular music reviewer to follow Goethe’s three steps for every song he writes about. Radio contains a dozen songs. Hundreds of thousands of new songs are released every year. Petridis has five paragraphs in which to write about an album. There’s no way that math works out for a reviewer.

But we must be aware of what we’re reading. Opinions and reviews are not the same. Particularly where songs are concerned, but in other fields of art as well, we need to take reviewers and their opinions with a grain of salt, realize what they can do and what they can’t, and resolve to make our judgments based on best principles, and for ourselves.

[Kirk provided the URL for Lulu, the publisher of his book, The Art of Writing Reviews (well worth reading, by the way), but I also want to point out that I posted a four-part commentary on the book on ROT which readers of this blog might also enjoy. “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward,” Parts 1 through 4, was posted on 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009. “The Beatles and Me,” a reminiscence by Kirk, was posted on ROT on 7 October 2010; and “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” Kirk’s discussion of a Dylan concert, was posted on 8 January 2011.]

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