Written by Natalie Melendez, Photo by Eric Mclean
Music reviews have long been a part of the pop culture zeitgeist, with some of its earliest forms first appearing in the 18th century. Their longevity is no doubt due to their conflicting nature: loved for their ability to aptly highlight an artist’s strengths, but scorned for their more critical or biased interpretations. Yet, no single aspect of music criticism is more contested than the numeric ranking system. This practice, though not present in all reviews, is problematic for its attempt to assign a numeric value to something which isn’t inherently formulaic but is instead a carefully crafted piece of art.
Although it’s true that each publication has its own system—some, such as Pitchfork’s, more intricate than others—the process is often too formulaic, too up-tight to accommodate the ebb and flow of storytelling and creativity. That’s because these types of numeric rankings naturally suggest that there is such a thing as the “perfect record.” But what does a 10.0 rating or five out of five stars even mean? That the album is flawless? That everyone who listens to it thinks so, too? That’s very rarely the case, given that it all boils down to a matter of personal preference.
Music itself and the way it’s perceived is entirely subjective. A rating of 7.6 or three out of five stars doesn’t automatically brand the album as a subpar or mediocre piece of art. Maybe in the past it did, when music magazines were at their peak and a single review could make or break an artist’s career—the golden age of Rolling Stone. But that was before social media and before just about anyone could go online to declare their love or hate for just about anything. Whether an album is “good” or “bad” depends entirely on personal preference. You just can’t tell anyone how they should listen to music, much less what they should think of it. Today, numeric rankings are becoming increasingly irrelevant and, dare I say, increasingly unnecessary.
It goes without saying that artists, too, have their reservations about the practice. In 2020, pop singer Halsey tweeted a, poorly worded and now-deleted, response to Pitchfork’s 6.5 rating of Manic: “can the basement that they run p*tchfork out of just collapse already.” Setting aside the fact that the publication’s office is headquartered in One World Trade Center, Halsey’s sentiment towards the publication’s scathing rating process is one shared by many artists.
At their peak, the now-defunct rap collective BROCKHAMPTON was known for chanting “fuck Pitchfork!” at their shows after the publication rated 2017’s Saturation a 6.5. A large part of this disdain towards Pitchfork’s and other publications’ numeric rating system, for artists at least, is the fact that most music journalists lack musical experience. Artists posit that those who don’t know the ins and outs of the music industry or how to create music themselves have no real authority over its perception or rating.
“Everyone hears music different, so I don’t understand how music critics have jobs,” tweeted Tyler, the Creator in 2013. “Whether good or bad, it really baffles me.”
At its core, this is a valid argument. You simply can’t expect someone without a history of music production to offer a precise review of the latest album. But the real issue with numeric music reviews isn’t necessarily their written component—as we’ll discuss later, this is crucial to the development of pop culture. The issue is the numeric value attached to the review; it’s simply not fair to reduce an entire album to a single digit.
But perhaps this system is reflective of a much larger issue in the music industry, suggesting that the way mainstream media assigns value to music is ultimately flawed—music awards emphasize just that.
Most recently, the 65th Annual Grammy Awards faced criticism over their pick for the coveted Album of the Year award: Harry Styles’ Harry’s House over Beyoncé’s Renaissance. The whole debacle ultimately became a discussion about the awards’ legitimacy and fairness, with many believing that the Grammys are in the business of catering to charts and popularity rather than honoring the album with the greatest cultural significance, sophistication, and overall quality. Beyoncé’s loss was also representative of the awards’ continuous tendency to leave Black women out of the spotlight.
This is undoubtedly an issue surrounding the Grammys’ voting body, which consists of anonymous music industry professionals with their own subjective thoughts and voting methods. In other words, there’s no true holistic interpretation beyond the voters’ own expertise and, inevitably, their own biases. Yet, the category itself is highly contentious, because in assigning the title of Album of the Year the Grammys are placing the most value on only one of a long list of nominees. The award, though a great honor to any artist that receives it, is ultimately a reflection of the voters’ personal preference. Some believe Harry’s House deserved the title, others not so much. At the end of the day, the award itself—just like a numeric album rating—doesn’t define an album’s true value; that’s something only the individual can do.
None of this is to say that the issue with numeric music reviews applies to the concept of music journalism as a whole. On the contrary, music reviews without the numeric or star rating are essential to the creation and comprehension of pop culture.
The ideal music review is one that aims not to bind its subject to a designated value, but to meticulously digest the work’s themes and soundscape in a manner that is fair to the artist and the culture in which it was released. Critics have the crucial role of placing these albums in the context of today’s world, drawing on musical or historical precedent, and extrapolating the work’s influences to explain why the piece makes sense in today’s cultural contexts. All the while, the critic must remember to make their review accessible to readers by using language that is both elegant and simple to interpret.
But a case against the numeric music review isn’t a case against opinion. A music review is meant to, along with its contextual content, communicate an honest opinion of the work; that’s why they can be so thrilling to read. What did Pitchfork think of the biggest release of the season? Did NME love your favorite artist’s most recent album as much as you did, or were they unimpressed? What about Rolling Stone? We turn to the biggest music publications for their take on the latest drops not because we believe them to have the “correct opinion”—in music and art in general, no such thing exists—but because the people behind the words are just as big music enthusiasts as the people who read their work, and it’s interesting, entertaining even, to hear their eloquently-worded thoughts.
In conveying such opinions, music reviewers must remember to always be fair to the artist, treating and evaluating their work with the same level of care that went into creating it. But contorting opinions too heavily to avoid artist discontent is never the goal, honesty is. This means that a more critical review might just elicit a few words of rebuttal from their creators.
In 2019, indie-pop singer Lana Del Rey tweeted a passive aggressive response to NPR’s Ann Powers’ review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, in which Powers refers to Del Rey’s lyrics as “uncooked” and points out the singer’s “persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done.”
“Here’s a little sidenote on your piece – I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music,” Del Ray said in the tweet. “There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”
But Powers’ so called “stabs” at the singer weren’t so much attacks on her personally as they were small critiques within a larger, in-depth review that overall praised the album: “The album certainly boasts Del Rey's most artfully constructed narratives, extending the arc of apparent self-realization also evident in widely framed narratives that stood out on her previous album, Lust For Life.”
Numeric rating system aside, Pitchfork’s reviews have also garnered criticism due to their scathing nature. Whether the publication is being entirely fair towards the artist or not is certainly debatable, but there’s no doubt that its writers like to indulge in the frequent use of wordy quips: “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves,” the publication said at the start of their brutal 1.6 review of 2018’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Then again, this seems more of an issue with voice and tone rather than an issue with the concept of the review writing itself.
Given the amount of time that goes into creating an album, it's understandable that artists are precious about their work. But at the end of the day, a music critic is meant to be like an enthusiastic friend that provides you with insight about the artist and what their latest album sounds like, including what they honestly like or dislike about it. This does not make music critics the voice of reason when it comes to assigning value.
Music is a cherished art, an undeniable source of community and solace whose worth extends beyond the bounds of numeric rankings and awards. But perhaps the most beautiful thing about it is its ability to uniquely impact each one of its listeners. No two people will perceive the same song the same way, and even that initial perception has the ability to change and grow along with us. That experience is something you just can’t put a number on.