The following blog comes from music journalist and Popjustice Editor Peter Robinson (pictured inset). Robinson’s article originally appeared in the Q4 2019 edition of quarterly magazine Music Business UK, which is available via subscription through here.
A little over a decade ago, when Twitter was still a place where it felt possible to hurl one’s thoughts into the ether without any sense that they might have Real World Ramifications, I tweeted my views on the latest single by US warbler Jordin Sparks. It was, shall we say, not quite up there with her 21st century cultural high water mark Battlefield.
Later that evening, from across the Atlantic, came a reply from the lady herself. “I can’t please everyone,” she wrote. She added: “:)” To which I thought: “Well, you can please everyone, because history has shown that you can release a song as good as Battlefield, and everyone was very pleased indeed with that.”
But there was something in her kind-hearted and magnanimous reply that’s stuck with me. The smiley suggested she was happy that the song would find an audience with her fans, but there was perhaps a hint of sadness in what preceded it.
What if she’d just given it her best shot, and she knew full well that the new song was no Battlefield? Was she resigned to this?
One thing we hear a lot from artists who receive bad reviews is that “opinions are like arseholes — everyone’s got one”. It’s always struck me as strange that this dismissal of the critic’s role seems only applicable to negative coverage, whereas the worthlessness of music criticism is mysteriously forgotten when a positive review is quoted and slapped on billboards across the land.
But in 2020 the role of the critic in breaking an artist is undoubtedly in decline. The decision this year to rename the BRIT Awards Critics’ Choice award to Rising Star is not insignificant: it’s a robust example of how the role of the critic has diminished for both artists and audiences.
“IN 2020 THE ROLE OF THE CRITIC IN BREAKING AN ARTIST IS UNDOUBTEDLY IN DECLINE.”
Critics are still important, but they’re not capital-i Important. If tweets and Insta stories are anything to go by, for artists the cover of New Music Friday seems more exciting than the cover of most publications.
To put it another way: if you were working on a new UK release, would you prefer the support of Britain’s five biggest music journalists, or the support of Britain’s one biggest streaming service editorial team?
As a sometime critic myself, I came to an unwelcome crossroads a few years ago when I arrived at one very simple four-word realisation. I should preface its grand unveiling, which will take place at the end of this paragraph, by suggesting that any music journalist reading this may want to look away now, because when the phrase dawned on me a few years ago it made my job six times harder. But if I have to live with its burden perhaps you should too. Anyway, the secret truth at the heart of almost all music is: Everyone’s Doing Their Best.
It’s hard to say why this revelation impacted me so deeply. Had I previously been under the impression that musicians were deliberately making terrible music, or simply being terrible at their jobs, just to annoy me?
But the more I thought about it the more I came to realise that most things are simply bad by accident. What are the perpetrators supposed to do? Sack the whole thing off immediately and retrain as tree surgeons? Of course not. They’ll chuck it out and hope for a decent response. Everyone has been doing their best.
I don’t want you to think I’m oblivious to the fact that there’s some top-level egregiousness taking place every day in the music industry from people whose true passions lie elsewhere, and I don’t think I’m being overly harsh when I state that anyone who submits their chosen team for an annual music industry football fans list should instantly be fired.
And, yes, there are plenty of people in our industry who are simply phoning it in.
To pick just one specific example, let’s consider Pitbull’s recent mauling of Toto’s Africa, which took the title Ocean To Ocean and was ludicrously shoehorned into DC’s cinematic salute to moistness, Aquaman. In the song Mr 305 declares himself to be “the lyric Great Gatsby” and goes on to prove his point by rhyming “Gatsby” with “Banksy” then, later on, “see” with “sea”.
The cut-and-shut nature of the song means there’s no pre-chorus, there’s no post-chorus, and there’s no middle eight. The whole thing’s done in less than two and a half minutes thanks to an ending so abrupt that the listener must only conclude that the studio was unexpectedly evacuated following a tipoff that the FBI would soon be executing a bust relating to Pitbull’s involvement in old rope laundering.
“IT’S AN ENDING SO ABRUPT THAT THE LISTENER MUST ONLY CONCLUDE THAT THE STUDIO WAS UNEXPECTEDLY EVACUATED FOLLOWING A TIPOFF THAT THE FBI WOULD SOON BE EXECUTING A BUST RELATING TO PITBULL’S INVOLVEMENT IN OLD ROPE LAUNDERING.”
I don’t think anyone over the age of three could encounter this pop artefact and find themselves capable of arguing with a straight face that anyone involved offered the song anything beyond the absolute bare minimum. I’d even suggest that Pitbull would require printed evidence of the studio booking, full expense receipts and an hour in regression therapy to stand a chance of even remembering recording it.
I mean, I have to admit that the song’s absolutely fucking brilliant so I fear I may be losing sight of my original point, which is that a will-this-do release of this nature is the exception, rather than the rule.
Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is an album whose legacy is perhaps best summarised by the fact that Gaga recently went viral by tweeting that she didn’t even remember it, but she and the rest of us must remember that at the time she was doing her best, and everyone on her team was doing the same.
In more cases than we might care to admit, everyone along the line, from artist to producer to product manager to socials team, will have given something their best shot.
Stroll around any label, management company or recording studio today and you’ll find people who are doing their best. Often everyone involved will know that the resulting song will be creatively underwhelming and artistically unsatisfying. Sometimes, it’ll be both at once. And that’ll all be forgotten when it hits 200m streams.