Humans crave approval. For some musicians, this may be in the form of commercial success, sold–out global tours, or widespread media attention. For other artists and a select group of fans, appreciation comes in the form of overly favorable reviews. Publications such as Rolling Stone and Spin have reviewed and rated albums for decades, and some seek validation for their accomplishments through their approval. Good scores can lead to bragging rights and appearances on Grammy campaigns, while a poorer reception can cause an artist to find new inspiration in their music. Although these reviews have been a staple in the music industry, the purpose they serve now is flawed and inconsistent.
Arguably the most prominent music review site, Pitchfork has developed a dedicated fanbase. They have a certain air of credibility that exceeds their competitors. Over the years, however, Pitchfork has shifted away from its former role as indie music connoisseur to more of an eclectic culture publication. After its takeover in 2015 by Condé Nast which also owns Bon Appétit and Vogue, Pitchfork focused more on its image rather than its scores. They started to embrace mainstream artists including Taylor Swift, whose work was noticeably absent from the website’s wide array of discographies.
There was an even more dramatic change when Pitchfork reviewed Peppa Pig’s Peppa’s Adventures: The Album just a few months ago. Given that the author compares the tracks “Recycling” and “Bing Bong Champion” to the defining works of Fiona Apple and Swift, the review was clearly not meant to be taken seriously. But like all other reviews from Pitchfork, it was given a numerical score: 6.5, a relatively low score for Pitchfork’s standards. This still places Peppa’s work higher than Weezer’s OK Human and Madison Beer’s Life Support, two albums released this year that had much more artistic inspiration. When looking at scores from the past, the comparisons become even more ridiculous; Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die scored a 5.5, Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile scored a 2.0, and The Strokes’ The New Abnormal scored a 5.7. If these scores really do reflect Pitchfork’s self–described reputation as the “most trusted voice in music,” then that would be a massive blow to the artists who worked hard on their albums only to be placed below Peppa.
This inconsistency comes in part from discussing the artist and trying to match the current narrative surrounding them. When it comes to someone like Kanye West, it’s difficult to avoid the controversies when they play a direct role in his persona. Reviews of Donda mentioned his past and the inclusion of Marilyn Manson, which sometimes led to an automatic zero stars. But other artists like Lorde, who spent years away from music, have also been subjected to intense scrutiny which is shifted away from the album.
Critics saw her new release Solar Power as a substantial downgrade from her sophomore album Melodrama, one of the most acclaimed albums of all time. Most of the criticism wasn’t even directly attached to her; it was attributed to Jack Antonoff, whose collaborations oversaturate the pop market. This appeal to the conversation around an artist can lead to review discrepancies. Lana was originally disliked by the indie community leading to a mixed reception for Born to Die, but after her monumental Norman Fucking Rockwell!, both Born to Die and her past discography have received retroactive acclaim.
Other music publications have undergone a similar, albeit less noticeable, shift. With the exception of already–shunned artists, mostly negative reviews have all but disappeared; instead, the publications don’t write one at all. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dan Ozzi of VICE said that “it’s actually news at this point when an album does get a bad review.” Therefore, it’s not surprising to see only “eight out of 7287 albums” receive a red score on Metacritic, a website that aggregates reviews for music and other forms of entertainment. Part of this change can be attributed to the dying trend of print and digital magazines. To prevent alienating their audience, publications are more unlikely to call albums “trainwrecks” or music for “open mic nights of deepest hell” for fear that they’ll get called out. Now that anyone can be an informal critic on social media, negative reviews bring only unwanted attention that can threaten a website’s integrity.
Additionally, artists who have previously been offended with their scores have directly called them out. After Halsey was disappointed with Pitchfork’s score for their album Manic, they posted a now–deleted Tweet that said, “can the basement that they run p*tchfork out of just collapse already.” When popular YouTube critic Anthony Fantano gave Isaiah Rashad’s The House is Burning a five out of ten, Rashad responded by claiming that Fantano was “hate bombing” and an example of “poor journalism.”
Halsey and Rashad aren’t alone in their frustrations. Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Nicki Minaj have also expressed their disapproval, which has sometimes led fans to take matters to the extreme. After Pitchfork gave an 8.0 to Swift’s folklore, a score that is on the upper echelon of Pitchfork’s scale, Swift’s fans were not pleased. Because it didn’t match up to the 100s and 90s folklore had received previously by reviewers, the album’s score on Metacritic dropped one point to 89—a number that still placed folklore in the top twenty albums of 2020. Swifties were furious, leading to death threats, doxing, and angry phone calls even after author Jillian Mapes praised folklore for its “cinematic love song and rich fictional details.”
Music is subjective. One person might listen to songs for their lyrics while another listener might focus on the intricate production. Each genre also requires its own unique talents; artists who can churn out Top 40 radio hits need a good ear for catchy pop hooks, while musicians who are into more stripped–back folk music are likely to be emotive and talented storytellers. A bad score represents one critic’s opinion on an album, but only the creator truly understands the stories they tell and the feelings that exist behind each song. Music reviews are interfering with one of music’s true purposes: to share and appreciate the narratives of artists.