February 22, 2013

Is it time to rethink how we write reviews?

Is it time to rethink how we write reviews?

Tyler Hayes argues that the current review format is poorly suited for today:

There's several problems with reviews, of any kind, in general whether it be tech products or new music. You want to be first, you have to be first, but being first is the pitfall of any good review. Contrasted time is the killer feature missing from today's reviews. Being able to initially review an album, have people see it, and then at any point later add a second reaction to the music on top of your existing thoughts could be a powerful and interesting thing.

He suggests “visual music reviews” as a method for doing just that. A visual music review charts things like quality (“Is it a good song, a bad song, or somewhere in the middle?”) and intensity (“Is it a fast song, a slow song, a heavy and gritty song done at a slower pace?”), giving you an “at a glance” impression of the album. (Some examples can be seen on Graphing Music.) Presumably, you could compare two visual reviews of the same album made at different times to quickly see how the critic’s opinion has changed.

Visual reviews are an interesting idea, and I do like the concept of being able to mark your opinion of something over time, a progression which may be more difficult to show in a “traditional” format. However, one thing that’s missing from this quantitative format that a well-written review can provide is context (e.g., historical, cultural, aesthetic) for the thing being reviewed (i.e., its “behind the scenes” stories). This isn’t something that can be easily charted. And while such information may not necessarily change your opinion of the item being reviewed, it might help you to better understand it and its creators’ intentions.

A good example of this, for me, is Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation of Battle Royale. I liked the movie well enough after seeing it, but learning about Fukasaku’s life experiences — he worked in a munitions factory as a teenager during WWII, and later, had to dispose of his classmates’ corpses after an attack — gave the movie an added depth and dimension to consider. It helped me make better sense of what Fukasaku was trying to say through the movie.

I suspect that even if I hadn’t liked Battle Royale, that knowledge would’ve helped me better understand why Fukasaku made it, what attracted him to it, etc. It would’ve helped me avoid kneejerk reactions and ensure that if I was going to criticize the film, I would be able to do so thoughtfully, even empathetically. And that’s not nothing. At the very least, “behind the scenes” knowledge like that, despite not being measurable, can go a long way toward helping one speak more intelligently about music, movies, etc. Which is always a good thing.