The joys of not being a music critic

What are the qualities that are desirable in a music critic (or a movie critic, or video games reviewer, or book reviewer)?

Generally, the very first thing we want is that they review music that we have a chance of listening to. Maybe we’re considering whether to buy some music, and need some help to make a decision. Or we’re looking around to discover new music that we might like. Or we’re already listening to the music and want to reflect on the qualities of that music.

That means that we want music critics who like some of the same music we like. And since music critics usually wish to reach a sizeable audience, that means music critics have to like a lot of different things. Their tastes should be eclectic. Or, if a critic’s tastes are more particular, there needs to be an easy way to match them up with an audience with similar tastes. Music genres usually fulfill this purpose. For instance, if a reviewer only really likes post-rock, they can advertise themselves as a critic of post-rock.

We also have a lot of values related to the biases of a music critic. We want a music critic to be somewhat biased towards the music, but not too biased. For instance, most people don’t like post-rock. But does that mean that the genre should always get negative reviews? If you don’t like post-rock, you don’t really need a reviewer to tell you that, so the review is written more for people who at least have a chance of enjoying it.

On the other hand, when reviewers are too biased towards music, this is also uninformative. There are a lot of amateur reviews I don’t trust because they seem to be written by people who don’t otherwise write reviews, but wrote something for this one album or artist that they really love. If reviews only ever get written by the most passionate fans, then glowing reviews are a given.

Thus, most reviews seem to hover in a compressed range of 6 to 9 out of 10. Everything is above average.

The funny thing is, how much of music out there do you actually listen to? For casual listeners, there’s way too much, even after narrowing it down to one genre. If I were to rate music based on my personal enjoyment, only a small fraction of music would earn high ratings, because “only a small fraction” is already too much to ever get around to listening to.

There are many advantages to being a casual listener who isn’t constrained in the same way as a music critic. There isn’t really any reason why my tastes need to be eclectic, nor do they need to stay confined to an easily recognizable genre. I don’t need to be “fair” in my opinions. I don’t need to walk any fine line between being too biased and too unbiased. I also don’t need to recognize any “classics” just because they’re popular or because they have historical significance.

In mathematics, there’s something called the “friendship paradox“, where on average your friends have more friends than you do. Likewise, when you follow someone, be it a music critic, or a critic of any other type of media, on average they have more followers than you do. I think we often use these respected critics as models of good taste. So “good taste” in music means being eclectic, not too biased, and rating nearly everything somewhere between 6 and 9. It’s easy to forget that none of these qualities are actually necessary or desirable in the casual consumer. You can just enjoy what you enjoy without trying to perform for an audience you don’t have.

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