One of the greatest albums reviews I’ve ever read begins by citing and then disputing this hell of a quote: “Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.” That gem came from Ted Gioia of the Daily Beast who was raging against what he saw as the machine of his day, namely the celebrity-gossip industrial machine. In quoting Gioia, Steven Hyden made the salient point that, whatever ills were plaguing music criticism, the solution was certainly not “less jokes, more guitar tablatures.”
Full disclosure: I have been (extremely) guilty of the pedantry that Hyden rightly takes up arms against. He’s right, though, especially in the age of streaming. If you’re writing about music at a time when any album can be accessed in less time than it takes to read a tweet recommending it, then you’d better have something to say that offers more than a recap of a song that your readers would likely rather be listening to. For many, that something matches the definition that Hyden and Gioia share: “lifestyle reporting” as reporting on the lifestyles of the artists in question—what they’re wearing, who they’re sleeping with, how they’re recovering.
I support the idea of lifestyle reporting, but I’m not terribly concerned with the dramatics of those who make my favorite records. I want to hear lifestyle reporting on the other people who love the records that I love. Because the most interesting thing about an album isn’t who made it, it’s who loves it and why. So give me analysis, not description. The songs are right there, begging to be heard, so I don’t need them to be described to me. The best music reviews provide analysis: Don’t just tell me that there was a key change in the chorus, tell me why that key change mattered, what it meant or how it made you feel. What story does it tell? Is that story hidden in the song’s staves or maybe in your memories of hearing it for the first time? I want to hear why you love the albums you love, what memories they’re intractably bound to, what life-changing actions they inspired. I want to know what you read between the lines, what unvoiced harmonies you’ve heard and can’t forget, what the album communicates to you outside of its tempo and meter and key.
Great reviews make you understand why the author had an emotional response to an album and maybe even make you feel those emotions too. Tell me what you’ve found hiding inside an album or, more excitingly, tell me what it released that had been hiding inside of you. That’s my kind of lifestyle reporting.