One of the criticisms levelled against bloggers by professional writers is that it gives every idiot a platform to air their ill-considered views. That’s undeniably true, but I fail to see why that’s a bad thing. The subtext of that view, of course, is that reviewing should be left to the professionals, who know what they’re doing. Well, whilst there might be a lot of absolute garbage amateur criticism written online, there are some real gems in there too. It should also be said that there’s an awful lot of rubbish written professionally too.
I’ve been “reviewing” things on here, books, gigs or films or whatever, since the very beginning. As this is my blog though, I’m under no obligation to do anything other than entertain myself: I don’t have a word-count; I don’t have to inform or criticise or do anything that I don’t want to do. I try not to be unfairly critical, but I’m hardly the BBC and I’m not answerable to anyone but myself. I have my own standards, but if I want to have a whine about how much I hate Matthew MacFadyen (a hard-line position that I have reluctantly been obliged to soften recently: his irritating voiceovers not quite negating my surprise at how much I enjoyed his performance as Darcy in Pride & Prejudice) then that’s up to me.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been the top link on the BBC website for “Being Human” for "blog buzz" (whatever that is). Remarkably, I’m still there, even though I was writing about the first episode in the new series and we’re now on episode 4… seriously people, hasn’t anyone else got anything to say? Over 1000 people have clicked that link through to read my mildly critical review of the start of the series. It wasn’t a TV review though: all I was doing was remarking how a programme I had once enjoyed very much seemed to have jumped the shark. As all those people came through – presumably fans of the programme – and read my post, I felt a little self-conscious. I stand by what I wrote, but nonetheless felt the judging eyes of the fanboys on my writing (although, in fact those who were kind enough to leave a comment were actually very supportive). I wasn’t setting out to put the knife into a programme that they loved, but I was very aware that everything I was reading about it elsewhere seemed to be uniform in its praise and it just seemed unrealistic to me. It’s a difficult balance to strike though, isn’t it? It’s easy to stick the knife in and it’s pretty easy to uncritically lavish praise… but the truth almost always lies somewhere in-between.
Over the last few months, I’ve been writing the odd music review for Leftlion (some of them are available here). It’s nothing too arduous: just the occasional 250 word review of stuff by local bands, but I’ve found it to be a very stimulating exercise (even when the house style is to “be nice” – if you don’t like something, then don’t review it). As well as the fact that I’m now writing to a word count, I’m almost always listening to something that I have never heard before by a band I know nothing about. Usually when you listen to a piece of music, your reaction to it is at least partially shaped by preconceived ideas that you have picked up, either through past listening experience or through something you might have read in the press or heard from a friend. When I listened to “Mylo Xyloto” for the first time, for example, I knew very well who Coldplay were and how their music has developed since “Yellow”, and I also had an idea of how the album had been received… with the stuff I’ve been reviewing for Leftlion, I’m basically on my own.
Well, not quite.
Facebook, MySpace and Twitter all usually offer clues, and a simple Google often reveals some kind of insight, whether that’s an album review, a gig review or maybe even an interview. Helpful though that is in offering a bit of context, when it comes to the music, I like to try and make up my own mind. It’s funny how even 250 words can feel like an ocean of space when you can’t think of how to get started…even if, usually, once I have got going, it’s almost never enough. (Look at this post as an example of how concise I usually am in my writing. If I ever do write a book, don’t expect it to be a short one.)
When the review list comes up, I usually just ask the music editor to assign me whatever he really wants someone to cover, although guitars by preference. This has worked out pretty well, and I’ve got a large range of different types of local bands: singer-songwriters, metal, punks, sunny 60s sunshine pop… and some properly good folk guitar work (that I actually knocked back: it was clearly brilliant, but I just didn’t have the frame of reference to do it justice).]
I’ve not really had any feedback on the reviews that I have done (and I keep meaning to collect them together and stick them up here somewhere so I’ve got them to hand), but it’s been a very rewarding experience just to put my headphones on and listen without (m)any preconceptions.