One of my favorite podcasts in the entire universe is Radiolab, a show based out of WNYC that features all sorts of stories about science, not to mention some of the snazziest editing and production I’ve heard anywhere, ever, in anything. They can turn the painfully boring stuff that used to make your mind wander in the direction of bludgeoning your high school chemistry teacher into riveting radio gold.
In January, they did a show about the bad side of human nature, and spent some time talking about an experiment that was done at Yale in which (long story short) a psychologist named Stanley Milgram tested how much pain people were willing to inflict on other people in the name of science. While, on the surface, the experiment showed how obedient people can be, one of the most interesting findings was that when a white-coat-wearing authority figure told reticent subjects that they had “no other choice” but to continue administering painful electroshocks, 100% of the people told them to stick the experiment where the sun don’t shine. People really, really don’t like being bossed around. I didn’t realize it until hearing about Milgram’s experiment, but I feel similarly about negative record reviews.
If I’m told an album totally sucks, or if a reviewer presents opinions on specific aspects of recordings as facts, I’ll usually go out of my way to find something in that piece of music to enjoy. This happened unconsciously yesterday when I read a tepid review of Florence + the Machine’s MTV Unplugged album. When talking about the album’s opening track, “Only If For A Night,” the reviewer applauded the absence of the electronic percussion that can be found on the original version of the song, citing the beat as one example of the overzealous production that plagued Florence’s previous effort, Ceremonials. Without even thinking about it, I went straight to Spotify to check the tune out, and damned if I didn’t dig that beat in relation to the rest of the song. I think I was programmed to like it after hearing something decidedly negative about it.
After all, musical appreciation is full of grey areas, and I don’t like being told in black and white terms what is unacceptable, just as no one in Milgram’s experiment wanted to be told that they had “no other choice” but to shock a stranger to death. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that harsh criticism has no value (ironically, I hadn’t listened to Ceremonials yet, and probably wouldn’t have listened to Ceremonials if it wasn’t for the derisive words about its production), and I admit the target I’m describing is especially small (maybe impossibly so) when the reviewer is writing on behalf of a larger organization and can’t frame the review as one person’s experience with the song/record/whatever. Ultimately, I think it’s all about tone. No matter how much knowledge or authority a critic wields, an opinion is still just that: an opinion. That’s mine, anyways.
See what you think of the beat in “Only If For A Night” below, and buy Ceremonials here. But only if… ya know… you want to… and stuff.