Overrated? Find a Better Criticism

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It’s an inevitable turn in the conversation about any work in music, film, or literature that has been greeted with approbation by critics or fans. Sooner or later someone will say or – far more likely these days – post, “Am I the only who thinks ‘x’ is totally overrated?” No, you are not. There are always plenty of compatriots prepared to cry out their judgement that the celebrated artist of the moment is in fact a monarch marching through the streets without a stitch to cover his sagging buttocks. Good for you. Now, knock it off and find more meaningful ways to discuss music and culture.

My dislike for the idea of “overrating” begins with its vagueness of as a critique. There is endless variation in who is doing the rating and the form their appreciation takes depending on the specific work in question. The discussion that prompted this piece focused on the new album from Khemmis, Hunted. There’s no doubt that this record has been well-received by many in this blog’s community and also by publications like Decibel, who named it album of the year. However, other indications suggest the Denver doom band is a long way off from the kind of crossover success that groups like Grammy-winners Ghost, iPhone and sunglasses aficionados Deafheaven, or even past doom darlings Pallbearer have discovered in recent years. The band still has well under 10,000 followers on Facebook, and the review from the tastemaking bastion Pitchfork was positive but not glowing.

So, at what point does an album go from being generally well-received by metal fans to being highly considered enough to warrant a backlash? And when the “conventional wisdom” you’re striking out against is narrowly limited to the portion of the world population who are passionate about heavy music in general and doom metal in particular, why even bother? Each week brings new releases, and there’s a good chance the ambient drone black metal or technical goregrind masterpiece you’ve been waiting for will be among them.

If you were so little moved by the beloved record of last week that you can only muster a one-word declaration of its unworthiness, it’s probably better to just move on. Different albums appeal to different people for different reasons. Inquisition are either a powerful cosmic horror extrapolation of thrashy black metal or Immortal wannabes with dangerous political sympathies and a frog for a singer. Nails are a tightly focused unit delivering a concise metallic hardcore pounding without the frills or self-important knuckle draggers who can’t be bothered to write entire songs or enough music for a proper full-length. And so on.

That said, even if we’re talking about an album widely regarded as a classic, “overrated” is an exceptionally weak criticism. Sure, question whether the early Venom was a raw, Satanic good time or just the half-assed product of ineptitude that could have come from any stoned teenager’s garage. Argue that Reign in Blood lacks dynamic variation and most of the songs are not fully formed enough to fulfill the promise of the masterpieces bookending the tracklist. Claim that Metallica’s first four albums were never that great and thrash would have been better off with Exodus, Testament, and Anthrax as the leading lights of the movement. These kinds of discussions can be interesting and cause us to reevaluate our thinking on ideas like creativity and influence. They also require you to go beyond pooh-poohing how other people feel about those records and start making strong assertions in regard to what makes them worthwhile or not.

Because above all, my problem with calling things overrated lies in the fact that it is a deeply lazy excuse for criticism. Rather than engaging with a work of art on its particular intentions and merits, one can simply dismiss it. In the process, the critic privileges his or her own elite aesthetic understanding over that of the vulgar unwashed who have been taken in by inferior product. There is no need to give the overrated work extended attention, for its popularity or critical acclaim has been revealed as mere hype.

But the fact you personally failed to see the appeal of an album that cost you 45 minutes of listening to a free stream while playing video games is not much of a statement. Nor is your declaration that you did not enjoy something as much as other people a sign your perception is necessarily superior to others. Most of us realize this intellectually, but it does not stop many from presenting opinions in such a categorical manner, showing an inherent disespect for the critical judgment of every single person who found pleasure or emotional connection in the work by displaying a refusal to even offer serious objections.

Of course, that’s partly a matter of convenience. It’s a whole lot quicker and easier to type a single sentence than whole paragraphs of analysis. But trust me, the world is not so desperate for your opinions that we need you to pump out a summation of your feelings as immediately as possible. We can wait for you to present fully formed thoughts, or not hear from you at all. It will be all right, losing only a few moments of irritation for the people who have been listening to an album repeatedly and absorbing its nuances.

Since I was assigned to write this post, our Great Orange Overlord responded to his homophobic lackey’s poor reception at a performance of Hamilton (and to the need to distract from the various scandals already mounting around his clusterfuck of a transition) by attacking the show itself. Did he question the quality of the tunes or whether portraying dead white guys with actors of color and hip hop-influenced music really has any impact on a history of racial iniquity? Of course not. He said he had heard the musical was “highly overrated.” How much impact do you think this judgement will have on the people participating in lotteries for a chance to have crappy seats to catch a live performance after listening to the soundtrack for months? I’m guessing not much. It’s a meaningless criticism that convinces no one – even if it comes from someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about.

Okay, let’s head to the comments, where you can tell me why my opinions and writing are overrated. But maybe when the temptation strikes again to lazily piss in the general direction of the next Greatest Album in Metal and feel above the rubes, at least consider giving your opening gambit for discussion further consideration. We’re all a part of keeping niche art alive, even as it’s propped up by a failing record industry, so we might as well make our conversations about that art better and more rewarding for everyone.

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