Oh My Stars

Recently, Robert Christgau weighed in the Maxim/Black Crowes dust-up. According to Maxim writer David Peisner, the piece was only supposed to be a preview, and it was his editors who placed the preview in the review section and attached the 2 1/2 stars (Alan Light at Rolling Stone gave it 3 1/2). You have to suspect that the Crowes and their label aren’t bummed that Peisner didn’t hear the whole album; they’re pissed at the mediocre grade, and if he – or his editors – had assigned a higher grade, we would probably never have heard a thing. After all, Peisner and Light said substantially similar things.

At OffBeat, we don’t do stars or rating scales because they sell out the writer. Writers work to try to say something interesting and nuanced, then have their words reduced to a grade. That grade makes it easier for readers to read or skip their reviews. I figure readers read the reviews of well-graded albums, albums by artists they’re interested, and bombs, because a kill review seems to fuel the writer’s creative juices. If my assumption is correct, it creates incentives for writers dealing with grading scales to inflate the grade. It’s fair for a writer to wonder if anybody will read their reviews of a C/2 star album, even if he or she hears a band finding its voice over the course of the disc?

Beyond that, there’s also the obvious problem with grading. Who can tell a 2 1/2 star album from a 3 1/2 star album? What does a 3 1/2 star ranking mean? Is a 3 1/2 star album going to be a 3 1/2 star album for every listener? Or, is the rating really telling me what I should think about the album? And if so, who thinks that and why?

When Christgau was the only writer applying grades – academic letter grades at that – I thought it was funny and loved the conceit. It also seemed integral to the review; now they’re ubiquitous, and they render the review superfluous. They may be beloved by advertisers – who are buying less ad space than ever – and by readers who don’t like to read – a market share I’m sometimes told I should think more about – but they don’t advance our dialogue about music at all.

… and who knew anybody read reviews in Maxim?