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Thread: 4 Stars (or: The reviewing of art vs. the art of reviewing)

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    Default 4 Stars (or: The reviewing of art vs. the art of reviewing)

    Right, I said in the 'Is Dissensus dead? thread that new threads were in order, so let's have it.

    I like reading reviews of things. Music, films, books, theatre, videogames, restaurants, whatever - I lap them up. (I seem to recall devouring issues of Which? magazine whilst awaiting dentistry.) Reviews are a good idea - you can't possibly hope to keep abreast of every new thing that comes about in any given field, but someone will have seen/heard/watched/eaten it, and if they can get their thoughts down eloquently then you can choose to investigate further or ignore the thing in question.

    A good review should present you with both facts and opinion, and ultimately allow you to make an informed decision whether the thing will be of interest - even if they've slated it, the descriptive/facts-based part of the review ought to be enough for you to judge (allowing for your own personal taste). But I find that reviews are getting worse and worse these days, for a number of reasons:

    Ratings. I can accept this for something like hotels (or McDonalds staff), because there are clear and discrete criteria that have to be met to achieve each star ranking. Fair enough. But the need for a score out of 5 (or 10) for films, games or music baffles me. What is a 4/5 album? Is there a definitive yardstick against which the thing you're reviewing can be measured, thus ensuring it is a 4? No. I strongly dislike the application of an abstract, non-tangible measure to reviews - not only do they absolve the lazy from reading the actual meat of the review (the text) but it contributes to the Metacritic-driven monetization of review-based pay and bonus. (If you're not familiar with Metacritic, I'll come back to it another time, but it is an 'aggregator' and is ostensibly a good idea but is actually horrific.)

    Also, ratings would be better if anyone actually used the scale in any meaningful way. I stopped getting Muzik magazine because, although they used a 5-point scale (six if you include giving things zero), nothing ever got less than 3/5, and therefore I never knew how to differentiate between records. If you're pretending everything's average to good, what is the point? (Presumably so as not to offend anyone in the 'scene' and ensure you keep getting sent free promos.) There are a few honourable exceptions when it comes to using the full range (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian springs to mind, as does Swells (RIP)), but not many.

    Consensus. Why is this thread called '4 Stars'? Because that is the default setting of nearly all reviewers, in any industry. Look at almost any promo poster for a film - it's littered with 4 star 'reviews' (in fact just the "****" and the name of the 'journalist'). Yes, obviously the distributor isn't going to proudly trumpet 1-star reviews, but there genuinely aren't any - everyone gives everything the same rating. But not only that, they give the same review. It is usually a regurgitated press release with, at best, a paragraph of 'opinion' at the end.

    So why the hegemony of 4 stars? I think it's fairly simple: most reviewers are in collusion with their respective industry to sell tickets or downloads or whatever. Nearly all publications and websites are reliant on the generosity and/or advertising of their respective industry to ensure they actually get to review the thing before the public gets access to it. Film reviewers get preview screenings, music mags get promo CDs, etc. As above, the public are used to everyone marking from 3/5 upwards - 3 stars is effectively the minimum score. 4 stars implies better than average, enough to make the public think "oh, that's probably ok then". Giving 3 stars will piss off the distributor, who will subsequently remove you from their mailing list, or stop inviting you to previews, or other restaurants in their chain; or worse, stop advertising with you, meaning you can't afford to publish. (Even if you do give poor reviews, the vast majority of sales (film tickets, CDs, games) are in the first week of release, so by taking you out of the chain, any subsequent reviews of yours which slate the company's thing aren't in the public domain until after the thing's release, so the negative impact on sales is minimised.) Therefore the ubiquity of 4 stars - enough to tempt the public, enough to satisfy the industry, enough for the reviewer to keep their job and stay on the freebies list. It's a pretty open secret that nearly all the staff of a certain videogames magazine walked out when their publisher agreed, in return for exclusive advertising, that no games from a certain company could be given less than 7/10. Many mags and websites, of course, agree to deals like these - if you want to get upfront coverage, glowing reviews of their previous output is going to help. Beware anything which says 'Exclusive!' on it - 'compromised' is more accurate.

    Hedging. The reviewers are trying to second-guess their audience, and not giving their own opinion, but rather what they think the audience expects (based on a mix of hype, previous iterations of the series, reputation, etc). For instance, the NME (yeah, I know, but it's a good example) gave the second Strokes album a gushing review and 10/10, because at the time they were hugely popular, on the cover most weeks and basically selling the mag single-handedly. Their readers loved the band, so obviously the album was great, wasn't it? Nope. Their career nosedived and it is the scourge of bargain bins everywhere. Staff of that era have quietly admitted to being lenient on it for fear of a backlash. Other examples would be the near-universal praise for Driver 3 (videogame-wise) and Star Wars: Phantom Menace (film-wise) - they were the next in hugely popular and successful franchises, the audiences were expecting them to be good, why confound them? Hmm, because it's your job as a reviewer to be accurate and honest, perhaps? Gits.

    Cliché. This pisses me off no end. Any review containing any of the following phrases is basically shorthand for "I've given this only the most cursory amount of my time and have chucked out the required word-count as fast as I can, and am now hanging around waiting to get paid." Again, in order to stay on the freebie list and go drinking with PR people, reviewers are prone to saying things like:

    "On acid" = this is beyond my frame of reference and I haven't the vocabulary or imagination to describe it. It might be a bit 'wacky', too.

    "If you liked X, you'll like this too" = I hated this but don't want to say so, so to avoid giving a critical opinion, I'll just make a lazy comparison instead.

    "It's like X crossed with Y" = ditto, but I not only hated it, I didn't really understand it.

    "Great for fans of this style" = mind-fuckingly average.

    "A real improvement over the last one" = which I managed to fob off onto a colleague so I didn't have to slag it.


    I'm aware I have generalised here quite substantially, but I believe the above to be largely true of both mainstream and specialist media. I think this is particularly endemic on the internet, because there is no cover price to make up for lost advertising, but it does get everywhere. Obviously there are some journos on Dissensus, and I'd be interested to hear your opinions especially, but anyone's thoughts on this matter would be welcome.

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    this may sound conventional, but isn't any opinion compromised to some extent and isn't that to be expected? there is always money and proximity to other people compromising opinion. there has to be financing and human affection for these things to be made in the first place, why would there not be in the review process? things are always seen from an angle, never judged in an ideal void according to ideal parameters. it is clear that two stars does not mean the same thing in all contexts, it will mean something different from magazine to magazine and within these from reviewer to reviewer. it is up to us to read between lines or choose the appropriate venue(s) to receive an opinion about something. also, stars and visual cues are meant to supplement written opinion, they are graphic markers that mean something within a particular system, nothing more. i would end by saying that there are almost endless venues and people one can get opinions from, and that it's not necessary to have one true opinion, there can be several.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ulala View Post
    Consensus. Why is this thread called '4 Stars'? Because that is the default setting of nearly all reviewers, in any industry. Look at almost any promo poster for a film - it's littered with 4 star 'reviews' (in fact just the "****" and the name of the 'journalist'). Yes, obviously the distributor isn't going to proudly trumpet 1-star reviews, but there genuinely aren't any - everyone gives everything the same rating. But not only that, they give the same review. It is usually a regurgitated press release with, at best, a paragraph of 'opinion' at the end.
    You've made lots of good points, but don't exactly help your case by resorting to clichés about "regurgitated press release". Film posters are irrelevant for the reasons you'e outlined, and review gradings generally take in a pretty wide range of scores (as a glimpse at the demon Metacritic will confirm).

    It's a pretty open secret that nearly all the staff of a certain videogames magazine walked out when their publisher agreed, in return for exclusive advertising, that no games from a certain company could be given less than 7/10.
    NAME AND SHAME!


    Hedging. The reviewers are trying to second-guess their audience, and not giving their own opinion, but rather what they think the audience expects (based on a mix of hype, previous iterations of the series, reputation, etc). For instance, the NME (yeah, I know, but it's a good example) gave the second Strokes album a gushing review and 10/10, because at the time they were hugely popular, on the cover most weeks and basically selling the mag single-handedly. Their readers loved the band, so obviously the album was great, wasn't it? Nope. Their career nosedived and it is the scourge of bargain bins everywhere. Staff of that era have quietly admitted to being lenient on it for fear of a backlash. Other examples would be the near-universal praise for Driver 3 (videogame-wise) and Star Wars: Phantom Menace (film-wise) - they were the next in hugely popular and successful franchises, the audiences were expecting them to be good, why confound them? Hmm, because it's your job as a reviewer to be accurate and honest, perhaps? Gits.
    This, alongside the advertising issue you've already flagged up, is important. It's
    partly a consequence of the po-mo, anti-elitist posturing of recent decades that holds everything to be the equal of everything else. It's also a product of increased competition - the fabled NME era that people still hark back to (punk--->till [insert your own cut-off point]) was forged at a time when people had to buy music mags to read about music. And even then, once the punk dust had settled, they still steadily lost sales. Conclusion: a lot of us who are convinced readers are rational enough not to take grave offence when their favourite bands are slagged in their favourite mags are flattering the majority of readers. Since then, most are much more careful about who they stick the boot into. As Alexis Petridis said recently, one mag is clearly engaged in second-guessing its readers with every review they write. He was talking about Q, of course.

    On the other hand, I've written for one mag for 8 years and have never once been told what to write. Interestingly, they don't have gradings. Maybe there's a connection.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ulala View Post

    Also, ratings would be better if anyone actually used the scale in any meaningful way. I stopped getting Muzik magazine because, although they used a 5-point scale (six if you include giving things zero), nothing ever got less than 3/5, and therefore I never knew how to differentiate between records.
    Muzik in particular and dance mags in general suffered horrendously from insiderism. Half the reviewers were DJs/producers/label managers/promoters, and so objective opinion was damn near impossible. At least most of the NME guys had realised by the time they got far that writing was their metier.

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    Cheers for your thoughts, Crackerjack/Bruno.

    Crackerjack - I suppose the 'recycled press release' line was going a bit far, you're right, but I do find most reviews (particularly of films) spend 80% of their time detailing the cast, plot, director, etc, and then finish with "...and it's great!", or perhaps complimenting one particular actor on their performance. I accept that a lot of punters choose which films to see on the basis of the actors therein - hence Adam Sandler's ridiculous earning potential - but all those facts can be easily gleaned from scanning the credits or the accompanying notes, so I question how much time goes into these reviews, over and above watching the film.

    I'm aware not everyone here is a fan of videogames, but the publications in that field are even worse - endless plot regurgitation (when the plot usually amounts to: it's the future/WW2. You shoot things), tedious technical details (frame-rates, polygon counts) and little or no critical content, yet still the 4/5s and 8/10s are handed out freely. I think, more than any other field, games reviewers are not, primarily, writers - they are good at playing games and love games, but see reviewing as a stepping-stone to working in the industry. By being nice to PR guys and giving their 'product' glowing yet vague praise, they're in line for a nice PR job when it comes up. Also, the main thrust of these magazines is the reviews - they are glorified buying guides, whereas in other industries, there are more features and interviews for journalists to get stuck into, and the reviews perhaps take less precedence.

    The magazine in question re: the mass walkout was Edge, I'm told by someone who worked for Future at the time. Because they have a house 'style' and writers aren't credited with individual pieces, it wasn't readily apparent, but a scan of the credits column (flannel panel?) from one issue to the next revealed wholesale changes to the staff.

    Bruno - I do agree that no review takes place in a vacuum, and I think having a vested interest in the field is fine - you wouldn't give the new Slayer album to your jazz reviewer, for instance - but I worry that commercial pressures no longer allow the reviewer to even have an opinion as such, merely acting as a part of the marketing process. Obviously smaller independent publications and websites circumvent this but are these read by many people? I tend to rely largely on recommendations by friends or on Dissensus, which is fine, but I used to devour the reviews in music, film and games magazines as a youth, and it disappoints me that I can't any more as nowadays they all seem to toe the line of 4 stars/little critical content, for fear of losing the precious advertising income. Reduced advertising leads to higher cover prices and thus fewer readers for print publications, and non-subscription websites rely entirely on ad revenue or sponsorship to survive.

    As you rightly state, the score is supposed to supplement the text of the review, but I think many people simply don't read the text, and therefore why should the reviewer spend any great time on it? It's telling that crackerjack says he is under no editorial pressure because his publication doesn't use gradings, therefore the reader HAS to study the text, thus gleaning actual insight into the thing being reviewed. This is what I want to do, but I tend to think in many cases the rating comes first (to appease advertisers, editors, punters) and the text is an afterthought.

    Is anyone able to recommend some good sites or mags for reviews? I like Nick Gillett in the Guardian Guide for videogames (though he doesn't get much space) and I always used to rate Jockey Slut for music, but these days I struggle. I should probably check Woofah, right? As for films and books, I really would like to see and read more than I do, but I can't afford to punt £10 on something without some idea I might like it. So I end up resorting to older things that friends have recommended, and the new releases get ignored. Point me in the direction of good reviews - perhaps you write them yourself?

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    Oh, and to add to my list of clichés: if anyone refers to the thing they're reviewing as a 'product', you are entitled to disregard everything they say. 'Product' should only be used in a mathematical or chemical context. (Or maybe with reference to, I dunno, bleach or something.) A DVD, book, 12" record or CD is not a product, you horrendous shitehawk, have some romantic attachment to the result of someone's creative efforts, for gawd's sake.

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    I'm surprised ultra-opinionated reiews haven't made more of a comeback now that advertisers are looking at page views.

    After all, controversial review = more comments = more hits = more ad £££. Or so you'd think. Certainly that's how the Telegraph see it - according to the recent P Eye, they review their bloggers' hit-rates monthly, and if one appears in the bottom quarter for a whole quarter, then they get the elbow. Delingpole is always top "because he's so batshit crazy". (Which reminds me, I must learn how to use that thing that lets you link to nutsites w/o driving up their traffic.)

    Maybe people just aren't that bothered about other people's opinions on music anymore.
    Last edited by crackerjack; 29-08-2011 at 01:52 PM.

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    Great post, Ulala. You've articulated nicely some of the things I think in a much more basic way when I see an advert for, say, the Smurfs film, gleefully pimping the four-star reviews it garnered in such august publication as News of the World or the Mail on Sunday. I mean seriously, who the fuck is actually to going enjoy a film like that, bar a few none-too-bright young kids with a touch too much ADHD to sit through anything else, or people who consume their bodyweight in cannabis on a daily basis?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ulala View Post
    "On acid" = this is beyond my frame of reference and I haven't the vocabulary or imagination to describe it. It might be a bit 'wacky', too.
    This one is a particular bugbear of mine. It made for a great Stuart Lee/Richard Herring sketch, though - "Normal Wisdom on acid":



    Another all-time unfavourite reviewer cliche: the dreaded 'recipe' review - "Take [writer/director/artist X], add a shake of [writer/director/artist Y]..." etc. Though I guess this is just a slightly more elaborate version of the "cross between [X] and [Y]" formula.
    Last edited by Mr. Tea; 29-08-2011 at 06:23 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    Another all-time unfavourite reviewer cliche: the dreaded 'recipe' reviews - "Take [writer/director/artist X], add a shake of [writer/director/artist Y]..." etc. Though I guess this is just a slightly more elaborate version of the "cross between [X] and [Y]" formula.
    food metaphors/analogies should be banned from arts writing, full stop.

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    i think 3 stars are the real hegemony. its a safe score. neither too high nor too low. in short meaningless and helps you draw no useful conclusions. bang in the middle of the road basically, makes it hard to draw any real critical battle lines, cos everythings 'okay' in the end. i think i see 3 more than 4 or 2.

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    Years ago when I used to read PC Gamer fairly regularly I enjoyed reading the reviews of games that got very high scores, especially in genres I liked to play, but they weren't half as entertaining as the reviews of games that scored < 50%. The magazine had (presumably still has) quite a neat practice whereby each game they reviewed would be summed up by a single word, printed in large type so you could see it as soon as you glanced at the piece, that was both relevant to the game and summed up how the reviewer felt about it. For instance, the first Quake was called 'rocking', the second one 'seismic', that sort of thing. Anyway, they once rated an incredibly dull and pretentious sci-fi RPG called Ring (a 'space opera' loosely based on Wagner's Ring cycle, apparently) at about 40%, and the summing-up word was 'piece'.

    The writing was pretty good too and if they didn't like a game, they didn't mince their words when telling you why. I remember one "children's" game that came out on a budget label; it got about 3% and the review ended: "The pubishers of [whatever] describe the game as "fun for all the family". That's the Manson Family, presumably. For ten quid an armful of smack would do you less harm than this abomination".
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ulala View Post
    Obviously smaller independent publications and websites circumvent this
    if anything a small venue is even more entwined with the people who create the stuff that is reviewed, there is more incentive to support that network and less to see things objectively, very incestuous. at the same time, people with a shared mission or sensibility will see nuances in the stuff that others will not. oddly, mr. tea's pc gamer might be on better footing to review impartially as developers can't afford not to submit their games for review. but gaming is also a very lucrative industry in contrast with the music industry which by all accounts is in decline.

    these are also very difficult times for anyone selling anything non-essential, this would make someone intending to recover investment in a recording, for example, much more aggressive in marketing and cultivating relationships, much more likely to go to another venue if things do not pan out. i would imagine this and a sense of shared fate puts a lot of pressure on reviewers. incidentally, i am not a writer or journalist and read very little music reviews, and am partly responsible for the state of music as i haven't bought a cd in ages (i do buy books, however).
    Last edited by bruno; 30-08-2011 at 12:30 AM.

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    I used to read Terrorizer magazine avidly as a youngster but stopped when I noticed previews of upcoming albums were basically paid-for press releases, writing such as 'will divide opinions' and 'this band doesn't follow the rules' usually meant that the reviewer hated the album but was not allowed to express such opinions.

    slight deviation form the topic at hand I know but I despise the Sight & Sound reviews because they tell you the bloody whole synopsis of the plot in the review! You can't help but read it and then it spoils the whole film for you when you watch it. I guess I have no self control
    rap game hard but the dope game crazy

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    Speaking of metal magazines, one of the worst cliches going in that particular milieu is the review that contains some variation on "this album will make you shit your pants!!!". No, it won't. No album will do that. Well, maybe if you were to put a Strapping Young Lad CD in the stereo, pause a song halfway through, turn up the volume really loud and then press play when someone else was in the room who hadn't notice the stereo was on. And they really badly needed a shit anyway, having consumed a vindaloo and a gallon of Guinness the night before. But in all honesty, a Britney Spears album would probably work just as well.

    Could also work if you gave someone a heavy dose of psychedelics and then subjected them to Throbbing Gristle's 'Hamburger Lady' on headphones, but now we're almost back to "[X] is like [Y] on acid"...
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    Today everybody is a reviewer, blogs and social networks, on amazon, all these review sites like yelp and epinion (the reviews on these sites are almost a bizarre literary genre) - reviews in magazines are just another bit of information in a grey area between opinion and promotion. I have heard several times from label people that a review usually doesn't affect sales at all, nobody really cares. I guess that doesn't help to encourage writers to write good reviews.

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