Kill the Number: The Death of, and Alternatives to, Review Scoring

Editorial disclaimer: the subject of review scores and what to do with them is one which is hotly debated behind scenes. Our editorial body has had several discussions about it,

8 years ago

Editorial disclaimer: the subject of review scores and what to do with them is one which is hotly debated behind scenes. Our editorial body has had several discussions about it, as recently as last month, and still hasn’t come to a unanimous decision. It’s a divisive topic; opinions and good points exist on both sides. One of the platforms for this discussion is the blog itself and you may consider this article as another part of such discourse. You know, in case you’re wondering why we haven’t killed the number after this editorial. It might happen in the future, but not yet. That being said, we celebrate diversity and debate here at the blog and each member is allowed to express their own opinions on the subject. Enjoy!

Review scoring has been a topic of interest at Heavy Blog lately, with our own Scott Murphy giving us a brief rundown on his thoughts about comments surrounding review scores. I can’t say that I disagree with him on the way we treat those numbers these days; we too often just skip down to the end to see what the reviewer gave it rather than reading a more detailed overview of an album. Believe me, I understand why people skim, and I have admittedly skipped to the score of many a review. However, I don’t think that relying on these numbers is the best course of action if you wish to have a critical voice in music. Whether you believe the album review is dead or not, it’s nonetheless ubiquitous on music sites and magazines, and I highly doubt that it’ll become extinct soon. We need reviews, case closed. The review score, though, is a different subject altogether.

But what can be done? I mean, if you wanted to one could attempt to be some musical fascistic and force everyone to either read the whole review or don’t read it at all by nixing scores altogether. But that’s not exactly doable, aside from the obvious facts like our inherent free will. Like it or not, we live in a world where most people (whether unconsciously or willfully) expect immediate service and compensation. We’d rather read the Sparknotes for David Copperfield than read the book itself. (There’s a little more to this issue than just that which I’d like to dissect, but I’ll come back to it later.) Let’s not also forget that the whole point of a scoring system is to try to communicate through numbers a reviewer’s feelings about an album; an admirable goal that does make sense, but always go as planned. For example, we at Heavy Blog, try to use the following definitions to define an album’s score:

Hate it = 1
Didn’t Like It = 2
Liked It = 3
Really Liked It = 4
Loved It = 5

A problem right off the bat here is the vagueness of that scoring system; sure, it will generally fit people (which is why we have it) but it doesn’t really mean anything, since we’re all liable to interpret the scores in our own ways, as writers and readers. Our own Scott Murphy, for example, likes to save 5s for a rare occasion. Granted, there’s a lot of a great music that comes out in a year, but there are, in Scott’s opinion only one or two albums which truly deserve a 5. I personally don’t even give 5s (though, to be fair, I don’t really write many reviews); I don’t think that a perfect album exists, so I don’t bother going further.

But that’s just me, and one other writer Heavy Blog. If you really want more proof, I highly recommend watching this superbly done video from the YouTube channel I Hate Everything:

Like the channel’s host Alex Bolton says (and what I’ve been saying), scoring systems mean a lot of different things to different people, which in turns means it’s useless for any sort of objectivity. YMS’s method of scoring stuck out to me in particular, as he starts at a neutral 5 which goes up or down as he watches a movie. The video presents a good case: essentially the systems should be abolished, since they don’t mean anything that would be helpful to the purpose of a review (which is to describe the quality of something, whatever that something may be). If you truly want to talk intelligently about art (and, yes, music is art) and join in the conversation being had, you should just suck it up and read the whole review.

I believe that this is a well thought-out opinion, but it misses out on a big idea: what if you don’t want to join in the conversation? What if you want to use reviews not as a critical forum, but as a jumping off point for new music? Note: this is not a justification for ignorance on my part. I love talking about music, but only music that I know something about or actually enjoy. What’s the point of badmouthing some artist I don’t like, after all? Negativity gets us nowhere. At the same time, though, I like to expand my horizons musically. I like to explore and dabble in new genres and sounds and bands. It’s a huge part of who I am. But, frankly, I shouldn’t have to read a whole album review to get an idea of what an album is like; reviews are an opinion, not a fact. That’s why I enjoy websites like RateYourMusic, that have charting options and a description of what an album is like (usually just a genre tag) without having to go into a full-blown review.

What I’m saying is that this concept of genre tags—a vague, objective-as-possible description used to differentiate music—could be augmented and added to reviews in lieu of scoring. Instead of a standard number that means a million things to a million people, why not try to more blatantly advertise the album’s features instead of its quality? For example, on a metal site, we could have a few different charts showing various aspects such as speed, heaviness, and vocals. We could even incorporate a radar chart (a sample is pictured below) that describes the album’s genre, since most bands have a sound that can exist in a few genres at the same time. We do this so people who’ve never heard of this album and don’t care much for reviews to still have an idea of what an album’s about. If you care to go further—or if the review in question is of a band you know/enjoy, read the whole thing.

Review Alternatives

But this is just an idea, and open for debate. There are some kinks in it regarding objectivity—after all, one could hear other genres in a band that others don’t—and that makes sense; after all, art is one of the most subjective phenomenons on the planet. One could possibly view adding charts and graphs to reviews as sort of killing the idea and fun of art, similar to, say, what sabermetrics has done to baseball. Nonetheless, this is a stepping stone, a better way for us to describe music and explore and keep people appeased. We have to face one thing, though: the single biggest problem with these scores is that they’re essentially subjective phenomena advertised to us as objective. They mean completely different things to different people, and there’s nothing to do about that other than to cater to our reality as best as we can.

Heavy Blog

Published 8 years ago