General Guidelines for Reviewing
What Does a Good Critique or Review Examine?
Some of the things a good review or critique should touch on involve objective criteria, while others are subjective. While our initial reaction to anything will always be subjective, we must set this aside for awhile to apply objective criteria, then re-integrate subjective issues.
This seems obvious, but description includes what the product is physically, the medium (book, CD-ROM, cassette, videotape, etc.), the number of pages or playing time, descriptions of contents, the style, subjects covered, what it's meant for (or at least how it's being packaged and marketed, which may be different from what the work actually is), and who it's meant for - basic headbangers or effete sophisticates, beginning or intermediate or advanced players in the case of musical instruction.
So does it suck? Or does it party down? Does it explain things brilliantly, or does it leave the reader more confused and frustrated than before? These are basic questions that some reader will want answered. If it truly sucks, why review it, unless for some reason it's going to be enormously hyped and will get so much attention that comment is expected or even inescapable? But if some poor schmuck makes a terrible record and sends it for review, it may not be appropriate to hold him up to public ridicule.
Addressing questions of consumer value are part and parcel of reviewing. But the reviewer must be careful that the manner of addressing them does not close off avenues of critical discourse. The reviewer must also be very careful not to presume that his preferences and desires are the only ones that count. The intended audience, the reading audience, and the artist's intentions may all be quite different from the critic's and the critic must either be prepared to address these, or excuse himself from writing about works that are not appropriate to his qualifications and preferences.
On a critical level, valuation may include an appraisal of how satisfyingly the artist has met his objectives, or improved his playing, or made a better record than the last one.
What is the social (cultural, political, economic, historical) background for this work? What is the artistic background, in terms of the art either being created or in fashion in that time and place and social environment? How do these backgrounds affect or illuminate the work under review? Is there a good read or a mini- education worth offering the reader? If so, is this particular review the appropriate vehicle?
The artist's work is part of a progression of other works by that artist, and may also be part of a style or movement or school involving other artists whose work is related. Are there insights to be gained by mentioning, comparing or contrasting the work under review with this context?
What did the artist set out to do? Did he achieve it? Is the work structured in a way that helps or hinders the goal? Are there structural flaws that damage the success of the work? Are there conflicting goals that harm the product? Are there indications that the producers and the artist have differing agendas that weaken the product?
How well does the artist execute his design? Does good execution cover up a sloppy premise or poor construction? Is a good design marred by bad execution? How do the artist's choice in manner and style of execution affect the ultimate outcome and the aesthetic qualities of the work?
Does the work offer the audience valuable insights via its lyrics or text or artistic effects?
What understanding can the reviewer bring to the reader as a result of examining this work? It may be a broader insight than the work under discussion, or it may be a unique key to understanding only this work.
How distinctive is the work? Does it manage to set itself apart from other works of its type? If so, how? Does that distinction have additional value beyond being different?
Innovation and Mastery
Not all work is innovative, but not all work is masterful either. Sometimes they stand in opposition. Some work may be valuable for being innovative, even though it is badly executed and poorly structured, inappropriate to its context and unpleasant to experience. This sometimes happens with outsiders or beginners who may have a brilliant new take on an art form even though they have not mastered any aspect of it.
Innovation by itself may or may not not be desirable, but it is not always to be shunned if it comes in a strange package, either.
Some work may synthesize the understanding of materials, subtlety and economy of structure, sureness of execution, and expressiveness that add up to mastery, without being innovative in the least. This does not mean bland or lifeless. Valuable and masterful work may be no easier to comprehend or enjoy than garage-band self-indulgence, but it will have a more powerful effect and will reward closer acquaintance.
Some work is easy to experience, is readily understood, and brings immediate pleasure. This is accessible work. But it may or may not bear repeated experience, and may or may not offer anything beyond its immediate effect.
Some work is less accessible - harder to understand, and less pleasurable to experience (at least at first), or even repellent. Yet longer acquaintance and closer study may be very rewarding. Or not.
Accessibility or lack of it need to be taken into account when reviewing. If the level is extreme in one direction or the other, it's worth noting and investigating. Could the work be more accessible without losing depth? Did it sacrifice part of its potential to go for a pop audience? Will its intended audience be daunted by its difficulty, or put off by its breeziness?
What effect does the work produce in the critic? This is a subjective area and full of pitfalls. As a critic here you must be extremely self- aware and honest if you are to be fair (see the Touchy Issues section for more on this).
Is the effect produced remarkable for some reason? Have others noticed the same effect? Is it significant, or unusual?
Some Touchy Issues
The critic must always be aware of his own reactions to work under review, and must learn to separate them from his critique. If you hate it on first hearing, this does not mean it's no good. It just means you hate it on first hearing.
The same goes for loving it immediately. Make a note of your initial reaction, then set it aside. Now examine the work more closely, using objective criteria.
Only when the work has been fully examined should you then turn back to examine your initial reaction. This may well be worth discussing, both to examine the reasons for the initial reaction, and to measure whether your feeling about the work has subsequently changed, and why. Some of this examination will end up in the review, and some will remain in your working notes.
Not every work is a masterpiece or an earth-shattering experience. It is not fair for the reviewer to expect to be deeply moved from every work under review. Thrills do not come first in valuing a work. What comes first is looking at the work on its own terms, objectively. In the process, we may come to understand it better, appreciate it better, and even like it better. Only when all these things have been examined should the reviewer put it in context as being somewhere in the continuum from so-so to first-rate.
Do you feel beholden to the artist, or to his record company, and feel that it would be disloyal to give a bad review? If so, your independence has been compromised. You must either ignore this loyalty and write a fair review despite it (can you really? - be honest!), or you must not review the product. Your first and only loyalty when writing reviews is to the reading public.
Always apply criteria that are appropriate to the work at hand. Do the aesthetic and performance standards for classical music apply to Zydeco? Are the brilliant innovations of a players who is inexperienced and even sloppy to be judged fairly by the standards of seasoned masters? Are instructional works to be judged by the standards for artistic work or vice versa?
Are you so hopelessly in love with the artist that you can't evaluate his or her work objectively? Do you you hate them so badly that you can't ever admit that they have anything of value to offer? Look over the objective criteria, then think about the work. Be honest - can you write objectively even while feeling as you do, or does your emotional reaction bat you out of the park? If the latter, you should probably decline the assignment
Do you feel fearful of writing something that may be offensive or hurtful to the artist? If so, do you feel this on general principles, or because you know you don't like the work or the artist in question but still don't want offend them?
In both instances, take a moment to remember that the purpose of writing criticism is to deepen understanding and the purpose of reviews is to honestly inform the buying public. Neither one needs to involve unkindness. Sometimes, negative statements do need to be made. You can make them with assurance if you do it with fairness and to the benefit of the reading public.
To gain perspective, consider the objective criteria for writing reviews (given here and in the "Why Review" section). Carefully consider the work to be reviewed in this light. You may find that there is plenty of room to write useful criticism that is not hurtful. You may even find your own appreciation of the work has increased. If you still feel that you cannot write usefully or positively on the work at hand, then perhaps it is best to decline that particular assignment.
Fawning over an artist is never good in print. This is self-indulgence. This spills over into the areas of objectivity and loyalty. Read those sections and take appropriate action.
Educational Materials - Special Considerations
Educational materials are not meant as works of art, and must be evaluated by their own criteria. Here, the primary consideration is the transmission of information, the formation of understanding, and the teaching of skills.
What is the subject? This may encompass a particular style, a particular instrument, and particular materials - for instance, the II-V-I progression as used in jazz on the chromatic harmonica.
What level of accomplishment does the work claim to address?
What does the work set out to convey within the subject matter and the level? Does it do so?
Is the author's tone supportive and centered on the student?
Is the author open-minded about other approaches and possibilities, or does the author seek to close off alternative possibilities?
If so, is there an indication that the author is doing so for a good reason, such as avoiding confusing the student at an early stage, or for a bad reason, such as promoting his own agenda or view in competition with others of equal validity, or perhaps promoting his own line of products while keeping the student in the dark about important information?
Is the author in a position to know that alternate approaches or viewpoints exist, or is he simply uninformed? And if he is uninformed, does this harm his credibility, or is it mitigated by the richness of his own approach?
Offering bad information, incomplete information, or information incorrectly stated as the only possible truth are all potentially serious offenses, but it is wise to look for mitigating factors.
Does the author use musical terms properly or improperly?
Does the author invent unique, or even proprietary terms instead of using standard terminology? If so, does there seem to be a valid reason for doing so?
Notation and Tablature
Does the author invent alternatives to standard notation? Can a good reason for this be found? Does the author use tablature? If so, is it easy to understand and follow? Does the author trademark or otherwise restrict the use of his notation to prevent its general use?
Is everything explained clearly, or is it confusing?
Try reading the information as if you know nothing but what the author has told you so far. Is it possible to understand this way? If not, is it because the author properly assumes a certain level of knowledge in the intended leader, or because the writer has left out important information?
Are there ambiguous or incomplete sentences? Do sentences or paragraphs run on too long?
Is information presented on a need-to-know basis at appropriate points, or does it bog down in inappropriate detail? Is detail too sparse for clarity or good understanding?
Does the explanation follow properly from one thing to the next, or does it leave gaps and make big leaps that are hard to follow?
Are the tasks given to the student built on skills already learned, or do they fail to prepare the student properly for the task?
Are the tasks presented simple enough so that one aspect may be learned before tackling the next, or are the individual tasks too complex and hard to master?
Is important information missing? Does the work treat the subject thoroughly and at sufficient length? Does it offer enough value for money?
Does the work contain any bad or wrong information?
Does the work contain information outdated or discredited at the time the work was created?
Does the author make unsupported claims? Does the author present opinion as fact?
Is any information presented in ways which may achieve the immediate goal, but which will later cause the student difficulty in understanding or mastering more advanced materials?
Does the work come with additional materials? If so, are they supportive of the main work, sufficient to its purpose, and of good quality?
Are there other works that cover this subject matter, or is this work
unique? Does it compare well in quality and price with other such works?
Does it provide something unique, even within a subject that has been covered
© 2000 Winslow Yerxa. All rights reserved.