Everyone's a Critic | The Reader's Guide Feature | Chicago Reader

Everyone's a Critic 

The new Zagat guide to music lets the mob rule.

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Rock criticism might still be a viable organism, but it's hard to tell: how do you know if something is moving on its own when people keep dragging it around and kicking it? Neal Pollack has devoted a whole novel to the proposition that writing about music is a pathetic waste of time (although writing a novel about writing about music apparently isn't). In Jonathan Lethem's new tome, The Fortress of Solitude, the unbearably self-loathing protagonist grows up to be a rock critic. There's a new book by Lester Bangs, but he's been dead longer than most of the downloading public has been alive. And don't get me started on Jack Black.

So who needs critics? Not the editors of the Zagat surveys. The New York-based guidebook empire, which relies on the opinions of readers rather than writers, has extended its reach from restaurants to shopping and clubbing and now to music and film. If you've ever used one of their distinctive russet pocket-size guides, you know the format: each listing includes a series of numerical scores (the highest is 30) derived from the votes of Zagat respondents and a paragraph of excerpts from their comments. The thousands of voters are volunteers--if you submit enough reviews, they send you a free guide. Unlike Amazon, which wants people to get to know its unpaid reviewers, using their names and encouraging them to post lists of favorites, a Zagat survey purports to be criticism without taste, consensus that's beyond controversy.

For its music guide, Zagat hired photographer, writer, and veteran tastemaker Pat Blashill to draw up a list of 2,050 records, including classical, jazz, show tunes, sound tracks and scores, and of course pop (with a surprisingly rich selection of hip-hop and electronica), and invited reviews through its Web site. The company claims 10,656 people submitted ballots, 59 percent of whom were men; the average age of respondents was 38.2, while the typical record collection included 516 titles. In other words, they have a better gender balance than the American Association of Professional Rock Critics, and they're probably a little older. The guide provides no ethnic breakdown, but I have my suspicions about it.

A computer crunched the ratings, and the narrative responses were edited by Blashill's fellow Rolling Stone contributor Holly George-Warren. Here's an example, in the unmistakable Zagat style:

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

Overall: 25

Songwriting: 27

Musicianship: 21

Production: 21

"Everyone's favorite indie 'it' girl proved that real talent is in having something to say" in a "blunt way" on her "ambitious" debut, a "bad" babe's "bible" that came off like "a feminist shock to the system"; "basement production", "empowering chick music" and Liz's "life coalesced into a concept album of impeccable brilliance", "capturing the poignancy behind modern promiscuity."

The entry notes that responses were uniform in their praise, and repeats the Cosloyan canard that the album is a "song-by-song answer" to that other Exile record (which scored 28/28/28/26, by the way). The grammar is a little off, and some of the word choices are awkward, but it's a serviceable description. If my mother looked it up, she'd know what she was dealing with, and maybe that's all she needs from a record review. She already makes plenty of use of the restaurant guides.

But does she or anyone else need a guide to the "1,000 Top Albums of All Time"? In this hyperatomized musical market, are there any consumers who care about "Overall Quality"? Most people consider their taste in music to be highly personal, even more than their taste in film. Stop me if this doesn't sound like you: if everyone you know said they liked a movie, you'd probably want to see it, but if they all agreed that a record was great, you'd think that was weird--did they all drink the same Kool-Aid? More likely you've figured out whose opinions you trust, whether amateur or pro, and you rely on those people to turn you on to your next purchase.

Or maybe I'm just a hopeless snob with a professional interest in perpetuating a cultural commissariat. Maybe you do choose what to listen to based on what everybody else thinks is worth listening to. Isn't the problem here that anyone who would do that wouldn't be buying a book to tell them how to do it?

As it turns out, the foodies aren't so bad at canonization. You could argue with a list of the "Top 50 Overall Quality" that gives Kind of Blue the only perfect score of 30, then names 38 more records that managed a 29 (A Love Supreme, Lady Soul, Abbey Road, Innervisions, Blonde on Blonde, It Takes a Nation of Millions, London Calling, Don Giovanni, Blue... you get the idea), but then you'd be an undergraduate, or at best a really old version of a really cool teenager. Zagat even created a separate ranking called "Most Popular Albums" to distinguish between what voters like and what they know is good for them; Kind of Blue ranks sixth on that list, preceded (from the top) by Born to Run, Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, The Joshua Tree, and what the guide innocently calls "The White Album."

There I go again: distinguishing between people who know that the "real" name of that record is The Beatles and people who call it what everyone else calls it. The Zagat Music Guide will provide hours of entertainment for those who enjoy cataloging the evidence of their superior taste: there's only one Duke Ellington record, but two by Diana Krall? Louis Armstrong's only entry is Hello, Dolly!? Rufus over Loudon is arguable, but Huey over Jerry Lee? Eno's Before and After Science over Another Green World, or Judy Collins's Wildflowers instead of In My Life? Only four records from Jamaica (Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Marley, Marley), one from Brazil (Jobim, not counting Getz/Gilberto), and one from Africa (Cesaria Evora, not counting the Afro Celt Sound System, Deep Forest, Graceland, and Peter Gabriel)? Nothing at all by Pere Ubu, Jimmy Reed, Salt-N-Pepa, Kronos Quartet, Thin Lizzy, Grandmaster Flash, Charlie Patton, the Go Betweens, or Motorhead? This thing is a gas--it's the anti-Guinness Book, guaranteed to start an argument every time you open it.

Some of its pleasures require digging, like the three entries marked with a symbol indicating they have not yet been issued on CD (they are--get this--Paul Anka Sings His Big 15, Vol. 1, Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits, and the 1979 Casablanca comp A Night at Studio 54), or the fact that the Mamma Mia! original cast recording is ranked higher for songwriting and musicianship than Abba's Gold. But plenty more are just out there for the taking: the Close Encounters sound track is "avant-garde"; Enter the Wu-Tang demonstrates "what hungry rappers can do when provoked"; Rent detractors "say 'the bunch of drug addicts' making 'a bunch of noise' 'should have been evicted.'"

I've never been a big Zagat fan. Who wants to eat at last year's restaurant? When zagat.com recently started charging a membership fee, I deleted my bookmark for it. When I want a culinary adventure, I go straight to chowhound.com, where posters pride themselves on discovering unusual dishes at remote hole-in-the-wall joints. It's an ego trip: I brag about the "authentic" dishes I've tried and the now-trendy spots I got to first.

But a little consensus isn't always a bad thing. The truth is, most of the time when I go out I just want a decent meal at a familiar place. It's the same with music: now that I'm a new parent, I'm looking longingly up at my Beatles records, unplayed lo these many years, daydreaming about spinning them for Junior. Kids love Ringo. I think we can all agree on that.

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