Sunday, April 26, 2015

My Take: Star Ratings (And Why I Don't Use Them)

Not to make myself sound old, but I've been writing about music on various blogs and websites for at least a decade now.  In that time, I've tried my hand at virtually every format under the sun.  I've written long-form, short-form, detailed, big-picture, and everything in between.  I have also, as astute readers will note, not been using any sort of rating system here.  That is a carry-over from the way we did things at my previous online home, but it is also a choice that serves a specific purpose.

If I'm being honest, I too appreciate the shorthand that appears at the bottom of a review, saving me from having to spend the time reading an entire piece before realizing the author disagrees with everything I believe about music.  There is value in being able to take a quick look, see the end result, and then go back and decipher the manner in which it was arrived at.

However, that can be used as a particularly nasty strain of self-reinforcement, where a rating can enable a reader to avoid any hint of a dissenting opinion, no matter how well-reasoned it may be.  We learn from hearing other people make arguments we wouldn't have thought about, when our beliefs are challenged in ways that make us think about why we hold them, and whether they have become mere reflexes.  Without that outside push, it's easy to fall into a cycle of delusion, where our opinions slowly change like a children's game of telephone, and we never are able to see how far we've drifted from what we actually believe.

As a writer, I want my words to mean something.  Putting either a number, or some stars, at the bottom of a review negates the power of the written word, because it reduces complex thought into an simple numeral.  I can give two albums the same score on a numerical basis, when my opinion of them is radically different.  A record that should have been great but misses the mark, and one that should have been terrible but overcomes its shortcomings, will settle in the same area of the grading curve.  But they will not be the same thing, and I will not remember them in the same way.  Any ratings system has the unfortunate, and irreparable, problem of trying to simplify something that cannot be.

Our thoughts are not simple equations.  They are complex maps of battling impulses, trains of logic that run down a dizzying map of tracks.  Just like there are myriad ways of traveling from one side of the country to the other, there are different ways of arriving at the same rating for an album.  It would be a disservice to anyone reading to not explain how I actually feel about a record, and why I came to that conclusion.  That can't be done with a simple rating.

Maybe I'm just long-winded, and like the sound of my own words, but I genuinely believe that there is more to be gleaned from a well-written review than a rating can tell me.  That information is what will pique someone's interest, that information is what will make them decide they need to hear a record for themselves.  Seeing five little stars at the bottom isn't enough to do that, not when there are thousands of other choices.  It's the description, the reasoning, the writing that goes beyond simply saying "this is good" that can reach out and change someone's mind.

And yes, there is also the practical matter, that putting ratings on albums as they come along carves that opinion in stone.  That goes without mentioning that a ratings system can be as confusing as a muddled opinion.  If I rate an album with four stars out of five, I would consider than a ringing endorsement, a statement that an album is a great piece of work.  Someone else will look at that, do the math, and conclude that I have given that album the elementary school equivalent of a B.  Giving out five stars should not be taken lightly.  That score should be reserved for albums that go above and beyond, albums that strike at your very core, the ones you know will live with you for the rest of your life.

Every person writing reviews would have to explain their own version of a ratings system, which would take as much time and patience as simply reading a better review in the first place.  My version of a four star record is probably different than most other people's, so what would we be gaining if I put the stars at the bottom?  You would still be lacking clarity, because you wouldn't know what they mean.

I say all of this to explain why I am taking the path that requires more investment from the readers.  In the end, I think that all involved, you the reader, me the writer, and the artists, benefit from this arrangement.

But for the sake of illustrating the point, here are the star ratings for the albums I have covered here:

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love: ****

UFO - A Conspiracy Of Stars: ****1/4

DSG - Still A Warrior: *1/2

Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful: **1/4

Halestorm - Into The Wild Life: ***

Europe - War Of Kings: ****

Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels: ****1/4

The Pinder Brothers - Melancholy Sea: ***

Exovex - Radio Silence: ***1/2

Vola - Inmazes: ***

Tribulation - The Children Of The Night: ***

And for good measure, two albums from earlier in the year:

Nightingale - Retribution: ****1/2

Jorn Lande & Trond Hotter - Dracula: Swing Of Death: ****1/2

Tell me; do those help at all?

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