Metacritic, Pandora and the Internet guide to becoming a music snob
2008 was the year I decided to become a music snob.
Specifically, I decided to tap into the variety of music provided by online music services and see if the critics of the world had anything to teach me.
A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction against critics. It’s become fashionable to automatically reject anything a critic says, simply because he’s a critic, as if it was some kind of declaration of independence.
But blindly reacting against critics is just as silly as blindly following them. In the old days, we had to take our critics one at a time. But now the Internet has simplified the process.
I started my journey into snobbery at Metacritic.com, a site that aggregates critical reviews of movies, music, television and video games. Metacritic uses a complex formula to assign a numerical score to each review, then it averages the scores and comes up with a percentile figure that represents the critical zeitgeist.
Right now the “Watchmen” movie has a Metascore of 56 out of 100, with the reaction evenly split between critics who loved it and critics who hated it.
You can browse the left rail of a section and find out just how bad your taste is. My taste in movies would be described as “hopelessly mainstream.” I don’t waste time on B-movie dogs, but I’m not seeing a lot of Oscar winners either.
I wasn’t ready to surrender my movie watching to the equivalent of a computer dating service, but I was so desperate to find good music I decided to take a leap of faith.
I called up the Metacritic Top 30 albums of 2008 and started making Last.fm and Pandora playlists based on artists I’d never heard of.
The Metacritic list didn’t just change my musical taste; it changed the way I approach music. All my life I’d employed a ruthless 30-second cutoff rule. If a song didn’t grab me in 30 seconds, I figured it probably wasn’t worth my time.
When it comes to music I’m a horrible channel flipper – never staying with one track, one album or one radio station for any appreciable length of time.
With the Metacritic tracks, I decided to wait it out. These tracks don’t reach out and grab you the way mainstream pop does. I didn’t take to them immediately the way I did with Kelly Clarkson, P!nk or the All-American Rejects.
This was a different kind of music and it deserved a different kind of attention. I set my Metacritic stations on random and let the music play, forcing myself to sit still and keep my hand off the skip button.
Nothing really grabbed me on the first pass. But as time went on, I found myself returning to certain tracks. I could not have predicted the results.
Styles that I dismissed as “not my thing” grew on me until I was wildly outside my comfort zone.
A few big surprises
Critics are crazy for a band called Fleet Foxes. Their music has a kind of dreamy, dramatic quality that makes the album sound like a fantasy soundtrack from another world. I was entranced by “White Winter Hymnal” and eventually grew to like the whole album.
The biggest surprise was a Swedish pop star named Robyn. Her self-titled release is a peculiar mashup of electronica and white girl hip-hop. In my old life, I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to stuff like this, but Robyn’s lyrics have an absurd ironic quality to them – American street slang wielded by a voice that sounds wrong for it. The result is oddly beautiful and irresistibly cute. Robyn lays down classic hip-hop attitude with a playful European style. The album took a bit to win me over, but now I can’t get enough.
The other surprise was my introduction to alt country. Don’t ask me about the difference between country and alt country, please. I don’t know, and no one can tell me. Even the experts can’t decide on the difference.
Whatever you call them, I’m blown away by the Drive-By Truckers. Critics call it alt country but I’d call it dark country. There is a depth and poignancy here that propels them beyond your usual pull the heart strings, point-and-shoot country fare, a darkness that puts these tracks beyond the reach of mainstream twang.
I enjoyed Bon Iver and TV On the Radio in a pleasant, general way. Good music, but nothing that really grabbed me.
I fell in love with Sam Phillips but I’m not smart enough to describe her. I’ll just put her down as the musical equivalent of a good cigar – slow and smoky with a nice aftertaste.
Neil Young and Randy Newman were both terrible disappointments. Their reputations led me to expect great things, but I’m too Southern to forgive Neil, and I gave up on Randy Newman’s shtick about 10 minutes into “Toy Story.”
Metacritic also introduced me to some world music. “London Zoo” by The Bug is full of something called “underground dubstep,” a genre of music inspired by Jamaican beats and South London grime. I won’t claim to understand what’s happening on this album, but it’s genuinely compelling. This is the kind of album that made my journey worthwhile. Play it for a while and you can actually feel doors opening in your brain.
Experiments like this are not for everyone. I don’t want to claim any kind of superiority here, and I don’t want to confer any special anointment on critics, but I think this adventure is a testament to the power of the Internet – the power of information – filtered, aggregated and turned into music.
It taught me a lesson about the banality of prejudice and the good things that can happen when we let it go.