Posts from 1st August 2002

Aug 02

On Marks Out Of 10 – Popular Plus Two

FT6 comments • 4,829 views

Pretty much as soon as I started Popular I decided to mark each song out of ten. I had a few reasons for this. I’d not really written reviews with marks attached before and thought it might enliven things a little. I had been reading EDGE magazine, which is terribly austere about its marking of computer games and has given 10/10 scores only four times in its ten-year history: that kind of stinginess was appealing. I also thought that as the feature kept on a very low or very high score might be seen as an ‘event’ and a reason for a few extra links: whatever its merits as criticism, Popular is also a brazen and so-far quite successful attempt to boost my site’s hits.

The feature is still in its infancy as of writing and no arguments have been sparked by any marks yet. But it’s not to soon to confess that the discipline of giving out marks seriously distorts the way I write about pop, maybe even the way I listen to it.

That’s not a surprise. I’ve always been against marking systems in magazines – they’re a crutch for the lazy reader and a slap in the face for the careful writer. Systems that dole out their maximums eight or nine times a month seem particularly stupid – the slightest twang of a battered acoustic seems to be enough for Uncut to lassoo a constellation to Earth in gratitude, and their grades become a mockery. (Of course if I was editing a magazine and was actually expected to make money I’d be much friendlier to my readers and would naturally have marks coming out of my ears.)

A mark represents totality and finality. It is a quantified summary of the entire listening experience, and a verdict on it. But a review is those things, too, you might say. I would disagree – a good review can be open ended, can be provisional, can reflect the writer’s mixed feelings and still be useful and entertaining. A mark on the end sabotages that, which is why reviews and their grades often seem dissonant.

Giving out marks for songs is a cheap way for a critic to pose as an authority. Some actually are authorities, of course – Robert Christgau has listened to so many records now that I wonder if his famous grades are a kind of memo-to-self that he’s ‘done’ this or that one. But in general critical authority rests on shaky ground. Listening to music is after all a very easy business indeed. For some particularly subtle or complex pieces a ‘how to listen’ guide might be useful – beyond that music criticism is simply a data filter. As such it works by a kind of good cop/bad cop principle: you have to gull the presumed reader into believing you know more than them, while still convincing them you’re close enough in taste and habit to be trusted.

Popular, though, is in these terms entirely useless, which is one reason I like doing it so much. Many of these songs aren’t available to buy easily, or even download readily. The ones that are, are often known by everybody anyway. Giving them a mark is absurd, and so adds to my fun. Even so the process of mark-giving is a nerve-racking one. I’ve tried very hard to avoid even thinking about the obvious question – which song is going to be first to get a ten – but something as simple as handing out a six rather than a seven always follows much beard-stroking.

As the marks get higher, things get harder, because I’m having to quantify pleasure. The simple joy of a nonsense song like ‘Doop’, for instance – I like it a lot, but does it really deserve as high a mark as a pop classic like ‘All Shook Up’? But then doesn’t even thinking about that betray my ‘beliefs’ about pop and the thrill of the moment? B-but maybe even having those beliefs is a betrayal of them? Or maybe thinking so much about pop music is turning me into an absolute headcase.

Methodological Notes

1. The ‘Doop’ question is hypothetical: if you’re going to submit to the ritual of a marking system you must be rigorous in how you do it, and my rule is no marking until a review is finished.

2. Marks in Popular are given for how much I like the song, not how important it is in ‘pop history’. Sometimes the knowledge of that importance makes me like the song more (or less), though.

3. What do the marks mean? Ooh, good question. Here’s a sort of guide:

0: Completely irredeemable. There can be almost no justification for making it: even if for charity, those involved should have donated their entire fortunes rather than see its release. In practical terms these records are very difficult to even finish listening to once.

1: Horrible. Hard to listen to and an immediate switch-off, but by stretching empathy to its limits you can imagine who would like it and why (i.e. it ‘succeeds on its own terms’ perhaps

2-3: Bad in varying degrees. You’d change the radio station or skip it on a compilation, and unawanted prolonged exposure might push you towards actual hatred. Tracks getting 2 rather than 3 usually have some particularly awful quality – a singer, a lyric, a noise – that stands out through the general badness.

4: Poor. Or just boring. You probably wouldn’t mind hearing it a couple of times, mostly though you’d just endure it.

5: Average. A ‘typical’ record of its era, maybe. Pleasant for a listen or two, certainly nothing to switch off, but not anything you’d return to either.

6: Good. Enjoyable pop record, if it came on the radio you’d say you liked it. You probably wouldn’t want your own copy but you’d have no problem hearing it fairly regularly.

7: Very Good. Would have been a highlight of the charts at the time, you’d definitely want to hear it regularly, you might want to own it. Has some stand-out quality that sets it above its contemporaries.

8: Excellent. A record you’d want to hear repeatedly and own for yourself.

9: Superb. A record you’d never tire of hearing. You’d certainly own it, in fact it would be one of your favourites.

10: Perfect. The sort of singles that justify the existence of pop music by themselves. Impossible to imagine ever not enjoying it. Difficult to imagine anyone else not enjoying it.

4. Yes, I do have a huge spreadsheet charting all the marks I’ve given.

Now I remember

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 231 views

Now I remember why I never linked David’s blog before – there’s something about it which fucks up the browser bar and makes it impossible to keep the screen still. Fingers crossed this doesn’t happen on your machine cos it looks like there’s some good stuff here.

The MP3 Party

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The MP3 Party: go back to your file-sharers and prepare for government. (via Cha Cha Cha)

“Conscious Estrangement”

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 221 views

“Conscious Estrangement”: I am linking to this because it’s very nice about me, oh yes, but also because I don’t quite agree. Firstly I don’t think ‘we’ have had any impact beyond the individual level – it’s flattering to dream otherwise but visitor stats suggest that these sites are a tiny, if well-regarded, concern. I also don’t agree, though, that music is a ‘neutral commodity’, even if it seems like we write about it as such. A small but persistent thread of writing on ILM, for instance, involves the contradictions of being in love with product whose existence does seem to rely on very large and possibly very unpleasant corporations.

If Freaky Trigger is anything – and this wasn’t even in my head when I started it – it’s a way of providing an answer to that question. I didn’t really want to write about pop as an alternative to writing about ‘indie’, I wanted to write about pop as an alternative to what was already being written about pop, both the dismissive coverage accorded it by ‘proper’ music critics and the PR-controlled vacuity of entertainment industry mags, neither of which seemed to have much of a grip on what someone listening to a pop song might be thinking or feeling or doing.

I wanted to write about pop, in other words, as if it meant something to some people: I don’t know if I’ve been successful in this but it’s always nice to find readers who have enjoyed the attempts. But this has never been the same as approving or enjoying the “pop industry” and its wiles and ways. Maybe pop music’s status as a high-turnover commodity and its status as something people – like me! – relate to aren’t at all separable, but we won’t know unless we start by pretending they might be. (You see, I do believe in the “Indie Dream” really!)

(One reason I’m talking about this again is that I’m doing a long e-mail interview and need to think this stuff through more. But also another reason is that I realised there is probably an element of ‘taint’, for me, in professional music writing, at least in writing about very public and easily available music. If a goal of mine is to try and get people to relate to music as if it wasn’t a commodity. attempting to get paid for doing so would seem counter-productive.)

Restate My Assumptions

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 199 views

Restate My Assumptions: another music – well sometimes music – blog. He doesn’t like the Coral, he writes a lot about the Gentle Waves, he’s young, it looks good.

The publog returns

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 297 views

The publog returns with a thorny question – nay, accusation – of pub etiquette breaches against one of its number. The question boils down to this: in a group gathering when no table is available, is it permissible to hand drinks to another pubgoer to hold? The answer is clearly yes – sometimes this is a necessity, especially if nature is calling (taking drinks into a pub toilet is an absolute etiquette no-no). But wait! Complications ensue. What if the hander has not previously engaged the handee in conversation? In these circumstances it would seem rude to treat the handee as, in essence, a baggage animal. However in a sufficiently large group, who see each other regularly, it will be impossible for those in attendance to speak to everybody else without cutting short flourishing pub conversations – and pub conversation, after all, is the reason for going to the pub.

And this raises further questions. There are circumstances, we have discovered, in which the handing on of drinks could be seen as a breach of pub etiquette. But as in all questions of pub behaviour, the overall context needs to be examined. In the specific case that prompted this post – and the sordid details need not concern us – the person doing the carrying was a notorious non-round-buyer and freeloader, and being given a couple of glasses of drink to hold is only poetic justice – given that the only drinks this individual ever holds are, in an economic sense, other people’s. And freeloading is a far greater breach of pub etiquette – although it’s fair to say that whether the freeloading results in mere eye-rolling or full-on irritation is entirely dependent on the other conversational qualities a person brings to the pub.

(Further correspondence on this unpleasant topic should be sent to the publogger in question, and not his housemates.)


FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 903 views


This tuesday i went to check out a blowout sale and kept admiring this for ages and ages so i finally decided to buy it after much thinking(i mean, it was only 5 reais). Oh well, did i made myself happy by buying this single. It transported me back to when i was about 9 and was still too young too care if something was chart-pop or not with MTV blasting the video everyday on Disk, the video was perfect: the talking in british accent, the clothes and messing up with some party at some embassy or something like that. All amazingly impressive for me

I even remebered how dumb i thought a friend was when he got the lyrics and translated them, keeping talking how he didnt liked the song anymore because the lyrics had no meaning at all. Dammit, i just liked Scary Spice doing zig-zig-zig and thats still the best part of the song

Update: Now im not sure if it is Scary Spice doing zig-zig-zig, it might be Geri too… Well one of them does it