“Absolutely terrible at every conceivable level,” “worse the louder you play it”, “Cirque du Soleil: Buckcherry” – just some of the many memorable lines in American music website Pitchfork’s recent savage two-out-of-10 music review of Eurovision-winning campy Italian sex-rockers Måneskin and their new album Rush! And I am absolutely here for it.
Not only because I happen to agree with Pitchfork that the nipple-brandishing Romans’ music possesses not a single redeeming quality (and I say that as someone who loves Eurovision). But because I’m so pleased – relieved, even – to see a proper rip-roaring, knives-out, colours-nailed-to-the-mast negative music review by a major publication in a day and age when such a thing seemed to be consigned to history. It felt positively retro to cackle my way through the 1,200-word takedown, as the journalist, Jeremy D Larson, tore into Måneskin’s brainlessly horny songs – “sweaty and effortful”, “like a Tory version of Mark E Smith”, “a parody of an early aughts NME cover” – with wit, wisdom, and barely concealed glee.
Bad reviews were once a cornerstone of music journalism – vital counterbalance on the music review pages to the breathless hyperbole that can overtake a writer in the five-star throes of a record they love. My formative years of reading the music press were in the late Nineties and early 2000s, a time when, for every gushing evaluation of Radiohead’s OK Computer, PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea or Oasis’s Be Here Now – some of which have stood the test of time better than others – there seemed to be a hilarious hatchet job on Nickelback’s Silver Side Up (“the sonic equivalent of too many unfortunate goatees” – Rolling Stone), or Limp Bizkit’s Results May Vary (“we’ve suffered enough” – NME).
Stereophonics still invite special ire from some music journos for back then having the ingenious idea to write a godawful song about how much they hate music journalists (a line from a Metro article of the early 2000s likening the band to “flatulent extras from some Seventies Britcom romp” is one I can still quote from memory). In true Spinal Tap “shit sandwich” style, Pitchfork in 2006 ran a notoriously puerile, zero-out-of-10 straight-up murder of Jet’s second album Shine On which contained no words, merely a video of a chimpanzee urinating in its own mouth.
But in recent years, for a variety of reasons, the negative music review seems to have dramatically faded from exponentially thinning music pages. In an age when hardly anyone is willing to pay for recorded music any more, even fewer people are prepared to pay for writing about music, and long-standing music mags such as NME and Q have had to either discontinue their print editions or fold altogether. Those titles that endure are heavily dependent on advertising revenue. Slagging off an artist whose label or tour promoter might be buying ad space in the same issue is a bit like biting the hand that feeds.
Another more concerning reason for journalists shying away from criticising certain artists may be the way in which passionate and organised online fandoms for major pop stars have begun orchestrating huge and vicious social media pile-ons against them. Even when they’re not actually being all that critical. In 2020, following her review of Taylor Swift’s album Folklore, Pitchfork editor Jillian Mapes was harassed by Swift’s fans to the point of them tweeting her home address and phone number and photos of her home, which some Swifties threatened to burn down. Mapes had given Folklore a glowing eight out of 10. For some that just wasn’t enough.