An Editorial Debate

by Jonathan Hust and Clifton Smith

This exchange took place between our contributor Jonathan Hust and co-editor Clifton Smith. It concerns Jonathan’s addition of a “Current Must-Hear Shortlist” to his Review of Autumn of the Seraphs, also featured in this issue. The list includes five additional albums and a numeric rating; it prompted the following editorial debate.

Jon,

I went over your writing and your additions by phone with Trevor [co-editor of [sic]]. We both agree that this is excellent new material. I mentioned to Trevor your ratings and, to my surprise, he was very troubled by them. I argued in favor of keeping them because it might give a reader more information about your in-general tastes. Trevor argued that including these ratings gives you false authority when you don’t include explanations. He convinced me that this falls into the logical fallacy of ipsedixitism. With [sic] we hope to give adequate support for our claims whenever possible. This makes us different, I think, from Rolling Stone or Spin, where readers are often left to simply “trust an authority.”

“With [sic] we hope to give adequate support for our claims whenever possible. This makes us different, I think, from Rolling Stone or Spin, where readers are often left to simply ‘trust an authority.'”

Trevor argued that he might be more in support of the ratings if you composed an additional piece with a title something like “Jon Hust’s in-depth album rating system.” I think Trevor and I are both more in favor of simply seeing your pieces without ratings. You’ve known me long enough to know how much respect I have for Roger Ebert. You may also know that Ebert hates star-rating movies because, I think, he feels it might lead readers to develop too superficial of an opinion.

As I told Trevor, I imagine that your continuing submissions could be great for your respectability among music fans and musicians. You can be one of the few that stands out as gifted both with the ability to explain what you’re doing and the ability to do it. In that, you would be like François Truffaut who was a film critic/analyst before he helped to forever change how people watch and make movies. Truffaut and his gang were like rock stars thirty years ago. If Truffaut were alive today, I’m sure he would still be a rock star. I think we (you especially) can be like Truffaut for music.


François Truffaut
and Jean-Pierre Léaud

People need leaders who aren’t shits. I strongly believe that, in order to not be shits, people have to be responsible for how they deliver their correct information to others. I think you’ve done this to a great degree in your review of Autumn of the Seraphs.

Trevor and I are very excited to have your additional article and Chris [co-editor of [sic]] will be as well, I’m sure.

Talk to you soon,
Clifton

PS. If you google “jon hust sic magazine” as I just did, you’ll see that our contributors page comes up immediately and you’re there on it. People can easily find your writings from there.

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Clifton,

I am a little torn about this issue. First, let me say that when taking the overall [sic] philosophy into account, I couldn’t agree with Trevor’s argument more. Therefore, I eagerly concede to excluding any star-rated system from my contributions. I would still like to keep a list of additional recommended albums with the review. “Jon’s current must-hear shortlist” will suffice until one of you clever kids come up with something better to call it.

That being said, I think it’s a bad idea for the magazine to exclude that type of critical structure alongside its more in-depth and, admittedly, more engaging content. This is just an opinion, and I’m still excited to continue contributing as I can to [sic] under whatever formats you all decide best fit the direction you’re looking to take. In light of our mutual respect for each other, I’m happy in knowing my view will be considered intelligently.

“There is a reason that popular music is popular: it’s widely approachable by even an uneducated ear….”

I think that there is some very interesting work going into [sic], and I say that as an interested human, not just a friend. I really think the efforts in raising the bar that [sic] has made are of great value, so much so that I encourage you to hear out an argument opposing Trevor’s view. Many times, as a lover and critical listener of music, I come across incredible artists, albums, and songs that would be heard on a much wider scale had they been written in a more approachable format from a listener’s perspective. There are bands and recordings of all types that are just flat out hard to listen to without hearing it from the shoes of someone who is at least somewhat educated and self-aware about what they’re absorbing. This leads to some of the best art humans have made going relatively unnoticed. Though I venture to guess we could all find examples of this tragedy in film, literature, visual art, etc., I want to focus on music specifically at the moment, as the majority of my contributions are likely to be in the realm of music discussion.

There is a reason that popular music is popular:  it’s widely approachable by even an uneducated ear, thereby providing at least the opportunity to educate. If an important idea goes unnoticed, is that not a loss to all of us in some way? Are we not all in this together? I think much of the academic community forgets to keep this key idea in sight. Some of our brightest people seem to take the high road all too often. It sounds like a dream come true to afford the mansion on High Brow Avenue; that is, until you realize there aren’t any neighbors.

Education is a two-sided coin, and all truly good educators know that teaching is far more than regurgitating possessed knowledge. It seems to me fairly egocentric to look at knowledge, reason, and logic as things we merely possess or are capable of expanding and fine-tuning within ourselves as individuals. I make the hopeful assumption that we hold enough mutual respect for these things to acknowledge that true human potential will never be reached if knowledge, reason, logic, and love do not begin to resonate more loudly throughout a larger majority of our species than it currently is.

As someone who wakes up surrounded by people on a daily basis, my estimation is that as a human whole we are stagnant in our progress at best, and blatantly allowing consciousness to evolve its way out of our species at worst.

Who is going to change this course? People like you, who not only possess the knowledge and desire to do important work, but also the ambition and courage to put a spectacular idea in motion. I have personally found your philosophy and approach at [sic] both educating and enjoyable, but in the true spirit of looking at things as critically as [sic] attempts to, my plea is to consider (as well as define for me as a contributor) your audience.

[sic] seems to be capable of reaching great heights, and if it exists to do more than just record that we were here, then I would contend that the knowledge, reason, logic, and love that flow throughout it need not only be possessed by us few, but also (and I say even more importantly) shared with others. Unless we are playing the role of both writer and intended audience, those “others” are equally important to our hard work.

In my view, having a familiar and somewhat more approachable structure alongside more in-depth analysis merely provides a mean between complex and simple.”

In short, I think [sic] needs to at least consider how approachable it is because at least the possibility exists that it could become too important not to panhandle to every man, woman, and child within earshot; considering our current technological situation, that’s quite an earshot. The reason that middle ground is so stable is that it continues to remain merely a compromise, an average between two ends of a spectrum that continues to be recalculated and negotiated as we learn and that spectrum widens.

In my view, having a familiar and somewhat more approachable structure alongside more in-depth analysis merely provides a mean between complex and simple.

Please let me know if there’s anything I can clarify, explain, or consider.

Most sincerely,
Jon

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Jon,

You say, “I couldn’t agree with Trevor’s argument more. Therefore, I eagerly concede to excluding any star-rated system from my contributions. I would still like to keep a list of additional recommended albums with the review.”
I assume you would still give explanations for why you’re recommending the albums then? I ask because if you did not explain why you were recommending the albums, you would still just be an authority (someone we’re supposed to believe on his say-so) rather than an expert (someone who knows a lot and can convince us of his claims).

You say, “I think it’s a bad idea for the magazine to exclude that type of critical structure alongside its more in-depth and, admittedly, more engaging content.”
By “that type of critical structure” do you mean the type where someone arbitrarily lists albums and rates them without support? In what way is that structure?

You say, “There is a reason that popular music is popular. It’s because it’s widely approachable by even an uneducated ear, thereby providing at least the opportunity to educate.”
It seems just as likely to me that popular music is popular because Rock-A-Fella records says something like: Radio listeners will now listen to Kanye’s “Stronger.” We will put two million dollars into promoting “Stronger.” Therefore, instead of hearing Josh Ritter one thousand times a day, radio listeners will hear Kanye and two other musicians whose promotion we’ve also put two million dollars into.

It seems to me that there is more than one reason for the popularity of popular music. Before Kanye, people listened to classical music, right? Bach and Mozart are supposedly “high brow.” There was a time that people of all backgrounds listened to them, though. Why? Probably because it was the only music accessible to them—the same way that musicians like Kanye and Soulja Boy are the only ones accessible to radio listeners now.

“…what’s the responsible way to promote a musician whose talent makes them a must-listen?”

So, let’s say popularity is a mix of promotion (accessibility) and approachability. That means to me that you and I do have to promote those people who might fall between the cracks of bad promotion. Tell me this, though, Jon: what’s the responsible way to promote a musician whose talent makes them a must-listen? To me, it would be writing what you have written about Pinback’s album. That is responsible. To me, what is less responsible—because of its mostly arbitrary nature—is listing an album and rating in hopes that someone will take your word for it.

You say, “Education is a two sided coin, and all truly good educators know that teaching is far more than regurgitating possessed knowledge.”
I agree! Education is not the same as regurgitation. Educating is being able to explain to someone why you rated Radiohead’s In Rainbows four stars out of five. To me, if you love and respect your audience, you will go to the extra trouble of explaining yourself.

You say, “I would contend that the knowledge, reason, logic, and love that flow throughout [sic] magazine need not only be possessed by us few, but also (and I say even more importantly) shared with others.”
This is why I felt it significant to share with you how easy it is to find information we include on [sic] on the Internet. Someone who googles Josh Ritter will be fairly likely to come across our discussion once it’s posted. They will see that we state things about Ritter and then try to explain why we made those statements. This information can be shared with as many people as are able to use the Internet.

“If people understand your methods, might they be more inclined to start evaluating music in better terms than, ‘Is this familiar to me?'”

You say, “In my view, having a familiar and somewhat more approachable structure alongside more in-depth analysis merely provides a mean between complex and simple.”
To me, when we explain ourselves as simply as possible, we make our statements approachable. I don’t think explaining why Challengers is a four-star album has to be complex. The only thing that listing “The New Pornographers – Challengers [4/5]” might do is save someone the time of hearing why it’s worth listening to. However, if Challengers is more complex than the average Backstreet Boys album, shouldn’t you try to help people understand why? If people understand your methods, might they be more inclined to start evaluating music in better terms than, “Is this familiar to me?” You can help people to not need you to tell them to listen to John Vanderslice. You, Jonathan, can explain to people why Challengers is love. I can’t think of any better way for you to help curb the problem of consciousness evolving its way out of our species.

Your friend,
Clifton

PS. Here is an excerpt of an interview with Roger Ebert from the Critic Doctor web site:

Herb Kane: What three movies are your most favorite of all time?

Roger Ebert: I hate lists. I make one a year, of the year’s ten best films, and every ten years I vote in the Sight and Sound poll. Lists are a device by editors to give the appearance of a story without the fact of one.

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Clifton,

Thank you for the Ebert interview. I found it very interesting that you chose an Ebert quote to reinforce your argument, for two reasons:

1) I think it’s unlikely that you would look to Ebert as an example without also awarding him some level of consistent credibility (is that different from authority?).

2) Ebert can hate lists all he’d like, but his is a perfect example of the point I was trying to make. Ebert, in my mind, is a good writer and generally consistent film critic. As opposed to formats like lists, Ebert was smart enough to dumb it down even further with the “thumbs up/thumbs down” format on his show. This put a format “Two Thumbs Up” and “Two Thumbs WAY up!” in the eyes of virtually every person that sees movies.

“…Ebert is seemingly able to combine caveman simple with responsible, in-depth analysis rather effortlessly.”

It’s all about accessibility, and the genius of attaching simple with in-depth is that it can be both casually accessible (as a generally credible “authority” if that is the term you prefer) and in-depth. This tactic is one old Roger has taken full advantage of, yet for me, he seems to be a pretty in-depth and consistently good film critic. Thus, Ebert is seemingly able to combine caveman simple with responsible, in-depth analysis rather effortlessly.


Roger Ebert

I believe I can show fairly consistent credibility in the realm of critiquing music for [sic]. My aim is not to be an authority, although I don’t really see that term as it is being used in a very negative light.

I admit that attaching star-ratings to a shortlist of recommended albums was a mistake and oversight on my part. I should have a text review for any album to be qualified within my star-rating “system.” That being said, I think it’s going a little far to think that a list of unrated recommendations is out of line.

My proposal in hopes of making both of us happy is this one: put the star rating with the Pinback review. After thinking long and hard about it, I really would like to keep an attached “simple” rating structure alongside the written review. List my five unrated recommendations. I will begin working on reviews for those five albums as well, and as I have them finished, reviewed, and “approved” by the editorial staff (my closet favorite authority), the star rating for those albums and a link to text review can be added to the main review. This will keep me about as busy as I can handle between issues, in combination with our correspondence. Each new issue, I’ll do a “spotlight” album review, accompanied by the unrated recommendations that I will do text and star reviews for between issues.

This will do two things. First, it will encourage readers to check back in with [sic]. Second, it will force my lazy ass into action while still allowing enough flexibility in my schedule to make this a feasible thing for me to be able to contribute to long term.

Let me know what you think.

– jon

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Jon,

You say, “I think it’s unlikely that you would look to Ebert as an example without also awarding him some level of consistent credibility (is that different from authority?).”
I don’t view Ebert as an authority. In a recent review, he made the unsupported claim that a child could paint a presumably simple painting, but not another presumably more complex painting. I messaged him to tell him that I didn’t feel he gave adequate support. I am very interested to see if a person could support such a claim. Especially in the realm of abstract art, it seems it would be difficult to qualify such a claim.

I have to apologize for not being completely clear about why I came to view “authority” as different from “expert.” I realize that “authority” and “expert” are still, unfortunately, not commonly delineated in the way I mean them to be. So, I will share with you the source of the reason for my delineation. It comes from a chapter called “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” in Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World where he identifies several logical fallacies:

Arguments from authority carry little weight— “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

[Fallacy]
argument from authority: e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia—but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out.


Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is one of the most heroically skeptic figures I’ve encountered. He devoted a huge portion of his life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. His book, The Demon-Haunted World, is a reasoned, heavily-evidenced account of why we probably haven’t been visited already. Sagan defeats every anecdotal “proof” offered for contemporary alien visitation. I have every reason to believe that no one would have been happier to find that we have been visited by aliens. However, Sagan, to my knowledge, never falls into the trap of allowing his wishes to influence his conclusions.

Why did I cite Ebert’s quotation? One, it points out his strong distaste for lists, thereby giving me the support of a writer I admire. Two, Ebert says that “Lists are a device by editors to give the appearance of a story without the fact of one.” In saying this, Ebert suggests essentially the same point I made in my previous response—back up your claims with evidence or your claims don’t mean much. As far as Ebert’s thumbs go, he still only applies his thumb rating to movies after he has argued his point. To me, this doesn’t excuse how those ratings are used. They’ve become the equivalent of a catch phrase—like Jim Carrey’s “Alrighty then.” If Ebert wrote for [sic], I think we’d have no choice but to tell him his lists, ratings, and thumbs would all, violently and bloodily, have to be excised.

You say,

It’s all about accessibility, and the genius of attaching simple with in-depth is that it can be both casually accessible…and in-depth. This tactic is one old Roger has taken full advantage of, yet for me, he seems to be a pretty in-depth and consistently good film critic. Thus, Ebert is seemingly able to combine caveman simple with responsible in-depth analysis rather effortlessly.

You seem to be assuming that some of Ebert’s success is due to him bowing down to his editors and serving the lowest common denominator. I doubt it. In my admittedly limited experience working at two Hollywood Video stores for close to three years, the trend I saw was that, if customers noticed at all that Ebert gave it thumbs up, they avoided it. I can’t tell you how many times someone said to me, with a disgusted face, “I hate critics” or “If they say they didn’t like it, I know that I will probably like it.”

“You seem to be assuming that some of Ebert’s success is due to bowing down to his editors and serving the lowest common denominator.
I doubt it.”

I don’t think you give adequate support for keeping your list—it’s just not necessary. Look at the first sentence in your piece: “The likeability of Pinback does not seem to come to one immediately; but after enough listens, it is nearly unavoidable.” In a matter of seconds, I know that you have praise for Pinback. This seems to fit your criteria of “casually accessible” and in-depth. And you didn’t even have to add the extra text of star ratings and lists to achieve that!

I think your “spotlight” idea is good. What about keeping this idea and your list of upcoming albums-to-review, but just calling it “reviews to come in the next issue.” I think that sounds very good. I can’t think of any reason that Trevor would object. What do you think?

I want to point out before I close that I don’t want to define what music should or should not do. I do want to speculate about what music can do. I think that I haven’t made that entirely clear in the “Song Analysis Correspondence.”

Lust,
Clifton

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Clifton,

I think we should move forward with the idea of listing the others as “reviews to come in the next issue.” I would love to keep working within an ongoing process of reviewing music in written form, as I’m still a true novice as a “writer” outside of the songwriting format, and I think doing more of it will only help enrich our ongoing correspondence as well.

That said, I think five reviews is too many for me to keep up with now that I have a slightly clearer picture of the scrutiny (and I don’t use that term negatively) that [sic] submissions will be under by our beloved [sic]brainchildren (which, coincidentally, is a hell of a good band name should the editorial staff decide to take their sexy triune-brain on the road). So, I suggest “Reviews to come in the next issue” to be merely a list of three albums to be reviewed for the upcoming issue. I’m enjoying the education involved in this process enough to contribute an album review a month, should [sic] so desire.

I have no doubt you will continue to ask me to clarify my thinking, a process that many times ends in my being more educated. Case in point: our discussion about star ratings.

I was being extremely small-minded by not realizing earlier that one of my own main points was being neglected by me. When you said, “As far as Ebert’s thumbs go, he still only applies his thumb rating to movies after he has argued his point,” it struck me that while I do want our knowledge to be something we can share, I’m not actually sharing any of my knowledge (or educating myself further, for that matter) about music by giving you lists of recommendations whose reviews have not been done outside of my head.

Without writing them or saying them, my thoughts are not being shared, and I know that I have much to share in the realm of music, and even more to learn. I think I was so adamant about it being approachable that I wasn’t taking even my own points into full account, let alone the ones you were trying to make. I agree with both you and Trevor that star-ratings without a written review are pointless and uninformative.

“For me, something like a star rating is just a tool for classifying and organizing thoughts and opinions, just part of a huge pool of opinion data.”

I’m still not sure I agree with your distaste of simpler ratings (star-ratings, thumbs, etc.) alongside proper in-depth analysis. I don’t see the harm in a simple “overview” rating when accompanied by you actually explaining yourself. That would seem to me the equivalent of asking the table of contents to be ripped out of books. While a star rating may seem like merely an attempt at gaining the status of “authority” or “expert,” I think you have to look at the bigger picture, or a larger sample of data, to see its true value. For example, one pared-down caveman rating of a single album may not appear very valuable. But if you’re introducing yourself to an artist that has, say, 20 records, a collection of this “estimated” opinion data (say x/5 star ratings, for example) from many different sources will still often point to consistent patterns that emerge. I’ve found these patterns very valuable as guideposts and starting points when continuing my education in music.

As you may or may not know, I’ve never liked greatest hits albums, and I’m a big believer in listening to full albums. The reason greatest hits albums are still valuable (even though I hate them) is that they give the people that buy them an overview of an artist’s sound and body of work. You can’t look at a table of contents and derive the same detailed information you likely could in reading a book.

In the same way, you can’t look at a star rating and get the same detail as a written review, and I’m going to take a wild guess that someone who can’t differentiate between those things isn’t going to be spending much time delving into the maze of information [sic] is already providing. For me, something like a star rating is just a tool for classifying and organizing thoughts and opinions, just part of a huge pool of opinion data.

If I can figure out a “system” to go along with my star ratings, which I think would take some time, and maybe put up a disclaimer right next to the star rating saying, “I am not a music authority. This rating was derived using a point system outlined below…” then I would probably have more ground to stand on in my insistence that I think it’s a mistake not to include them with a written review. Until then, I hope my suggestions in paragraph one of this letter will be sufficient.

– jon

Jonathan and the editors of [sic] agreed in the end to include a list of three reviews to come in the next issue.

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