Music

Pitchfork's viral Måneskin review reminds us music criticism can be savagely entertaining

The music review of today is a bland, joyless, watered down thing. So it's a treat to come across a takedown that's funny, original and refreshingly puerile

Måneskin at Eurovision

Måneskin from Italy after the Eurovision Grand Final in 2021. Image: Rolf Klatt/Shutterstock

“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.

It’s easy to understand why writers may prefer to pull their punches, or pass over stuff they dislike altogether in favour of writing only about what they do enjoy. I do it myself sometimes. But if you can stay within the bounds of good taste, avoid personal criticism as much as possible, and always try to punch upwards, not down, I still think that negative music reviews can and should remain an essential ingredient in the great music soup. And an art unto themselves.

Larson’s Måneskin review thoughtfully poses big-picture questions about fashion, elitism, and the death and corporate rebirth of alternative culture. Which is nice, but the more childish the bad review the better, if you ask me. Not quite chimp-drinking-its-own-piss childish. But provocative, pithy, opinionated, cutting – liable to fire a bit of tribalism and debate in this age of omnivorous and algorithmic music tastes, when everyone seems to be into everything and yet nothing all at once. Like when the masterful Peter Robinson, reviewing Nickelback’s Rockstar for The Guardian in 2008, bemoaned how hellish the song is from the very first millisecond, complaining “even terrorist organisations offer some sort of tip-off”. Or when Neil Kulkarni got whipped up into a righteous fury for The Quietus writing about Coventry lad-rock band The Enemy’s 2012 album Streets in the Sky. “There it sits,” he began, “being shite, in the noonday sun, attracting flies”.

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Groupthink isn’t a good thing, kids. In music as in life, it’s fine and indeed healthy to consider and perhaps even absorb opinions that differ from those of your peers, and to scrutinise and revaluate your personal tastes, which will anyway fluctuate and evolve throughout your lifetime. Music is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures – a trusted friend in times both good and bad. But it is also quite often ludicrously silly, superficial and self-important. Its pomposity routinely needs pricked; its egos deflated; its imposters called out. Good music criticism can do that.

It is also, sometimes, simply damn good fun to read. A form of entertainment all in its own right, fit to make you spray your morning coffee all over your laptop screen, or chuckle manically into your phone screen on the bus. A truly great piece of music writing, positive or negative, can entertain and inspire, and perhaps even make you think about the world just a tiny bit differently. Not unlike music itself.

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

Meanwhile, from the desk of The Big Issue’s Culture Editor…

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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