The major trafficked commodity in popular art criticism, from Rolling Stone to IGN to The Guardian, is review scores. You probably browse the first two Amazon Reviews when you buy a new blender, or you check out Metacritic before you pick a movie for date night. It’s such an institution of the internet attention economy, it becomes mandatory – even if you think the practice itself is kinda ridiculous.
Most review systems are broken. Any analysis that goes beyond the surface will reveal contradictions and inconsistencies that make you realize this whole thing is a thread that you can’t pull lest you unravel the world. A big offender is the common 100-point scale, employed by titans of industry like IGN & Pitchfork. By now, most of us are capable of a basic interrogation: What’s the difference between a 7.1 and a 7.2? What stops a 9.4 from being a 9.3?
Even the standard bearer for the 100 point scale, Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, doesn’t provide a very good argument for its validity. In an interview with The 405, he said, “It’s not hyper-scientific, but there’s a real difference between a 8.0 and a 8.9 – really, there is! Being more precise can only be a good thing, right?” Kind of, Ryan. Choosing a 0.9 difference is a weak example. A better question is, is 8.0/8.9 solidly different from 8.0/9.0? Isn’t 8.9 just a reluctance to commit to a hard 9, which is a vague and useless feeling that you, as a reviewer, are supposed to make a tough decision on? Specificity helps if we’re talking about something hard and measurable, but at the end of the day we’re just trying to put thoughts and feelings into a number. Putting them into words is hard enough, but translating those words into numbers starts to feel arbitrary outside of the extremities of terrible and perfect. The 100 percent scale is even worse than a mere 100 point scale. You might believe a 6.5 is the same as a 65%, but in the mind of the audience (and some reviewers) a 65% is converted into the letter grade D. As in, barely passing. On a numeral scale, at least you can acknowledge that a 5.0 is mediocre, but a 50% is seen as an F, rightly or not. The audience’s tendency to convert percentages into grades has rendered 1% through 50% all the same thing. An entire half of the scale is useless. The scales that work best are the 13-point numberless letter grade scale (utilized by The AV Club) and the 10-point 5 star scale (utilized by Rolling Stone and, sometimes Moxipop). The letter grades with no associated number allow the audience to use their frame of reference without having to quantify their feelings into a hyper specific number. My personal preference is the star scale – the visual element of seeing a 2.5 as the middle of a scale allows you to use the midpoint as an average without making it seem like a failing grade. Of course, Metacritic will still aggregate it as a 50%. But regardless of what system you use, you’re still faced with the same philosophical problem of trying to translate a feeling and an opinion into a hard number, which will be compared to other numbers. An essay expresses thoughtful ideas is timeless and flexible, it captures a reaction. A hard number will always be the same number and removes context – a 5 star album might feel like a 5 star album, but if the follow-up album is even better, how do you reflect that? There’s no flexibility to their judgment while an essay about how an album made you feel will always be true. And yet, we all know this. Despite the obvious problems, review scores are necessary for nearly any publication. In the online world, if you want to play ball with Metacritic, you have to have some hard numbers. Even outside of that, empty, reductive scores draw traffic. The internet is built on a culture of informational bursts, and we’ve all reverted to our lizard brain that likes review scores because we just want to know what Maxwell album is considered the best without reading a review of every album in his discography. Then there are readers that click on a review, look at the score, and then promptly exit out — and those are the bread and butter of internet success. This is a roundabout way of explaining why we have star scores only when we want to, yes. Sometimes those feelings crystallize so purely that it’s easy to slap a 4 star graphic onto an album. But that’s a luxury, and really shouldn’t be the default way we understand and interpret art. I love reading good reviews. I know that’s not cool to say because critics don’t make anything and are parasites on true artists or whatever, but a great reviewer will articulate the thoughts and feelings you have in ways you couldn’t pin down. They’ll untie knots in your head and lead you to a wider understanding of entire genres, cultures and mediums. It’s an aid in understanding and, if done really well, becomes a supplement to a piece of art. A rating of 6.3 does none of that, but it’s the reason the writing has a chance to exist.