I read a lot of music criticism. It's one of the things I like best — and take most for granted — about the Internet. But today I'm a little obsessed with a brand new feature on a six-month-old Tumblr called How To Listen To Music that I found via our buddy Maura Johnston's blog. Over the last four days, the site has been posting real-time reviews of popular songs via home made YouTube videos.
Each HTLTM review is basically a Power Point presentation set to a familiar soundtrack. The visuals: a blank white slate divided into three panels, one each to grade (from left to right) the instrumental, lyrical and vocal sections of the song on a scale of 1 (fail) to 6 (epic). The format is simple, but the number of moving parts is the first sign of the effort and thought that goes into not only the construction of the songs, but criticism itself.
And though it's not thrillingly dynamic, the method makes sense quickly. Each element is taken explicitly at face value and HTLTM is incredibly clear about aesthetic judgments. It can sometimes feel like like an exercise in listing musical pet peeves, but the close attention makes each review compelling from moment to moment, and provokes intense disagreement with the unnamed reviewer as you watch multiple reviews.
That's the best thing about them so far — across nine hyper-critical deconstructions, that reviewer has managed to communicate a precise set of personal preferences. From what I can gather, HTLTM likes: straightforward beats, effortlessly soaring vocals, and elegantly underwritten lyrics. HTLTM seems really bugged by: any kind of dissonance, unnecessary information in the lyrics (the line "I'm dancing a lot" in Christina Aguilera's "Not Myself Tonight" gets dinged for being "unnatural," even if it's true, and "filler" is a common criticism), and meandering sections that don't develop musical or lyrical themes.
HTLTM's blind spots can be infuriating; I've yelled at a small line of typewritten text on my computer screen more times today than I'd like to admit. But if it can sometimes seem like HTLTM is scoring songs based on a songwriting rule book to which nobody else has access, the videos are also a reminder that every critic builds up his or her own set of personal preferences from close to the ground. Even when we agree on a score, there's usually something worth arguing about.