Twitter Music Reviews: Criticism As Haiku Twitter, as we've seen in the protests in Iran, is becoming something of a force for democracy. It's proving useful not only for organizing street demonstrations but also for bringing down the walls around that most rarefied of communities: the world of music reviews.


Music Reviews

Twitter Music Reviews: Criticism As Haiku

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Okay, so imagine trying to describe the Beatles' "White Album" in 140 characters. This is of course now the world of Twitter, and many people who use Twitter are trying that out. They're trying to come up with short punchy reviews of new albums and a lot of their old favorites, and we decided to put someone to the test. The editor of NPR's Song of the Day, Stephen Thompson, is with me in the studio.

Stephen, thanks for doing this.

STEVEN THOMPSON: Oh, thank you, David.

GREENE: Let's fire up some music.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is Dead Weather, "Treat Me Like Your Mother."

(Soundbite of music)

THE DEAD WEATHER (Music Group): (Singing) Don't act like you can't act. I always think you do it. You better learn to shake hands. Treat me like your mother.

GREENE: Okay, Stephen. Have at it, 140 characters, go.

THOMPSON: Okay, 140 - now, before I do this, I should explain that I approach Twitter as a science. I think Twitter should be perfectly punctuated, it should be in complete sentences, words should be spelled out, and it should be exactly 140 characters.

GREENE: Not everyone is so careful.

THOMPSON: I was raised by editors, and so here's what I wrote on The Dead Weather: A supergroup led by Kills' singer, The Dead Weather churns out big, bluesy, swampy rock. Jack White is on drums, but his presence dominates.

GREENE: And that was 140 characters?

THOMPSON: That was exactly…

GREENE: You promise?

THOMPSON: I promise, it was exactly 140 characters. Does that say anything to you? Does that work, 140 characters?

GREENE: It sums it up for me. I'm never going to read a long music review in the same way ever again. I'm going to be like, this could have been shorter. We should be clear here, you're reviewing in these 140 characters whole albums and not just single songs. So fire up another one.

THOMPSON: Yeah, we're playing sort of representative samples. This one I picked, in part, because it was challenge inherent in reviewing a group called The Phenomenal Handclap Band. And just the words the phenomenal hand clap band I think is 28 characters. That leaves 112 to describe the music.

GREENE: Cruel.

THOMPSON: So I wrote The Phenomenal Handclap Band, colon, chugging, timeless, jammy throwback from eight shaggy Brooklyn hipsters. Starts slowly, gets hypnotically fun.

(Soundbite of music)

THE PHENOMENAL HAND CLAP BAND (Music Group): (Singing) We really couldn't once we get to the top, we'll start acting like we don't know when to stop. And we don't care what you think, we'll tell you what to think. And you'll disappear…

GREENE: We often joke here at NPR about how it's so much harder to do, you know, a two minute piece than it is, you know, a seven or eight minute piece.

THOMPSON: Absolutely.

GREENE: Does it go the same here? I mean are a 140 characters like the toughest challenge you have?

THOMPSON: Well, in a way it's easier and in a way it's harder. You don't have the benefit of setting up a narrative, but you also don't have the work of setting up a narrative, so you're sort of forced to go with your gut. You're sort of forced to go with your first impulse and your first instinct. Like what I notice about this is it - well, it starts slowly and builds to something really interesting. And the songs kind of do the same thing. So you're able to sort of let that stand as your review of the record.

GREENE: And so I see we have another band on the list. It's Mos Def and the song is "Auditorium?"


(Soundbite of music)

MOS DEF (Music Group): (Singing) Sit and come relax, riddle of the Mac, it's the patch. I'm a soldier in the middle of Iraq. Well say about noonish coming out the whip and looking at me curious, a young Iraqi kid carrying laundry, what's wrong G? Hungry? No, give me my oil or get out my country.

THOMPSON: Mos Def is a hip-hop renaissance man on smart songs that look to the whole world and its conflicts. Slick Rick's guest spot is a nice touch.

(Soundbite of music)

MOS DEF: (Singing) I'm like surely hope that we can fix our differences soon.

GREENE: That was 140 characters?

THOMPSON: That was 140 characters.

GREENE: Is that all I need to know?

THOMPSON: You know, I don't know that that's all you need to know. That's a really interesting record. It's a hip-hop record that's looking well beyond his personal world. I find that this sort of really short form writing, like reading really short-form writing, is a little bit like if you like candy, but you eat it one sugar crystal at a time. It's only so satisfying. You're not necessarily going to make a grand statement.

But at the same time, I like to think - I hope that it's a little bit like Haiku. I don't think anything should necessarily replace an extremely well thought out long form opinion from somebody who listens to thousands and thousands of records. I'm always going to be interested in those people's opinions.

But at the same time, I want to know what my friends think as well. You know, Twitter isn't just the din of a billion strangers. For me, I use my Twitter account to follow the opinions of - and the thoughts and the whims - of my friends.

GREENE: Okay, you're probably going to want to punch me when we leave the studio for doing this to you, but a lot of our colleagues have said that they want me to put you on the spot and ask you to review the Beatles' "White Album" in 140 characters. He's speechless.

THOMPSON: That is horrifying. You know, one of the benefits of doing these in advance is I can sit at home and listen to the album and craft them. The Beatles' "White Album" is…

GREENE: There you go. Maybe just some words to describe it.

THOMPSON: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is a very, very, very, very pretty song. There are others. See, I don't know. I don't know if that's 140 characters.

GREENE: That's nice. It sounded like it to me. We'll never put you on the spot again, I promise. We've been talking to NPR's editor of Song of the Day, Stephen Thompson. He took on the challenge of reviewing some albums for us in 140 characters, as a lot of people are doing these days on Twitter.

He's also the most compulsive Tweeter I've ever met. He gets all of his grammar right. It's exactly 140 characters. I'm going to get some lessons from him when leave here. Steve, thanks for being here.

THOMPSON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps")

GREENE: And songs from all three albums that Stephen reviewed very briefly are streaming at

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