What good are ratings?

A conversation with Jon Jacob who blogs at Thoroughly Good

JJ: I read a few reviews this morning with star ratings. I’m reminded how they much they annoy me. I’m not entirely sure why they do. I was hoping our exchange might help me understand why a bit better.

Basically, I just think rating someone’s performance is a bit odd. Mean really. By stating how many stars you thought someone’s performance was you’re kind of elevating yourself – making out that your criteria for judging whether something is good or not is valuable.

What really irks is that so much marketing stuff makes use of these star ratings. Because when that happens that rating process is legitimised.

Do I need to lighten up? Am I missing something?

CEP: I have always been uncomfortable with the star rating system for reviews and was acutely aware of it when I wrote for an international concert listings and reviews site where star ratings were de rigueur. For me, when reviewing, it meant that I had to always been thinking “is this a …. star performance?” and the aforementioned site actually had guidelines for reviewers to help them decide whether the performance deserved five stars or fewer. Awarding three stars often felt quite mean-spirited to me – being in the middle of 1 and 5, 3 feels like you’re saying “it was ok”, when in fact it was quite obvious to me, being a musician myself, that the performer had clearly spent hours and hours preparing for the performance and was maybe just having an off day at the concert, for whatever reason (something I think many reviewers – and audiences – don’t appreciate: performers are human too and a disrupted journey to the venue, feeling under par and a whole host of other factors can affect one’s performance…..)

From the reader’s point of view, I think star ratings are very limiting, especially if they are published at the head of the review (as is common practice). The reader/potential audience may see a low star rating (and I think a lot of readers think 3 stars signals “mediocre”) and not bother to read on. There is, of course, a converse argument – that a one-star review might pique one’s interest to actually read the review and/or go and hear that performer out of curiosity.

As I think you know from my writing on this subject and our conversations, I do not think it is the reviewer’s role to “rate” the performance; nor do I think music performance can be rated via such a rudimentary metric as stars. We are not talking about hotel accommodation here where the criteria for star ratings are more easily comprehendable! I believe a music review should be a record of the event and as such serves to place the concert in context (for example, a composer anniversary or a premiere of a new work). I believe we still need to record the activities of performers/composers via intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity. Unfortunately, I feel the star rating system discourages all of this by putting an undue focus on “rating” the event rather than describing it and bringing it to life for those who weren’t there.

I agree with your comment about the value of star ratings for marketing purposes and this troubles me for the same reasons you express. And to describe someone as a “five star performer” seems to me be an anodyne and lazy way of presenting what might be a really exceptional artist. Sadly, in our feedback-driven culture, where undue emphasis is placed on customer reviews on sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor, I don’t think we can easily escape this…..

JJ: Your response reminds me of the challenge in art music at the moment. On the one hand we want more people to enjoy it. I want people to experience a similar thrill discovering personal insights about the art. Such insights can’t be documented as a criteria or expectation from listening. They are by definition personal and distinctive. A Haydn sonata’s impact on you will be different from the impact it has on me, for example.

How do we report on a performance authentically and respectfully without stating implicitly or explicitly that the performance should be performed one way or the other? And how do we style that reporting such that it advocates attentive or active listening rather than promoting an erroneous requirement of prior knowledge in the subject? It’s as though we need to promote listening, rather than the content.

In that way, I’m not entirely convinced that star ratings support that approach to documenting events or promoting active engagement in performance.

There’s a personal perspective too. What if the star ratings apply to a soloist rather than an ensemble? Does the person using the rating mechanism have a responsibility for the way the rating might be interpreted by a large audience (ie the rater’s intent maybe entirely different from the audience/reader interpretation)?

I also don’t get the point in rating a live performance which is by definition a one-off. Fine for opera because there’s a run of performances, but a one off concert seems a bit odd.

But still, I wonder whether there’s another perspective I’m missing.

CEP: I agree re. star ratings for opera (or theatre/film, for that matter) – stars are more relevant if there’s a run of performances.

I’d love to know how much store audiences/potential audiences really set by star ratings (maybe we should run a survey?!). Do people really select concerts by performers who’ve received favourably ratings on the basis of those ratings (I know I don’t), or are there wider criteria (such as reputation of performer, venue, programme etc – the last point being my usual criteria for selecting a concert)? Do they think “oh I’ll book to hear Trifonov because he always gets 5-stars”? Not sure…. and I think audiences are actually far more discerning than mainstream reviewers/promoters give them credit for.

Your response ties in with something else I am pondering – the apparent need to find “meaning” in everything, specifically in classical music as a way, perhaps, of validating it or making it relevant to people today. In an way, reviews are complicit in this by trying to express meaning (whether it is actually there or not in the music) to the reader. It seems we can’t simply report on the concert, describing the sounds the performer/s made, the quality of the performance, our personal response to it. Everything must be freighted with meaning or “relevance”. The music is not simply allowed to “be”, or be “entertainment” (in the best sense of that word)… But I digress slightly.

When I was reviewing regularly, I would quite frequently receive comments from other people who had attended the same concerts and who might take issue with something I had said in a review. For example, I was accused of being “far too generous” to a very elderly pianist (now sadly no longer with us) because his Chopin performance was “riddled with errors and inconsistencies”, and why hadn’t I documented them? But I don’t believe it is my job as a reviewer to highlight a performer’s errors (unless they are really dreadful, in which case I simply wouldn’t write a review); nor do I think reviewers/critics should seek to tell the musicians how to do their jobs.

My personal “crusade” – and I think this is a sentiment we share – is to encourage people to enjoy classical music and to debunk this silly notion that one needs to be well-informed, knowledgeable or educated to a certain level in order to “appreciate” it. Unfortunately, some of the more high falutin or pretentious writing on classical music isn’t helping; but I also think people are becoming more suspicious of mainstream critics and reviewers and are turning instead to independent review sites/blogs where they can find longform/more considered writing which has a more personal/authentic voice to it.

JJ: We agree. For me I experience unfamiliar works, familiar ones, or new compositions as a journey of self-discovery. What or how the composer or performer does is of secondary importance to the effect their work is having on my emotions. That for me is the thrill of this art form. Being able to articulate when it works and when it doesn’t takes more than just a rating.

What I keep coming back to in our exchange here is the responsibility on the mediator – be it marketer, journalist, critic – to advocate the art form in a respectful way that pays deference not only to the effort involved in creating it, but also emphasises the listeners contribution to the end product.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the best way of achieving that preferred mediation, but I’m working on it.

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