Maxim eats crow

By • Feb 27th, 2008 • Category: Columns

During the next few weeks, as the March edition of Maxim Magazine gets delivered to countless college dorm rooms and bachelor pads, the men’s magazine’s pinup-starved readership will face some tough choices.

Should they take a break from their “Punk’d” marathon to read a column called “Voyeuristic celebubabe sites cater to the bored and horny masses”? (No joke, that is on page 32). Will they be able eat a bowl of Ramen noodles while at the same time thumbing through an article on why women enjoy pornography as much as men? (Also, not a joke – page 69). Would it be better to replace the John Belushi “Animal House” poster or the Al Pacino “Scarface” one with this month’s complimentary Maxim photo spread of Danneel Harris looking like a road-tripping prostitute lost somewhere in the desert? (Page 107). Lastly, is it necessary to turn off the Nickelback/311/Soulja Boy mixed CD when skimming the reviews section, which includes a piece by a critic who didn’t actually listen to the album in question. (Still completely serious – page 50).

Although the first few examples dishearteningly prove that 20-something men have little shame in what they willfully pay for and read, the latter infringes on one of the fundamental – albeit increasingly foolish – elements of music fandom: The record review.

On Tuesday, Maxim Editorial Director James Kaminsky issued a statement apologizing for a published critique of The Black Crowes’ upcoming album, “Warpaint.” For years, musicians including Courtney Love, Ryan Adams, and even Ted Leo have lashed out at critics for negative reactions. But in this instance, Maxim didn’t retract the review because the Crowes were unhappy with the opinion, like every scorned musicians wishes would happen. The magazine apologized because the writer didn’t, in fact, know whether it was a bad album. The writer had not heard the album.

It’s a strange chain of events:
- Maxim published a 2 1/2-star review in its March issue.
- The Black Crowes management then released a statement on the band’s official Web site claiming that reviewing the album was impossible because no promotional copies had been circulated to the press. Therefore, the band said, the critique was based entirely on one song that had been released to radio, “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution.”
- The magazine issued a statement admitting fault, saying “It is Maxim’s editorial policy to assign star ratings only to those albums that have been heard in their entirety. Unfortunately, that policy was not followed in the March 2008 issue of our magazine and we apologize to our readers.”
- The band’s handlers responded in another statement, in which manager Pete Angelus said, “In my opinion, Maxim’s fabrication of an album review is highly unethical and indefensible. This issue potentially pertains to all artists and their craft, and a publication which apparently has no respect for either. … In my opinion, Maxim’s ‘apology’ is self-serving damage control by failing to mention The Black Crowes. The appropriate action from Maxim is to immediately issue a public apology to The Black Crowes for disparaging both the band and their soon to be released new album ‘Warpaint’ without having heard the material.”

Whew. Everyone needs to take a deep breath and relax. No, not the kind of deep breath that The Black Crowes championed when headlining the 1992 Great Atlanta Pot Festival. But rather, they type of pause in which everyone realizes that this can be good for both the magazine and the band.

By apologizing for the ethical misstep, Maxim has been given the chance to embrace a degree of journalistic veracity that just seems to lack in stories about which politicians have the wildest sex lives. (Page 98).

Subsequently, all this hoopla over the March 4 release of “Warpaint” has gotten the blogosphere buzzing about a record that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. For the past seven years, Chris Robinson has spent more time growing his beard than writing music. Yet despite this being the Crowes’ first output in more than a half-dozen years, it would have had the same chart-missing impact as other underwhelming, “oh, they’re still a band?” comebacks.

But not anymore. Now, Maxim is a beacon of transparency and integrity not to be bothered with stories about “American Ugly,” a search for “your freaks, your little people, your morbidly obese” models. (Page 112). And the southern rockers have stumbled on a way to let the world know that they have a new album that might or might not be worth 2 1/2 stars.

However, it’s this pointless obsession with qualifying music that makes album reviews a bit trite in the first place. Something as subjective as music is difficult to label as “good” or “bad” with just a blanket statement, particularly when one person is speaking on behalf of an entire publication. Taste is not easy to pinpoint when doing so as briefly as attaching a couple stars at the top of a few hundred words. The key to a successful review is not whether the writer liked or disliked the album, but instead in the explanation why. The words and reasoning far outweigh the grade.

When Northwest Herald Sidetracks Editor Bryan Wawzenek pens a few reviews each week, it’s evident that he’s speaking on his own behalf. If his byline didn’t make that clear, then his mug shot should have. But when publications allow opinions to facelessly hide behind number ratings, it can create situations such as this Maxim ordeal. There’s no accountability when discrediting someone’s work.

Recommendations are the lifeblood of fandom. Getting turned on to new tunes, and inversely turning others on to artists, is an interpersonal chain in which every music lover is a link. But it’s those weak ones – the Maxim critic too eager to write a snarky quip than to exert the proper effort – that make album reviews such mundane territory. All too often do writers criticize without suggesting improvements – something that admittedly is hard to do if you haven’t heard the record and don’t know what could be improved upon. It’s as if there is a haste to find negatives and a hesitance to acknowledge positives in this desire to be elitist.

That’s not saying all reviews should be good – far from it. But it does mean that too often critics publish opinions based on the image it will give them, and not necessarily on what they have heard. This growing disingenuous cynicism makes it hard to trust, or care about, this once great form of endorsement. These writers, who would rather appear pretentious than write their honest thoughts, make it tougher for all album reviewers to maintain credibility.

Sure, jumping to judgment of “Warpaint” isn’t the same news fabrication as, say, making up a story for the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict. And it’s a far cry from concocting 27 stories for The New Republic. But it’s now a small footnote in the same conversation.

Discovering and enjoying new music is the core of fandom, and journalists have a responsibility to provide the most honest opportunity for others to do that. Not because of their readers, per say, but because they are fellow music lovers. Making up a review just reeks of a writer too self-conscious to admit that he or she hadn’t heard something. In today’s world, nobody can be expected to know everything about every note floating around the Internet. There’s just too much. But it harkens back to that desire to be elitist and these writers who nickname themselves “snobs,” more interested in formulating others’ opinion of them then letting their writing speak for itself.

It’s shallow. It’s pointless. And it doesn’t give any credit that readers are interested in drawing any of their own conclusions. Maybe that’s true; they are reading album reviews after all.

Maxim has not said whether the journalist in question would be disciplined. If they are forced to take a break from album reviews, they could always rebuild some credibility by working on things such as Avril Lavigne, “Unplugged, Uncensored, Unzipped.” (Page 82).

Northwest Herald, Feb. 27, 2008

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