Monday, January 18, 2010

Ringo and critical taste

(Full disclosure: I haven't listened to Y Not from front-to-back. Make of that what you will as you read this post).

A question came to mind as I read through some reviews of Ringo's new album, Y Not: what criteria do pop critics use when assessing the music of someone like Ringo Starr? I bring this up because I noticed a couple of heavily qualified though positive takes on the album that, written as they were, seemed to suggest that much more than the quality of the music was being considered. One such review, composed by Martin Bandyke, comes with the header, "Ringo's CD delights; but why wouldn't it?" and includes this line: "Yeah, yeah, yeah...his solo career hasn't been much to shout about since, oh, 1974 or so." This has the feel of faint praise, but faint praise that still conveys a generally approving message. The same is true of this mini-review, written by Sal Nunziato, which states: "It's bloody Ringo. Nothing special, but nothing terrible either." Both Bandyke and Nunziato basically concede that Ringo isn't much to speak of as a solo artist, but neither follows this line of thinking to one of its possible conclusions - that his album just isn't very good and doesn't merit a recommendation, however equivocal. Is it the case, then, that other factors are strongly influencing their opinions? And if so, what are they?

Before I continue, it should be noted that all of this is mere speculation. I can't pretend to know with certainty what informs or colors the judgments reached by these critics. At the same time, I don't think my points are unreasonable (though they might be a bit obvious).

Now, if other considerations are at work, they're likely some combination of Ringo's status as a legend, his noted likability on a human level, and circumscribed expectations.

From personal experience, I can attest to the difficulty of mentally setting aside Ringo's storied past when trying to evaluate his solo work. It's a tall task. The greatness of what he contributed to in his previous life is inescapably present even in his most uninspired post-Beatles material. That's not to say it somehow improves the quality of the music. But when you hear Ringo's familiar voice or come across drum parts that recall Beatles songs, thoughts of his former band - pleasant and admiring thoughts - are often not far behind and can easily shade your views. On principle, I wouldn't find it right if Ringo was given leniency on account of decades-old accomplishments. Ideally, his music would just speak for itself, untouched by predispositions. But it's an obvious overreach to expect that kind of pure criticism from everyone. It would only be human for Bandyke and Nunziato to go easy on Ringo in part because of who he is.

And not only is Ringo a former Beatle, he's also a very endearing individual who doesn't readily invite dislike upon himself. This is another factor that could cause critics to hesitate in coming down hard on his music. Who wants to be the one that trashes the work of such a warm and generous guy, someone who has made "peace and love" his life's mantra? Doing so might feel callous and false. A critic with this in mind might then chose to overlook certain shortcomings in the music and focus on, say, how it makes them feel. Positive vibes can be infectious, after all, and Ringo has cultivated plenty of them over the years.

Perhaps more importantly, there's also the issue of expectations. Because many of us don't expect very challenging, inventive, or even interesting music from Ringo the Solo Artist, we don't take him to task for not delivering those qualities in his albums. As long as he pumps out cleanly produced, feel-good pop-rock with lyrics about peace, love, and understanding, a lot of people will be satisfied. This explains sentiments like, "It's bloody Ringo. Nothing special, but nothing terrible either." At the risk of stating the obvious, "nothing terrible" is a low bar to use when appraising an album. It calls into question the propriety of the limited expectations game. And, again, it makes you wonder what all is animating the critic's opinion. The same goes for the title of the first review I cited: "Ringo's CD delights; but why wouldn't it?" This seems to go beyond even the realm of expectations, indicating strong preconceptions. "... but why wouldn't it?" That line comes too close to ruling out the possibility of not liking the album and should maybe raise some red flags (Maybe not though. There might be something to it, but I probably shouldn't put much emphasis on the title of a review as opposed to the actual content).

I should reiterate that I don't mean to denigrate anyone's journalistic integrity. I also don't want to suggest that there are no critics who have reviewed Ringo's solo albums unfavorably. Many have, of course. He is in no way immune to forceful criticism. I just wonder if too much weight is given to factors outside the music itself when an album like Y Not is reviewed and if this is regrettable or merely to be expected.

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