Written by Noé Loyola
Ratings are one of the main ways we approach music these days. Even though it is a useful way to get a curated selection, it can often constrain the infinite possibilities music has to offer, as well as make our listening experience streamlined and impersonal. Looking beyond ratings is an opportunity to listen differently.
Ah, rating and ranking things, one of the pleasures of life. Any fellow nerds out there might sympathize, thinking about building comprehensive lists of their favorite video games, movies, or albums, giddying at the thought of December coming to build a Top 10 ranking for the end of the year. Wonderful, isn’t it?
However, lately, I’ve fallen out of love with this way of life. At first, I was just wondering why I couldn’t bring myself to log any of my music in RateYourMusic, or why I wasn’t as compelled to watch or read reviews of the up and coming releases. After some months of thinking, I realized the ways in which ratings shaped my way of understanding and consuming music.
The first thing that came to mind is that music is often impossible to compare. Ambient music allows me to reflect, imagine, or get cozy. Metal helps me channel my negative emotions and understand the darkness of the world. Cumbia and techno, in their own different ways, compel me to dance. How can you even say bolero and psychedelic rock records are both four stars?
Ratings grant authority, and authority confers legitimacy and officiality, becoming something that we are compelled to follow. It is easy to feel in the wrong when you don’t like the album that everybody thinks is a classic, or you might think you need to keep listening until you get why Anthony Fantano gave that record a strong nine.
For the last couple years, I was driven by a constant feeling of FOMO, because every day that passed was a day where I didn’t listen to the latest critically acclaimed award winning masterpiece. Music became a stressful checklist instead of a blessing. Even though the guidance of the critics was useful, it was preventing me from following a musical journey adequate to my desires and needs.
When looking at the RateYourMusic chart for the Top 100 albums of all time, I noticed that almost all of the releases listed came from either the United States or England. Wait, what? The world has 195 countries! It begs the question: are the Top 100 albums really the best music out there, or is it just a western centric view on what constitutes great music?
This is a direct consequence of colonialism. Colonizers of Africa and America went forward with mentalities of domesticating “savage” countries and “enlightening” them with reason and progress. The cultures of thousands of indigenous groups were suppressed. The ones that remain have either been condemned to obscurity, or appropriated by Western man through things like New Age (which steals from indigenous music) or business techno (which in its original, non-profit driven form we’ll always owe to Black musicians).
The act of rating music is intrinsically linked to this form of thought. A thought that believes that some things are superior to others, that is laser focused on a particular perspective, and establishes a competition for the most powerful to come out on top. In the end, ratings create a bias that tells us what music is important and makes us ignore other things that defy rigid labels. It also empowers people to adopt an elitist attitude, frowning upon “inferior” kinds of music.
This culminates in how capitalism transforms music listening into a marketplace. When an album is coupled with a rating, it immediately turns into a commodity: something to be bought, exchanged, and chosen over other products. In the same way that I look at product ratings in e-shops to inform my purchase and pick the better thing, I am also devoting my attention to certain records over others based on the ratings assigned to them by critics and the community.
Looking back at my FOMO phase, I understand where the feeling came from: instead of enjoying music for what it was and at my own pace, I was partaking in a capitalist race of wealth accumulation. Instead of money, I was amassing experiences with star values that I could exchange in online forum conversations. My stockpile of ratings also made me feel like I knew so much about music, past and present.
But of course, I knew nothing about music. I realized when listening to shows from NTS that showed me awesome music from Cabo Verde, India, or Japan. Or when I met people that not only liked different music from me, but also listened differently by hunting funky records, using ambient to have magical naps, or mixing reggaeton to have messy and cathartic dance parties. I have a hard time imagining giving a rating to any of this music, as each seems to shine in its own context and community.
When letting go of keeping up with the 5 star pantheon, the act of listening and sharing can then turn into so much more. No music seems better than the other, as each person, community, and situation express themselves in their own particular way. In Mexico, sonideros throw massive parties on the streets where people dance cumbia all night. Bootleg groups obsess over sharing and exchanging their latest obscure finds. Communities all over the world get together to play music and sing, strengthening their bonds and relationships. Music and ways of engaging with it are as diverse and colorful as the world itself.
I don’t mean to cancel rating music: it is a very useful way of discovering music: I still rely heavily on RateYourMusic to explore new genres. But the way this mindset limits what music can be can turn into a severe handicap. After all, how can we hope to explain and contain such a multifaceted planet with such a narrow system? Daring to venture beyond its confines reveals a wholly distinct universe.