OCCUPY HIFI Part II – Respect The Art

I’ve been getting a little sick of reading other reviewers spout about what a review should be. You can think I’m the one tripping here, but aren’t we all – as writers and critics of music and audio – just sharing our observations of art forms?

High-End audio is an art form. The music that flows from the gear is an art form. And we are all reacting to, in our individualistic ways, how technology (which is also an art form in and of itself) reproduces the Music! So, why should we waste our time telling others what a review “should be” or “shouldn’t be” for that matter?

I don’t want to read linear reviews any longer. Well, I do from time to time, but I want to know about the writer too; if their likes and dislikes are close to mine, or, at the very least, I’d like to know how a component or a piece of music made them feel during the reviewing process. Sometimes I go off on tangents in my reviews. Hell, I’m probably the king of swerving prose, but it’s only because I want to draw the listener in closer, and by any means necessary.

We’re so fortunate, those of us who work in Hi-Fi full-time. C’mon, we’re forever kids caught in an endless audible candy store! And it’s that enthusiasm that grabs people. Now, I’m not trying to become what I claimed to dislike at the beginning of this essay – I’m merely saying it’s OK to step down from the reviewers falsely raised ivory tower and give yourself completely to your audience.

My first mentor, Mr. Harry Pearson, who coincidentally wrote perhaps the most touching articles on reviewing last year, Reviewers and the Perils of Reviewing, taught me this lesson. I’ve read it a few times. A thread exists that reviewers are no different from users, emotionally or otherwise. Sure, many of us have a great deal more experience in this hobby than others, but we still have our biases just the same. It’s human nature… simple as that. So if you don’t give something of yourself over to the audience, how do they, or I, for that matter, know if there’s even a chance our tastes are aligned? As with all art, transference is achieved when the connection between the artist/expressionist and observer is so powerful that it defeats written words altogether. It comes through symbiosis, and that connection will, most likely, only be achieved when there is absolute trust and surrender on the part of the artist and the observer.

Harry said something about writing one day that changed my writing forever. I came to him for advice when I began writing for HiFi+ magazine, then in London. (This was before they were stateside, and part of a larger magazine conglomerate). After writing a few capsule music reviews, they offered me a column. I was a twenty-something year old punk running tapes to the studio at Atlantic Records. It was scary, but it bore the original Sonic Satori column for me! So by the time I went to Harry I was shitting my pants. I was scared to just go off and just be myself. I worried about rejection and all that bullshit.  So I asked Harry how he managed to bugger on, because as beloved as Harry was, and is, he had plenty of haters, and they were often outspoken and downright obnoxious. At first his response shocked me, and then sunk in like a diamond bullet: “Moishe”, as he called me back then, “you don’t write for the audience. Do you think someone like Oliver Stone, for example, is thinking about the critics while he’s making a film? You draw them in by being true to yourself, and that level of honesty builds trust, and trust is a foundation between the writer and reader. You give your whole self to them, what people do with it is beyond your control, kiddo.”

As with all art, transference is achieved when the connection between the artist/expressionist and observer is so powerful that it defeats written words altogether.

His words may sound contrite to some, but I don’t give a shit: I was blown away at his fundamental understanding of his craft and his ability to cope with its vulnerability. It changed the way I wrote from that day forward. I didn’t consciously change my style or alter my aims, none of that. I just felt better about the path I chose and I haven’t looked back since. The thing is: That’s my process, and I don’t expect others to have the same approach as I do. In fact, I embrace different approaches. Our individual approaches are all different, but we also share something: a collective passion for great music and Hi-fi. And in this connected economy, as Seth Godin says, “passion sells”.

That’s another thing I learned from Harry: Never let anybody try to suppress your passion. I’ve tried to live by that creed. It’s time for everybody to contribute to the whole, and pick each other up. But while we’re doing this, let us admit the fact that everyone’s approach is different. Our styles will differ, our opinions will clash, but as long as there’s respect for the art of reviewing, the reader will prosper. Art is in the eyes and ears of the beholder, and we can’t tell people what’s the absolute “best”. But we can help guide them. It’s a glorious time to be deep into this Hi-Fi hobby so let’s drop foolish things.

I believe one of the biggest misses in Hi-fi journalism today is the lack of passion. Let people in a bit more, let your readers to get to know you. Because those are the real connections that resonate, the ones that last and grow. These connections demand respect. And being that reviewers are professional appreciators, we need to savor the art form we’re celebrating.

We’re going to keep fighting the good fight here at The High Fidelity Report. We’ll explore things together, and as Harry once did, we look forward to follow-ups on the music that strikes a chord with us in addition to the outstanding gear that becomes permanent fixtures in our systems! There ain’t no rules to this thing. Just draw us in. Make us feel like we’re along for the ride. We could all use it.


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Michael Mercer is a veteran reviewer of music and audio components. He got his start working for The Absolute Sound as a teenager and then made his way over to Atlantic Records, working with the legendary producer Arif Mardin. Considered one of the leading "crusaders for personal audio", Mercer can be found writing for many audio publications on the Internet.

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