erasing clouds

Down With Hyperbole

thoughts from dave heaton

Recent encounters with hyperbole:

1. Last night I heard a college radio DJ say that Andre 3000's The Love Below is by far the best soul, jazz, funk or hip-hop album ever.

2. A few weeks ago, on a web site that I check daily (and write for, Pop Matters), I read in the span of a few minutes these two sentences, in two separate reviews by two different writers: "Despite what others might say, it is an objective truth that Mission of Burma created the rock anthem" and "Ten years after its release, Illmatic stands not only as the best hip-hop album ever made, but also one of the greatest artistic productions of the twentieth century." goes without saying that all three of those claims are ridiculously overblown, and while they're valid as opinions, as statements of fact they're just flat-out wrong. Which is exactly the problem with so much music criticism today: opinions are given as the objective truth. I have no problem with someone saying "Nas' Illmatic is my favorite hip-hop album ever," or even, "The Love Below is the best hip-hop, soul, jazz or funk album I've ever heard." When it comes down to it, that's what these people really mean. But then why even bother phrasing it as "the best ever" or using words like "truth"? The psychoanalyst in me says that the incessant use of hyperbole comes from critics wanting to give their opinions more importance. Hell, anyone can have an opinion. It takes an expert to tell the truth.

But hyperbole has taken over so much more than just a writer's comment here or a DJ's statement there. In a way it's become the framework that most music criticism (and most film criticism, too) is built on. The "top 10 list" becomes the foundation that everything else revolves around. An album can't be all that good if it isn't one of the best. "Such-and-such album is so good, it'll definitely make my top 10 list." Or "this such a perfect movie, it'd be a crime if it didn't make critics' top 10 lists at the end of the year." Add the "best of" steamroller to the unending hype that grows around so many bands and albums (i.e. a band gets thought of as the next big thing, and then everyone and their brother jumps on the bandwagon until a newborn baby turns into a rock legend before the band's sophomore release) and you have a cloud of superlatives covering up any real conversation about the music.

The thing is, I fall victim to this too. Music's such a slippery thing, it's hard not to exaggerate when you're looking for the right words to describe it. I look back at reviews I wrote years ago and think, "Yeah that was a good album, but was it really that good?" And it's hard to delve headlong into the subtleties of a good film without writing forever. It becomes so much easier just to say, "It's the best movie of the year. See it." Maybe I hate hyperbole in others because I hate it in myself. I hate to think that no one will listen to my opinion unless I go out of my way to make my opinion sound as strong as possible. But if you take some hyperbole as a given, it's still grown out of control. It's a rolling snowball that just keeps growing, picking up more 10-best lists and "without a doubt" statements as it rolls. In a way, one of the worst outcomes from all of the superlatives is how it makes the music criticism world so much more circular and closed-off. When the conversation is all about what's the best ever, so much music that doesn't fit the current definition of "perfect" just falls to the wayside. So you get music criticism that cuts off the dialogue instead of furthering it, writing that makes listeners avoid more music than they pursue...which as far as I'm concerned is exactly not the point.

Issue 24, June 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds