Each week here at Plugged In, I review at least one music track and an album. And that can actually be kind of a tricky thing.
Because music is such a deeply personal medium—in fact, I’d argue that music might just be the entertainment category that fans identify with the most fervently—we regularly get questions and comments from our readers about our reviews and how we write them.
Two questions pop up fairly frequently. One, how do you choose the music you review? And, two, do you actually listen to it?
I’d like to take a moment to talk about those queries here, starting with the second one. Last week we got a letter from a reader who wasn’t happy with a review I’d written about a band he really likes. He noted that I got a lyric wrong. Dead wrong, if you ask him! And because that lyric was on lots of other websites devoted to disseminating song lyrics, he suggested that I hadn’t listened to the album at all and was just blindly relying on those third-party lyrics sites for information.
I totally understand how he came to that conclusion. But … that’s not how we work at all.
Once Plugged In’s editor and I decide on what we’re reviewing (more on that process below), I go to various lyrics sites and print them off to read as I listen to each song. Instead of painstakingly transcribing every word as it’s sung, I compare and contrast what I’m hearing with what’s on the sheet in front of me. It’s a huge help, time-wise, and it sometimes even serves as a catalyst for rethinking something I think I’ve heard one way, but another listener heard differently. Though the folks who post lyrics online don’t always get it right, these “super-fans” often have an understanding of a given singer’s slang terms or jargon that someone not quite as close to the “inner circle” might not get right.
I will note that whenever possible we try to purchase iTunes’ deluxe editions or actual CDs (though that’s increasingly rare in our digital-download age) that have the lyrics included. That way we’re getting the words directly from the artists themselves. These days, however, fewer and fewer singers are making their lyrics available anywhere. (And you’d be surprised how often the artists’ own printed lyrics deviate from what they actually sing.)
So, with lyrics printed out and in hand, I sit down and listen to the track or album carefully, reading the words as they’re sung. Many times it’s clear when the words don’t match what I’m reading. In those cases, I’ll often replay a section of a song over and over again, trying to figure it out exactly. And if it’s still not clear, I’ve been known to subject others on the Plugged In team to the sequence I’m struggling with, getting more opinions. In short, we work hard to get it right.
For all that effort, of course, sometimes we still get the lyrics wrong. The reader I mentioned above, for example, readily provided us with an alternate take on a couple of words in a particular track, and when I went back and listened again, I could hear that he was probably right. But I could also hear how I missed it since the way it was sung still sounded a lot like it was documented on my lyric sheet.
We’ve since swapped out the incorrect words for the correct ones in our review. Such misinterpretations are always a bit embarrassing, but we’re thankful for our eagle-eyed readers who help us find the things we’ve gotten wrong.
OK. Finally, we’re back to question No. 1. As for how we go about selecting the songs we review, there are several factors involved. While factoring in genre diversity (from rock and rap to country and folk to EDM and CCM), the biggest component is how well-known artists are, how much “buzz” they’re generating and where their music has charted or is likely to chart. That means much of our decision-making is driven by what’s happening in the popular culture at the moment.
Why? Because those things speak to how much influence an artist’s lyrical message might have, and that’s our bull’s-eye here at Plugged In. That said, there are a couple of other factors that can nudge a decision one way or another. Our website analytics tools enable us to see what people are searching for on our site. And those searches play an important role too. Sometimes the most popular release during a given week, from the mainstream culture’s point of view, isn’t the one you are actually the most interested in.
And occasionally a song or album comes along that’s neither popular nor something our readers are actively looking for. But we feel it’s important to talk about it for specific philosophic or spiritual reasons.
So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to put popular music under the microscope, Plugged In-style, now you’ve got a much better idea of what happens behind the scenes each and every week before our reviews “magically” appear on our site.