This morning in my inbox I got an email from eMusic asking me to "rate" Hank Crawford's album "Tight." Ratings seem to have become a ubiquitous feature of the internet. When I read audio equipment reviews on audioreview.com, I have to be told how many stars the piece got from how many reviewers (i.e., readers). When I look at pictures on PhotoSig, I have to learn how many people gave it however many "thumbs up" symbols. (The maximum being three. What?) I have to say, the rating culture of the internet is not for me.
As a sometime critic you might not suppose I'd say that. Isn't "rating" things what criticism is all about? The Sony A900 gets five stars. The Sigma DP2 gets two. Done and out.
That's not it, of course. "Rating" anything—especially, taking averages of many peoples' ratings—misses all the subtlety. First of all, whether an album of music gets five stars or two stars doesn't concern me at all. I would hope that I can have great experiences with music that leaves the mass audience cold. Certainly, what turns on the mass audience—broadest spectrum, lowest common denominator—leaves me cold. Mass ratings systems are just looking for common agreement. They're setting community standards, if you will. That might work for refrigerators. Maybe. It doesn't work for art.
I'm looking for an experience with art. An immediate connection between it and me, now. However many of my fellow humans think crasher squirrel is cute or approve of a Celine Dion song, that does not necessarily predict a good experience for me. My taste isn't mass taste. Mass taste isn't for me. (In fact I have a bias the other way—against mass taste—because historically that's been a better-than-neutral indicator for me.) I love discovering music, books, pictures, and so forth that I love, but I have no condition attached that other people must agree with me.
Plus, how can I know when something will hit me? I recently had a fantastic experience with the first three cuts of Duke Ellington's Piano in the Foreground, an album I've owned forever. (The fourth cut, not so much—it tries to make up in length what it lacks in interest.) Thirteen beautiful and brilliant minutes of music that a 15-year-old Kanye West fan would give one star. Me? Last week, three stars. This week, five. No, that does not average to four.
Even when I "rate" cameras, I assume people will disagree with me, and I completely endorse their right to. I go into writing about a camera knowing that somebody out there will love (and, more importantly, do good work with) what I think is the worst piece of glack in the world, and that somebody else will dismiss out of hand a camera that I think is well nigh on the Holy Grail. That fact does not confront me.
It also matters to me who's doing the rating. It gratifies me that when I recommend a photography book as being outstanding (my current ga-ga favorite is this one, which I totally freakin' love and which you might as well bury me with), lots of my readers go buy it. But when I recommend a random non-fiction book on a random topic, like this one, which I found immersively fascinating and a great read, well, pretty much nobody goes and buys it. Why? Because you know my taste and opinions about photography. You give me credit for expertise, and you probably have a sense whether you are going to enjoy my recommendations or not. But you have no such faith and confidence in my general taste about items outside of my expertise, in which case I am just another guy on the internet.
That's fine. You're allowed to be wrong about my general recommendations, which are spectacularly insightful and rock-solid reliable. Just kidding. How'd you like this post? How many stars would you give it on a scale of five? How many thumbs-ups? The maximum is two, if you're a humanoid, one if you lost an arm in battle. You may additionally give it up to two big-toes-up, if you're barefoot.
That Danny Lyon book has totally reordered my opinion of him as an artist. It gets eight stars on a scale of five. And I don't care if 41 raters on netnet.com agree with me, it does.