The other day I was reading the Sunday Times music reviews. Over the last year or so, these have shed the 1-5 star ratings that they used to give the albums and the reviews now consist solely of a block of descriptive text. Being a lazy skim-reader at the best of times, this annoyed me. I suddenly had no obvious reference point rammed down my throat in terms of how good the album was, and horror of all horrors I actually had to read the review.
In the past, I used to cast a glace across the page and read any review that scored 4/5 or higher, before deciding whether or not to investigate further on youtube and possibly then to the final graduating act of raiding my iTunes account. As a scouting exercise this worked well, and never really produced a totally unsatisfactory outcome (with the notable exception of Glasvegas).
Now though, I feel lost within the wheels of the system. It’s completely possible to read a review and still not have the faintest idea as to whether it’s any good. I yearn for that comforting little number.
Take a step back, and you soon realise that the writers of these reviews should be commended. Commended because every other aspect of life fires opinions in the form of ratings down your throat in an almost arbitrary manner.
Take a score of 8/10. Now think where you have seen it over the last week or so. The latest Mars Volta album? Lionel Messi’s performance against AC Milan? A Breville toaster? The new Damien Hurst exhibition? It seems very odd that we use a sliding scale of ratings to pigeon-hole things that are so utterly different. If someone came up to you in the street and asked if you thought a particular Wayne Rooney goal was better than the Marriott Hotel in Barcelona, you’d think they were completely deranged.
Yet these rating are completely necessary, because in areas that we aren’t experts, we have no idea what good is.
I watch Top Gear most Sundays when it is on. I enjoy the stunts, the absurdly manufactured “challenges” and the general banter between the presenters. But I am not a petrol-head, and as such, when Jeremy Clarkson is reeling off the specs for the new Ferrari, he might as well be howling at the moon and throwing his faeces against the wall as far as I’m concerned. He could rattle off a load of statistics about a remote-controlled car, or even just read out the menu from his local Chinese restaurant, and as long as he did it in that trademark enthusiastic growl of his, I’d believe this was the best machine to have ever been invented.
“The awesome one horse-power really packs a punch, while cornering at speed is not a problem thanks to the 4 identical farrier-cast iron radials fitted to the bottom. In fact… In it’s day… This was the best vehicle… In the wooooorld.”
“Amazing, what is it? I want one, nay I NEED one!”
“It’s a horse”
Ah. Touché Mr Clarkson. But for any aspiring car salesmen out there, that is how easy it would be to pull the wool over my eyes. Unless of course I had seen a rating for the machine.
To an extent, I imagine that all human beings have similar blind spots when it comes to knowing what is good. I’ve often thought that, within reason, you can inflate the price of a product and people will revere it based on the comfort of its price tag.
In China where there is a new spate of mega-rich coming into existence, it is not uncommon for them to buy up vast quantities of Chateau Laffite and drink it with Coke. Which must be absolutely revolting, yet they enjoy it because they know they are indulging in a quality and expensive product. I can only imagine that if Laffite bombed in price, they would stop drinking it. Along the same lines, I seem to remember Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts suggesting in an interview that in order to boost sales in China, they merely put up their prices. Which is absolutely extraordinary in economic terms. However this endorsement of their product, even if it was just a price hike, seemed to confirm them as a luxury good, and as such they became sought-after.
In the West, we can laugh at how ignorant these developing tastes are but the fact of the matter is that, in a blind taste test, we are constantly fooled by “inferior” products. I’ve even once left the cinema undecided as to whether a film was absolute genius or utter shit. It was only when the glowing reviews came in that I made my mind up that it was shit (but that’s just the way I am).
As humans we often need to be told how good something is before we start to appreciate it, and mere words will not suffice. We need the comforting and simple opinion that a /10 rating provides.
So, with that, I embark on holiday to Oman, which ratings have told me is somewhere between an LG LW550 42” flatscreen LED television and Kula Shaker’s performance at Glastonbury in 1997. I can’t wait. Probably.
by Harry Harland