Charles M. Young (1951 - 2014)
Photo by Hilary Johnson
In 2007, when I interviewed Charles M. Young, who passed away this week from a brain tumor, one of the things we discussed was the imposition of the star rating system in the record-review section at Rolling Stone. It was one of the reasons that had caused his friend Paul Nelson to leave the magazine in 1982. Chuck remembered how he'd given one of his own reviews, of a George Winston album, a five-star rating, but when it was published it only had three stars. The reason? Because there were supposedly already too many five-star reviews in that issue.
"I'd never tell Christgau not to use grades, but I wouldn't tell anybody else who didn't want to use grades that they had to. I wouldn't even give grades in school. Grades are a disaster in education, grades are a disaster in rock & roll. You don't listen to music for a grade, you listen to music for its own sake. The point of a review, you describe what's there and then you convey your enthusiasm or distaste after in some way having an accurate description in there of what the album is, to be fair to the artist, and then you say 'it works' or 'it doesn't work,' you convey your enthusiasm or distaste, and that's what a review needs to do...
"When you're teaching kids to read and you give them a gold star for knowing some big word in the story or something, you're just sucking the joy out of learning from the kid. You're teaching them that what you do is work for the gold star, you work for the money. You don't do something because it's inherently worth doing. I mean, the only reason to read a book is because you love the book. The only reason to listen to music is because you love the music. This grade thing destroys that. It's one manifestation of this horrible sickness in American society, which Paul would not participate in, to his great credit. Art was not about grades, it was not about money, it was something that you believed in, that you were committed to with an almost religious passion. And that was Paul."
And that was Chuck.