When I arrived at college, it was with the intention of becoming a journalist. I starting working on my required classes at the J school, and second semester of my freshman year I thought it’d be a good idea (and even better resumé-builder) if I tried to get on at the Daily Nebraskan as a reporter. I ended up working in two departments, News and Arts & Entertainment, and as a part of my duties as an A&E reporter I reviewed promo CDs that the A&E editor received from record companies and split up amongst us. We got $10 a story, plus we got to keep the CD. Doesn’t seem like much compensation now, but I was making less than $5 an hour checking groceries at the time, and per hour I actually came out ahead.
I learned quickly that a young writer has a lot more to say about something she doesn’t like than something she does, and it’s a lot of fun to skewer someone with a level of thoughtless snark attainable only by a pre-Internet 19-year-old who, if not totally oblivious to the consideration, could be fairly certain that her target would never read her critique in a Midwestern college newspaper that was barely read by the Midwestern students that attended said college. Mostly, she dreamed that her editors, friends, and supposed audience would be impressed by her cleverness. Not even half a thought was given to the actual human beings who made the music.
I’ve always been a music lover, and no one reading this will be amazed to learn that I’ve never been terribly shy about sharing my opinions. On anything. But it’s worth noting that at the time, my musical bona fides consisted of 3 years of piano lessons (abandoned by the 7th grade), 7 years of school orchestra as a violinist, and a record collection consisting of a grand total of 11 albums, 7 of which were Duran Duran.* Some of the kids I knew were listening to The Cure and The Smiths, but I was religiously devoted to the Casey Kasem Top 40 countdown; I didn’t go for that alternative stuff. Scott got me into that. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as “college radio” until I was in college. Suffice it to say, my musical experience was unimpressive, lacking both breadth and depth.
A total lack of qualifications did not, however, prevent me from referring to The Bluerunners’ music as a “staccato Zydeco nightmare.” I remember the phrase clearly, because at the time I congratulated myself at my incisive turn of phrase, and while I still appreciate the economy of the description, in hindsight I’m a little ashamed at the harshness of the review, because I lacked the appreciation of that genre of music, and I also lacked the maturity, musical and otherwise, to understand the difference between my not caring for something and it being empirically, “nightmarishly,” bad. Never mind the fact that I didn’t know what Zydeco music was before reading the term in the press release that accompanied the CD.
I also had no conception of what it was to take your music, music you’ve put your heart and soul into, and bring it to the people; to take that risk, and to have people shit all over it from the safety of a desk, far away from a stage, or an instrument, or a pen that writes anything but criticism.
I’m twice as old as I was then, and my willingness to criticize others’ art has abated considerably as my own musical horizons have expanded in directions my 19-year-old self could’ve never imagined (though I still don’t listen much to The Cure), and as I’ve become a performing singer/songwriter myself. Nowadays, I’m inclined to applaud anyone who has the guts to get in front of people and share what they’ve made with strangers, and the strongest critique I have to offer in most cases is, “It doesn’t speak to me.” Because I can appreciate the effort, the technique, the soul on display, regardless of whether the music itself is something I fall in love with, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who love what I do not, and cannot understand why I love some of the things that I do. As a musician, I always hope that people like what I offer, but I don’t take it personally if they don’t. De gustibus non est disputandum.
What triggered this musing was that today I read a not-so-great review of the album of a musician pal of mine, an album I have listened to extensively and happen to think is fantastic, so much so that it was on constant replay in my car for about the first month I owned it. And my own reticence to play music critic in my old age has expanded to a lack of patience with, if not outright antipathy for, others’ criticism of people who are out there, doing it, making their art and putting it out there for all to see. You may not dig the album yourself, but is there any reason to believe yours is the final word on it? Must we attack something just because it doesn’t float our particular boat?
And I have to wonder if these critics have ever written a song and performed it for folks. Or written a poem and shared it. Or made a painting and hung it on a gallery wall for all to see. Because if they haven’t, they don’t have any business tearing into someone else’s creation; and if they have, they’d know better than to try–the musicians I know and have met around town tend to be a generous and mutually supportive bunch. And I will tell you this, without fear of contradiction, that artists are always the harshest critics of their work; outside critique is pretty much superfluous.
A few years ago, when Duran Duran played Rialto, the review after their show (which was witnessed by an SRO sea of late thirtysomethings) was scathing and obviously written by someone who hadn’t listened to anything of the band’s oeuvre past 1993, (and, more likely, nothing that wasn’t on MTV in the mid-to-late ’80s, if the aforementioned reviewer was even sentient then), and was decidedly not a fan then or now. I had to write a letter after that one because it was such a hatchet job. I think that you should send reviewers who are actual fans to review shows, because they’re going to be able to explain what they love about the band, whereas someone who doesn’t know the band or their music, who has no investment, can offer no such window. And isn’t that how we get into new and different music? By someone who loves telling us about it? Not someone who tells us what not to buy. Enthusiasm is far more interesting than apathy or cynicism. Which is why, when Zach Braff posts a playlist of the stuff he’s digging lately, I check it out, because he didn’t steer me wrong on The Shins, Imogen Heap, and Nick Drake in Garden State. If we already like some of the same things, your recommendations are going to carry more weight with me than if our tastes don’t converge at all.
There’s no problem with having preferences, and there’s no crime in saying, “Eh…not for me.” But I think an occupational hazard of being a critic of any kind is it tends to concretize a mindset that always looks for fault, always scopes out the weak spot for the takedown, and is always aware that a negative review generates more passion, on the part of both writer and reader, than a positive one. It’s the reason I don’t even bother reading movie reviews anymore; when people tell me, “It’s not getting good reviews,” I always answer, “that’s because critics don’t like anything anymore.” They’re jaded and bored and conflate their personal taste with some imagined objective expertise. Of course it’s part of the job–this is what they’re asked to do, but the only person they’re really capable of reviewing anything for is themselves. To consider any reviewer’s opinion of any given album, I’d need to know what else is in her/his record collection. If your record collection is full of death metal and club music, you’re probably not going to enjoy the sultry Karen Carpenteresque stylings of Rumer, and your review of Rumer’s album would become instantly suspect given that context.
As I wrote this post, I revisited The Bluerunners via Spotify and YouTube. I was not instantly converted to fandom twenty years too late, but there’s a lot to like, including some good guitar, some fun fiddle I don’t even remember hearing two decades ago, and I must confess to a love for accordion music in my old age, an instrument I would’ve merely mocked in my youth. But as I said, I’m out of the music critic business, so I’ll let you make up your own minds.
*Not kidding about the Duran Duran.