AKA YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T DO IT!
Most of my friends are musicians and I tell them this stuff over and over and it never really seems to sink in. They almost never listen. When the bad review comes in, the knee-jerk complaint emails and snippy Facebook updates go out and if I slapped my forehead every time it happened, I’d have brain damage by now.
But let me explain it one more time, in writing, on the internet, so I can link people to this in future and just say, ‘Here, numb-nut!’ instead of wasting my breath.
WHY YOU THE MUSICIAN GENERALLY SHOULDN’T RESPOND TO CRITICISM
#1 It’s painfully uncool.
In a 1983 Art Forum article, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth described the live concert as:
‘People pay(ing) to see other people believe in themselves.’
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to fault the logic of that. Sounds gross sure, but it’s true. The only thing separating you from the non-musicians in your audience is that you have enough self-confidence (or neurosis) to get onstage. That’s it. It’s a weird dynamic but the people who listen to your music will think of you as being a little bit bigger (or weirder) than one person’s opinion (unless that person writes for Pitchfork). So responding is lame. It never reads as constructive or fair. It always reads as a whiney tantrum. And as such it always chips away at that part of you that other people are interested in.
#2 Your audience is not your support group.
There’s only one rule in music writing: entertain the reader. The whole point of the form is to draw readers to the author’s opinion. It’s often a very public performance. Music reviews are sent out into a world of countless unseen readers, usually in media vehicles that maintain some form of broader scope. The writer’s job is to present a very niche story (one particular band, one particular album, one particular event) to this broad readership.
Despite all the promises of Web 2.0, that’s very different from posting something to your blog or your Facebook profile or to your Twitter followers. It’s different in one key way: your social network is generally on your side. They might be a broad demographic but they all have one thing in common, they’ve chosen to interact with you. So raging about bad press to them is not ‘public’ in the same way. It’s preaching to the choir. It’s about seeking support and validation from people you deeply suspect are going to agree with you.
Now contrast the two positions.
This scenario makes the writer look brave and the musician look cowardly.
When has looking cowardly ever been enticing?
#3 Whatever They Said, It’s Not The Worst They Can Do
The worst thing a writer can say about your music is nothing and every single music writer of any experience knows this. We live in a hyper-mediated world with an intensely fast news cycle. In this environment, bands and albums and gigs get flushed down the internet every day, pre-judged and gone forever without a trace. So when a writer pans your work, they’re essentially saying, ‘This sucks but it’s at least worthy of my attention.’ And behind the writer, the editorial staff are saying, ‘This writer thinks this sucks but people will probably be interested in knowing that he/she thinks it sucks.’ That’s vastly different from the ice cold winter of neglect.
#4 You Can’t Win
Oh my god, SHUT UP, you can’t win. This is foundational. The writer is often better at writing than you. The writer often has better media contacts than you. The writer has at least one editor or content manager behind them, often a team of these people. Behind the editor and content manager is the publication itself, its brand and history. Even if you get reviewed by the intern and there’s grammatical or factual errors in the text, do you really think all that other stuff just falls away because you’re right?
99% of the time, the writer wins. It’s that simple. They win by…are you ready for it:
NOT RESPONDING TO YOUR RESPONSE.
How do they know to do this?
The game is always set in the writer’s home ground. So they know.
The writer gets paid to be use rhetoric and persuasion every day. They understand it.
You probably don’t have any of these advantages.
You writing to them (or about them) is like the writer penning a song about you.
Would you like to hear that song?
Didn’t think so.
WHY YOU SHOULD RESPOND TO CRITICISM
#1 You Shouldn’t.
You obviously can’t even read. What makes you think writing about a writer is a good idea?
#2 You Might Know Enough About The Media To Get Some Benefit From It
I didn’t even really know that Future of the Left had a new album out until Falco wrote a rebuttal of their Pitchfork review. He posted it to his blog. He writes well. He’s self-effacing. He acknowledges a few points from the above list, starting off with:
‘…rebuttals of unfavourable album reviews are lame, self-serving and immature – this one is no different.’
It works because his goals are well served: he got to vent and the piece went viral. It is – inadvertent or not – great promo. But read it again. The best parts aren’t the bits where he’s arguing his points. That still reads as knit-picking and complaint. (Who honestly gives a shit about misinterpreted lyrics?) No, it works because it’s a good story. He’s saying: I’m funnier and more informed than this music writer who writes for a giant commercial music website. And then he states a pretty good case.
Except we all now know that Falco reads his own press and trawls message boards and Twitter for stuff about how that press is received:
‘I was browsing a forum I occasionally visit today, a one filled with gen-u-ine music fans, the kind who wouldn’t be easily swayed by invective, praise or otherwise, when I came upon the following quote in a discussion of this review.’
Just browsing huh?
So, it only almost works.
#3 You Hate Me And You Want To Hurt My Feelings
This is the only legitimate reason to respond to music criticism I can think of. Everyone wants to kill the messenger, I guess. So go right head.
Shoot your self in the foot if you must. You’re in pretty esteemed company.
Most of your audience will be confused by why you’d willingly shoot yourself.
But some will sympathise, in the short-term, ‘Oh you’re bleeding. Let me help.’
Others will be turned off by the sight of blood.
All the writers of the world will watch you dance around and either laugh or sigh.
And me, I’ll just stand there and say, ‘I told you not to do that. Here’s this link.’
– Ian Keith Rogers
- As one would expect, Axl Rose is wonderful with criticism. Read a fax he sent to a reviewer in full here.
- “I remember people like you laughing at me at the university, and now they are all eating off of my feet’ – MCA (RIP) of The Beastie Boys takes the bait.
What I’m Reading:
- ‘The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel’- A fascinating and candid feature on Tom Gabriel from Against Me! via Rolling Stone.
- Long feature on the history of Wolf Eyes (via Pitchfork). They juggle it all: jobs, family, academia and harsh noise.
- Epic interview of Greil Marcus by ‘Retromania’ author Simon Reynolds.