Discourse on Criticism
Words are a mirror to the mind and spirit. If spirit is the new black, and the mirror breaks, it’s good to turn the spotlight on the critic. In fact, it always is. A recent brush with bad judgment had me questioning the role of criticism in live music, or rather, it led me to thinking about the role and performance of a ‘critic’.
Let’s face it, we’re all critics. (Or so we’d like to think.) There are enough opinions flying around to populate the Antarctic (if myspace and facebook don’t already have dibs on it). Do we care if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? It depends on how you use it. Do we care if critics are ‘just frustrated artists’? It depends on consensus and context. If criticism is useful to the art it speaks of or those that consume it, is it relevant that the person on the soapbox could also be reckoning with their own processes? What’s more important is the quality of the criticism itself. Everyday critics are a crime a cousin (no, no, no. not you.), but the ones whose commentary might matter are the ones that offer some sort of positive input (harsh or heavenly) to the music world.
Cut to the chase: naked judgment is not criticism. Negative verdicts that offer no positive poles do little more than stifle, depress or destroy what creativity might be present; whether flowering fully, budding a bit, or buried deep. When it comes to comparison, there will always be the invisible ideal to crucify creativity instead of encouraging its ascension or expansion or refinement, and the aims and articulation of judgement aptly achieve this. But pure criticism cites perfection as one of many reference points - not the apex of an Achilles hill (sic) - and offers alternatives rather than a dead (and depressing) end (to inspiration). The truth is that effective criticism is as contextual as the critic; and, in the constant change of a creative environment, never finds its feet for long though the critic might dig his/her (ahem - Achilles) heels in. (or put his/her foot in it!)
In its purest form, criticism is not a weapon of war; it is an instrument of evolution.
Last time I checked, music was not an instrument of torture, either.
Music critics arise within and exist outside of the music making process. (Music critics, here, are those who have something constructive to say about sound, whether for personal or professional purposes, and often for both.) Some of the best and worst criticism can come from some of a musician’s best and worst friends, fans, or fellow musos. When it comes to communicating with the public, it gets a bit trickier. Critique needs to answer the audience it’s aimed at and critics need to speak two languages at once. When you're talking shop, expressing sound in isolation is one thing, but it's not very effective if you’re talking to those who are not (yet) the converted or who don't necessarily know or understand the score . It not all semitones and solos at this point; it’s pop psych, pop culture and popcorn. There’s a tricky balance to eliciting ‘tell me more’ instead of ‘too much information’.
A developing understanding of the scene is another thing that can make things make a lot more sense to anyone who really (endeavours to) appreciate music.
“music journalists need to get behind the scene a bit and find out more about the musicians and the problems they face just trying to balance a career in music and trying to make a living out of it. You will find a wealth of untapped information (there), which seriously affects the growth and the fate of most of the up-and-coming and exciting bands out there.”
Case in point : not one of the once-were-warriors (and some still are) of moodphase5ive were ever asked by the press why by they broke up. “They just made assumptions, which turned into gossip, which turned into the word of god.”
Aha. Which is the power and prowess of media. And media is a funny beast, bigger than all of us, made up of us, and consumed by us.
While a critic’s input can be entirely unnecessary in a healthy, established band/fan relationship, it can go a long way to introducing, developing or damaging the ties that bind or undo the musicians from the masses, and to offering outside insights to the sounds that emanate from within the instruments and hearts of music makers. A critic helps to forge new relationships between the music and new audiences by being a reference point, and a critic's articulation can be helpful in suggesting to bands/musos why they're not connecting with the public. Or why they are. In an increasingly networked world of compulsive communication, the personality that they lend music in its off hours also goes a long way to promoting it in a more organic and integral way. Therein lies the role and responsibility of someone arrogant enough to call themselves a critic. Like me.
Unfortunately, this raison d’être is often couched in embedded ego and ulterior motives, for it is in the shadow of our ego that we seek excellence. Good criticism offers alternatives to damning eloquence: insight, intelligent (and hopefully sensitive) feedback, increased awareness, and eventual transcendence of ego . But critics are not always good and words are not always wise. This is the power of the ab/use of opinion.
In disseminating opinion, the critic has many faces :
Critic as performer
A sincere critic has his or her own objectives, without which their work would lack integrity. That motive is to be heard, or even to make their own art. (yup, the truth that musicians have stated time and time again is true for them, too. ‘I do it for the love. I do it for myself’) The temptation to bend what is already a bent estimation of objectivity to suit these motives is huge; it’s far easier to point fingers at other creatives’ faults than challenge your own. And any wordsmith worth their words knows this. Some days are better than others. When a critic falls prey to laziness and snobbery in dull moments (it happens to the best, but more frequently to the rest) and this incurs a backlash from the brave, it’s a chance to learn, not react. And become a better critic. Not a prat.
Critic as creative
Wordsmiths share common ground with music makers, abstract as it may be. Like musicians, they love their work, they make mistakes, and they affect others through both. Unlike musicians, they draw on an existing product for their own material and are thus beholden to the layers of beauty and the badness in it. Frustrated as they may be (by their own processes or by the music!), critics put words to work for music. And that doesn’t mean being nice all the time. But it should mean being honest, and it could mean being kind.
Music is to emotion what word is to mind. For some (for me) words are an unavoidable extension and expression of self, and the self is subject to all kinds of subjectivities, red herrings and mind traps on the way to wisdom and wit. What words can do for music, however, is give it a reference point through the mind.
Critic as compatriot
Strange as it may sound, it is our enemies that we grow the most through (so choose yours wisely!). Or those we perceive as such, at least, and thereby give the role to. The dynamic tension that binds and burdens the critic in all of us with the musician in some of us can find its most positive articulation through conflict. How spare and senseless is absolute adoration when dealing with the variables that make music one of the most integral art forms in existence and its evolution one of the most valuable we can invest in? (yes, that’s just an opinion! But try answering the question.) Adoration is one thing. Growth is another.
Critic as idiot
Words are watery. In our visual and verbal cultures, they claim communication as their own and nip and tuck original meaning at whim. The fact that they make up a very small percentage of the meaning moving between all things sensory doesn’t stop them from being powerful in all things human. Or inaccurate. Sense and sentiment are prone to the particularities of time and place, the intonation of intention, and the edge of everything else that I - ahem(again) - don’t have words for. It can so happen that a shoddy statement says things it doesn’t mean to or lassoes more than its fair share into its pot bellied belier of blame. It can so happen that words reveal more than we’re willing to. But if there is no space for mistakes, there is no space for expression. And if there’s no space for expression, there’s no space for music. This is probably not important to you, but as a writer covering the abstractions of sound, it’s very important to me to remember, to heed and to avoid. And sometimes impossible.
Our mistakes can’t be unmade, but they can make a difference to our growth if we can see the soul(lessness) in them, and heed them humbly. Stitching carelessness, arrogance and insensitivity into commentary can betray its benefits. At a basic level, music writing can promote a form of entertainment that brings expression, joy and catharsis to the world and so inspire more people to really listen (and feel and be part of it). And, when it’s really good, music writing can approximate an expression of music and its world through empathic words …and so inspire more people to really listen (and feel, and be part of it). I rarely reach those heights, but I do sometimes scrape the barrel, because words are tricky, and the ego is trickier.
A friend whose life and work revolves around the live music scene made the point recently that ultimate respect goes to the artists. The rest of us, he mused, are appendages; they make the magic that we devour or despise. I agree in part. But I also feel that without an audience to seduce, a media to reach the public through, and the indifferent or disinterested ears (who help define a fan base through being its very antithesis), those magic makers would be very lonely in a noisy room.
My gratitude and awe goes to the people who give us something to listen, sing and dance to. But my ultimate respect goes to the music. Because I can’t help being human. But I can choose my music. And I can choose my words.
(And you know what? maybe I’m not yet a critic. Just a commentator. But it’s good to know that I’m in evolution along with the rest of us. I endeavour to find the compassion in honesty, and the honesty in love.)
Words can be swords. Too sharp and they slice. Too dull and they tear. Wear them carefully. Clean them often. And use them to say things like ‘sorry’, too.
P.S. Satan says "thanks for the lesson."