How does an artist survive a bad review? Do they wallow in their misery or do they breathe it all in and come back all the better after taking the criticism to heart?
As the still-invincible Doobie Bros once harmonized, “Music is the doctor”. I have music on all the time, and the other day was listening to a particular radio station at home. My Mom, bless her talk-show-loving heart, listened to a few tracks, two of which she said were very sad. “Tina are these girls singing country songs and why are they so sad?” (This was after “Hey Jude” came on and she asked “They still play the Beatles?”)
The two “sad country” songs my mother mentioned are not my vibe at all. But I bet if I were to put my opinion about their mopey, millennial vibe and lack of guitar chops I would inevitably piss someone off. I would never be mean but I can’t take all this smoke blowing going on when It comes to reviews. Very rarely do I read a review that offers any viable constructive criticism. I did some digging and found a source article about this lack of “negative reviews”. The writer ran some metrics and found out there were only 8 bad reviews of bands in 4 years. That figure did seem a little iffy, but it’s the way I see the things are going. I wrote a review and suggested the 20-something artist take a road trip or something, get their hands dirty. tell me about your fears. I don’t want to hear about another lightly failed relationship unless it wrecked your daily routine, unless it took you to despair, unless it made you light up when you got rid of that person or they dumped you for another. I didn’t even write how I really felt in the review. I wanted to write “Don’t rely so much on the kick drum and perhaps take a guitar lesson to expand your chord knowledge.” Basically every song was an overproduced, drum-kick-loaded clone of the one that came before it. I let my friend at the guitar shop listen to one song. He looked up at me shaking his head. “This is cringe worthy”. But the editor at the publication in question told me it was an insult and had nothing to do with the music. The thing is: It had everything to do with the music.
This “everyone gets a trophy” society has been horrible for today’s music scene, since the herd can never be culled. There are too many bands around right now and many are mediocre at best, but man do these review blogs blow smoke up their ass and shy away from saying the hard truths. Exactly how is an artist going to get better if they don’t hear some truth? I’m an artist, poet and I have had “suggestions” (a polite word for “rejection”) hurled at me. One of my friends even critiqued my art show. I forgive him now but I learned from that. I also learned from an editor that ripped a few of my poems to shreds in person. I didn’t cry. I got out my pen and took his suggestions. I was a freelance script reader for a major film company and my first few script coverages got some critiques. “Stop writing so flowery and like you are on the side of the writer. Dig in tell us what we need to tell the writer because a lot of the stuff you are going to read is shit and we want to know who has potential” Yep. The millennials would never survive if they came out back in the day when people put stock in reviews because you had to actually pay for music. So you didn’t want to drop your cash on something that wasn’t worth seeing the light of day out the vinyl sleeve or the CD jewel case. A friend of mine has a kid who throws his trophies in the garbage. Once he said to him, “Dad our basketball team really sucks. We don’t deserve a trophy.” I concur. Everyone must work for their prize. Even artists.
Here are some actual words from wayback reviews focusing on some legends:
U2: “Bubble headed and dumb” Ouch. And this was in reference to Joshua Tree.
Led Zeppelin: “The English quintet doesn’t really deliver anything you haven’t heard before” Yes because John Bonham most definitely wasn’t a true original or anything.
Vampire Weekend: “Sounds like a Congo river cruise board band” Ok this one is funny.
My favorite bit of criticism was flung at one of my favorite artists and innovators. Beck: “Mostly he sounds constipated” Keep in mind that the Beckster put out one of the best albums of 2017, Colors, after a critic said he only puts out weird melancholy work and is incapable of putting out a fun pop album. Touche’.
John Prine got a bashed for a live show early in his career and proceeded to cut out the review and put it in his bathroom. Just to keep him humble. The man just dropped another album and he is 71.
The best, who are thick skinned and want to go for it, learn from the criticism.
Joni Mitchell got it hard for Blue. She kept going. Liz Phair got bashed up for Exile in Guyville but she went on to put out Whipsmart. Granted, she did pen a pithy response to a review in 2003 and received comments like, “Get a hobby dear you can’t please all of the critics all of the time”. Now she’s gearing up to do a 25th anniversary tour for Exile. That’s the truth, kids. If you put something out there not everyone is going to blow smoke up our ass. If you can’t take the heat then don’t take the stroll in the desert. Grow a bit of humor and perhaps don’t take yourselves so seriously. And if you do take the criticism to heart then use it to get better. Case in point: Miss Margo Price showed some of her songs to her Uncle when she was starting out. He pretty much told her to stop watching TV and get better because, “These songs are really bad”. Tough love. Miss Margo is now singing on stage with Willie Nelson and his son Lukas and the aforementioned Mr. Prine. It’s a good thing she didn’t get all mopey and go back to her job selling vintage clothes or continue to put out mediocre work in defiance of dear uncle’s criticism.
Gotta please everybody except for myself
But like Levon said, “Ain’t in it for my health
And then there’s the infamous Jason Isbell tweet about David Crosby, who once said of Izzy, “That was bad. Real bad. It’s just not good”.
Well kids, let’s hope The Croz doesn’t start writing for Pitchfork.