Perspectives On A Grain Of Salt
The word "criticism" sends a shiver up just about anybody's spine. It implies that there is correction needed where you may be unaware. Critique can be helpful at the same time that it can be destructive; it all depends on how it's delivered.
My early days in Orlando, Florida were spent as a music journalist for a number of publications including Jam Magazine, Ink-19, The Orlando Weekly, Axis, Connections, Buzz and a number of other periodicals. This was prior to 1998 when I first began performing solo in town and my love of music led me to doing something music-related and creative while I got my shit together. Wearing the goggles of a musician, I felt I could appreciate what other musicians were doing at the same time that I found it easy to spot deficiencies in another person's art. The CD inbox at Jam Magazine was filled with stuff that other reviewers had picked over and left for dead and I took it upon myself to grab those deserted discs and shine a spotlight on them because someone had worked pretty damn hard to make it happen. Sometimes, I was pleasantly surprised. Other times, I felt the need to be honest about my perceptions of what I was hearing. I never thought that I was better than anyone. I just knew what I liked and what I thought was good art.
Fast forward to a gig I had not too long ago with another band. They were fun and I enjoyed them, telling them so after the show. It was a little awkward to have the lead singer say, "oh yeah, you wrote a review of our album back in the day. You didn't like it one bit." Commence shrinking into shoes. But, hey, they had improved enormously. Isn't that what we'd all like to do? I do think I had a tendency to speak more on the subjective side of matters with my reviews, though I tried to be objective whenever possible. The art of critique is dicey. You can't take your point of view out of the picture entirely, because that's the basis of your perspective.
Throughout my career, I've had my share of good and bad reviews. Hell, I've cleared my share of rooms and always knew what I needed to do in order to keep those asses in seats. The world of public performance is not a place for people with thin skins. There is a level of expectancy when you step onto a stage or release a record for public consumption and, though it may be skewed based on our 21st century mindset of content saturation and exposure, you're going to receive varying levels of feedback based on your performance, which is, in turn, based on what the people are willing and ready to receive. That's just the way it is. Expectations are lower in folk music, where just sharing the tunes can be seen as glorious. Folk music is usually thought of as unaffected, down-to-earth and more representative of everyday people. Pop, rock and other mainstream musics that are touted on radio, television and the internet come under more scrutiny in terms of excellence, execution and monetization. That doesn't make it better. It just exists in a different dojo. If you want to sing the songs of your heritage on a small stage somewhere, people are more willing to cheer you on. If you're going to be aiming for stadiums, arenas and media saturation, the stakes are much higher.
Looking back, I think I based my critiques on personal biases rather than an industry-wide standard. I can honestly recall some scathing reviews that were borne of exposure to recordings that seemed to be lackluster, sub-standard and not-ready-for-prime-time. In hindsight, as a neophyte in the recording and performance scene, this was probably hubris of the most egregious sort. In those days, I didn't consider what the impact of my review would be - only that I needed to speak what I felt was "truth." Never mind that it was my truth and didn't consider the wide spectrum of other truths that were out there. It's easy to drop raw commentary bombs on people you don't know. But what if you know for certain that you're going to meet up with them face to face? How does that effect your "truth"? And why? I sometimes wonder if any negative reviews I receive are just karma chickens coming home to roost.
I think there are basically two kinds of reviewers; those who review based on personal preference and those who have a larger library of criteria to pull from. I vacillated between the two during my tenure as a reviewer and, as I've revisited some of those releases, I've found that my opinions of those recordings have changed over time. Hell, I remember not being terribly moved or impressed by "Jurassic Park" when it came out, but it grew on me and became one of my favorite films of all time. It's nice to know that we all can change, for better or for worse.
It's been a long time since I've submitted my music for critique. But, since my career has seen an uptick in trajectory over the past several years, I've been more exposed to the likes and dislikes of a populace. Quite recently, with my "Best Guitarist" win at the International Blues Challenge in January of 2016, the album "Unresolved Blues" has been thrust into the spotlight and analyzed by long-time blues aficionados, which has been a totally different head-trip. I never considered myself to be a true bluesman. It was just one of the genres that my ADHD led me to embrace. If anything, I consider myself a freshman in the genre. Scoring the wins that I did at the IBC were a huge boost and encouragement. But it didn't necessarily mean that everyone would be won over. Last week, I received my first mixed review and, honestly, it's not done anything to shake me to the core. For the first time in my life, I'm confident in my abilities and realistic about my potential, so I accept accolades with wide open arms and criticism with a grain of salt. Let's think about what that means for a second.
The idiom "with a grain of salt" means to view something with skepticism and not take it literally. Origins of the phrase can be traced back to Pliny The Elder's Naturalis Historia in regards to an antidote for poison, where one of the ingredients was a grain of salt, thus making the threat of the poison less serious. A "poisonous" review can therefore be taken with the aforementioned "grain of salt" if the review's target, sorry, subject, can objectively mine the words and handpick the positive and the negative aspects. I've always taught students that you should always welcome the good feedback and downplay the negative, unless you can find truth in the negativity. If someone says that your playing style is choppy, and you know it to be so, then you can be honest with yourself and say, "I need to work on that." If the reviewer says that you don't know anything about the style of music that you perform, and yet you do, then you can let that go, take it with a grain of salt, and move on, not letting it bring you down. I have a love/hate relationship with periodicals that are all about lifting up any recording that shows up in their mailbox. A glimpse at the history of mountain dulcimer writings has shown that the short-lived Dulcimer Times was shouted down by the dulcimer community for daring to nitpick offerings by its constituency. By offering reviews that called onto the carpet a band's or individual's musical offering, the magazine suffered the slings and arrows of outrage as in "how dare you discourage others." I can feel that. I can also feel the need for straight-shooting commentary when it comes to what the collective can approve as "art." Some people don't see their music as art. It's more like a way of life. There's a razor-thin line between what you live and what you project.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to post the entire review of "Unresolved Blues" from Living Blues Magazine down below. I'm not worried about the effects of said review, because, frankly, bookings are up, sales are steady and most of the feedback from this album has been encouraging. The only reason that I focus on this particular review is to use it as a teachable moment.
So, let me be honest; my publicist sent out the positive parts of this review and left out the negative, and that's fine, but I wanted to see the whole thing. Upon reading it, my reaction was one of humility and it didn't negatively effect me in any way. I did, however, wonder about the reviewers perspective and also decided to mine the review for the positive nuggets that I could. "Unresolved Blues" was largely recorded and written in two weeks. Tracking with a full band would've been my preference, but that option simply wasn't available. I'm also of the opinion that there are two ways to record an album. One way is to write the songs in the studio and then put them out there raw. The other way is to tour with the material, live in it, grow in it, own it, embody it and then record it after having marinated in the tunes for awhile. With two weeks of development, the former was the reality, and I realized, upon arriving in Memphis, Tennessee and doing a live broadcast of the songs on DittyTV, that just that additional amount of time spent living in the music had made me more comfortable with the tracks. I owned them more. There's no way a reviewer could know that, so this guy was approaching it blind. His comments about my interpretations and affectations actually hold some weight and I'll own up to that. The part about being "goofy", well, hell, anyone who has seen me live in concert knows that I'm goofy to the bone. What he might think as a minus, I perceive as a plus.
On the subject of subjective versus objective, he gives me a lot of props for my abilities, which is a big sign that he's not just some hater who didn't like the album at all. What I take away from the review is that he's probably well-steeped in the blues and isn't used to hearing unique and different interpretations that don't fit his particular criteria. Nothing wrong with that. More importantly, this is the only outright negative review I've gotten on the CD and, though there may be more forthcoming, I'm not entirely worried about how that will effect me in any way, shape or form. My bookings are up, the responses to my live shows are overwhelmingly positive and the fans and DJs are regularly praising the music. It's like the furor over "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" or "Batman Versus Superman." The overall reviews may be lackluster but the box-office begs to differ. Which raises the question of just how relevant critique is in the first place. Without knowing the background of a reviewer, the words are just signals that are suspended in midair. However, if you have been following a critic for any amount of time and have learned their history, their tastes, their pedigree for offering up their opinions on someone's art, then you may lend their words more weight than some shmoe sitting next to you at the bar on a Saturday night. These things should all be taken into consideration. The only item in the review that caused me to balk was the smack regarding the movement of a snake down the street in "That's What You Done To Me." Seriously? Sure, a snake can be said to "slither", but who's to really say that it can't "creep"? To-may-to, to-mah-to.
All in all, a review, whether good or bad, can be seen as a first impression for many folks and, in this day and age with so many choices, a bad first impression could easily be a block to people discovering your music. But it isn't the end of the world. It all comes down to perspective. Perhaps the biggest reason that this, so far, one fairly negative review hasn't dealt a fatal blow to my head is that three groups of judges in Memphis, Tennessee, saw fit to propel me from the quarterfinals to the finals of the International Blues Challenge and then laid on me the "Best Guitarist" award in the solo-duo category. I don't mean to belittle the reviewer from Living Blues Magazine but, I'll take the word, and faith, of those judges over a rag-writer any day.
The same goes for any of you out there who are just starting out or soldiering on in your quest to get your music heard. The worst-reviewed movies, albums and restaurants in the world enjoy constant patronage and acceptance, which just goes to show that criticism is ultimately steeped more in subjectivism than objectivism. It's terribly hard to remove yourself from the process. You're not going to remove yourself from the process when crafting a critique of something or somebody. It's all relative. What one person hates, another person loves. It's a numbers game. The more you play it, and the more you plus your presentation, the better chance you have of coming up roses. But when it comes to audiences, they simply want to be entertained, moved, excited and stimulated. You don't have to be "American Idol" caliber to do that. All it takes is heart, soul and guts.
So, think about that as you move forward in whatever you do, whether it be arts and entertainment or working at your job for whomever. If you feel that you're doing the best you can, and honestly at that, then there's no-one in the world that can take that away from you. It happens to everyone. And at some point, it will happen to you too.
Just remember to smile, mine the good, be honest with yourself, and then press on. There are always much bigger fish to fry.