Thin Skins and a Small Scene: Musicians and Critics on Music Criticism
By Jon Tjhia
Musician, radio producer and sometime critic Jon Tjhia examined the current state of music criticism - drawing on his own experience and interviews with industry insiders - for The Lifted Brow’s music issue.
In this excerpt, he talks to musicians and critics about what it’s like to be reviewed - and to review - on the Australian music scene.
‘Reading your own reviews can be a slippery slope,’ admits singer-songwriter Angie Hart (ex-Frenté!). ‘Most artists have pretty thin skins. It is part of the territory, in order to plunder the emotional world of writing, but it’s terrible for being able to weather a bad or a good review with grace.’
It’s important that critics consider musicians when they write. It’s commonly bandied around that a key purpose of criticism is to encourage musicians to be more open and contemplative about their work, and to create a discussion between the people who make music and those who are most eloquent advocates for it. Many believe that critics and musicians can only benefit from some kind of exchange, but a lot of the time this isn’t the case.
‘I feel like a big jerk reading reviews of my band,’ explains Kate Wilson, drummer for Sydney bands The Laurels and The Holy Soul. ‘I wish I had the willpower to leave them alone.’ She does believe that to be critically ignored is more insulting than to be reviewed unfavourably; she has no major qualms about bad reviews, which she and her bandmates typically mock and shrug off. The only thing that gets to Wilson is when she’s singled out. ‘If someone says I’m boring or incompetent, obviously that’s not at all nice to hear. I’m under no pretence that I’m preternaturally overburdened with talent or breaking any boundaries or anything, but to me, the idea that I might be letting down the rest of the band is absolutely mortifying.’
I ask her whether that’s the sort of thing she might ever wish to take up with the writer. ‘Would I respond to criticism? Absolutely not. You just can’t! There’s a monumentally small chance you’re not going to look like an enormous douchebag, even if you’re doing something like correcting a factual error. I’m going to surmise that there’s some deep-seated evolutionary impulse that immediately pits people against the guy who needs to have the last word.’
When I speak to Jaye Kranz over the phone, she’s on the eve of releasing her first album under the Brighter Later moniker. Kranz recorded the album herself; its songs are the culmination of maybe a decade’s worth of ideas and stories. So how is she feeling as she steps over the threshold, now submitting her labour of love to the world and its opinions?
‘Um, terrified and excited at the same time,’ she says. ‘We’ve already had a review that almost made me cry with the emotion of feeling that someone took the time to listen to the album, process it against everything they said, try and hear it on its own merits and put into words what they experienced. He sat down with it in the way I sat down with it. It was inspiring and encouraging.’ Not all of Brighter Later’s initial reviews have been as positive, but their effect has extended beyond just the music for Kranz. One, which described the record as unapologetic and self-assured, ‘emboldened me to go further to do what I want to do in my life, not just in my music. You had no idea that someone was going to understand it, and when you realise that there are people out there who will get it, it’s really, really inspiring.’
Beyond praise, Kranz feels she’s benefited from almost all the feedback she’s received from the press, which she says is very different from the generous encouragement an artist receives from friends. ‘Reviewers are actually some of the few people who will pick something out and go, “I really love how you did that”, or “I really thought you could do that more”, or distil something in your themes. It’s already been a conversation and I already feel like I’ve learned something that will go somewhere and come out the other end, you know?’
Amongst the musicians I spoke to, most simply chalked up a bad review to a mismatch between writer and album. But this is clearly not always the case. The internet is brimming with stories of musicians’ tantrums and comebacks. While some of these stories are hilarious and some a little disturbed, in the face-to-face local music scene unfavourable assessments can cause enduring tensions.
That was awkward
‘Writing in a relatively small scene means that you know, at least remotely, a lot of the people you write about,’ says Eliza Sarlos, a Sydney broadcaster and artistic director whose music industry experience over the past decade and a half spans just about every type of role there is, including as a critic for Mess+Noise. ‘This hasn’t been great for me, as it has made it difficult to write honestly and still have cordial conversations with people, which I get – it’s your art, you feel close to it. I’ve never not been able to write, or speak, honestly about how I hear music and that’s caused me some problems, but ultimately if you’re writing about music and you want people to take what you have to say seriously, you also have to be serious. That said, whenever I’ve been critical of something, I would never expect someone to change what they were doing based on what I was saying.’
For Anthony Carew (altmusic.about.com, the Age, Inpress, 3RRR) cordial conversations are well down on the wish list. ‘Someone once poured a beer on my head after I criticised their out-of-time drumming. Someone else stormed out of an interview when I said I didn’t like their new album as much as their last one. Another person literally turned their back on me, mid-interview, and just stopped talking when I asked, as a philosophical spur, “Why make music?”’ On the whole he is sardonically sceptical: ‘I’m sure there are times when I’ve had critical discussions with a musician about their music and it has been constructive and thoughtful and not tainted with the creator’s resentment, but I don’t remember any.’
Classical music critic Harriet Cunningham (Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review) is equally doubting: she observes that she has a good relationship with most musicians in her field, but wonders if ‘maybe they’re just being nice in the hope that I will be too’.
On the flipside, the close-knit nature of the music community can be a positive. ‘It’s not easy to be critical – if that involves some negativity – if relationships are too close,’ notes Kate Hennessy (Sydney Morning Herald, Mess+Noise, The Vine, the Big Issue). ‘But that’s up to us, as the writers, I guess. If there’s a relationship that’s informing our writing, that’s okay. But when it topples into influencing or prejudicing our review – in a positive way or a negative way – we need to intuit that, and hand it over to someone else who has a fresh perspective.’
But is it possible to benefit from proximity – Hennessy’s ‘informing’ relationship – without its drawbacks? Should critics disguise themselves? Or always write using pseudonyms?
‘Using your real name keeps you accountable to your own ego and your own reputation – and that’s gotta be a good thing,’ Hennessy says. ‘I am sure there are exceptions where it’s necessary or for the greater good to use an alias, in which case, why not? As long as it’s not being used for trivial reasons, or to wilfully screw up other people’s lives or creative output.’
Brian Ritchie, a musician from bands like Violent Femmes and The Break (and MONA FOMA curator) is also somewhat divided on the question. ‘In general, I think people should stand behind their own names, but that didn’t stop Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms from being the best writer(s) of the twentieth century.’ Hart, on the other hand, asserts that ‘real names are essential, as I believe a writer should be accountable in order to be credible’. Blake Byron-Smith, of record label/collective Two Bright Lakes, concurs. ‘Real names are important, so that the person who is writing the piece is willing to account for the words they commit to publish.’
Surprisingly, Kranz is unfazed by fake names. ‘I don’t have a problem with that, as long as you’re contactable under your pseudonym! Why do you have to be accountable? If you’re in the media, in a public dialogue […] you don’t have to answer a single e-mail that ever gets to you, but you’re there. I don’t think it matters whose name you write under, as long as you’re honest.’
Accountability and authority are often linked, especially by critics and musicians, who talk about writers building trusting readerships. Arguably, though, these are diminishing concerns in the atomised internet age, where a significant proportion of readers graze nomadically. In a Slate Culture Gabfest podcast discussion about one of the annual Best American Essays anthologies, one of the Gabfest’s hosts, Stephen Metcalf, uttered the phrase, ‘Authority is established by the substance of the argument.’
That’s a solid starting point for assessing a piece of writing about music – accountable, pseudonymous or otherwise.