The Jazz.com Blog
June 15, 2009 · 5 comments
Chris Kelsey is an editor and frequent reviewer at jazz.com. His articles in this column include in-depth commentaries on John Coltrane's work for the Atlantic label and Ornette Coleman's stint with Blue Note. Below he turns to the tricky issue of how critics and musicians should deal with negative reviews. T.G.
I learned a while ago to take something of a Taoist approach to my writing. I write a piece and let it go. After I click on the "Publish" key, an article or review is its own thing, independent of me. I seldom think about it again … that is, unless my attention is redirected back to it, which sometimes happens—usually when a musician expresses either appreciation or (more often) disappointment over what I've written about his or her music. I'm occasionally compelled to respond, which I don't enjoy, for obvious reasons. It occurs to me that I might take an opportunity to write something like a blanket riposte, ready to issue when needed.
While I like hearing kind words as much as the next guy, I don't expect musicians to thank me for positive reviews. I appreciate the gesture, but it's not necessary, because believe me, if I had problems with the music, I wouldn't hesitate to say … and then the same person who is now so grateful would instead be pissed off. Not to be brusque, but my reviews are not addressed to the musician responsible for the music being reviewed. They are addressed to his potential audience. A positive review is no more a gift to the artist than a negative review is a chastisement.
Contrary to what many musicians apparently feel, reviews are written for the overwhelming majority of readers who do not create the music under consideration. As a critic, my task is to help that potential audience make an informed decision about whether they might want to consume a particular work. Ideally, I don't think the artist in question should even read what I've written; he certainly shouldn't attribute to it any disproportional significance—or any significance at all, if what I write doesn't reflect his reality.
Of course, musicians are justifiably concerned about their careers and the effect reviews have on performance and recording opportunities. I'm not suggesting that any given review will have no impact—they can, although in my experience the effect is generally much, much slighter than artists seem to believe (in many if not most cases, so slight as to be immeasurable). In jazz, a negative review might cost some hurt feelings, but not a career. In fact, if bad reviews necessarily equaled failure, no one would succeed. No one has ever received unanimous raves (see Parker, Charlie or Coltrane, John). No matter how happening your stuff is, someone somewhere is going to dislike it. The secret is to ignore them, and play for those who dig. They’re out there, I assure you.
So my message to musicians of both the gruntled and disgruntled varieties is this: When reading a negative review of your work, remember that the ache in the pit of your stomach is being triggered by the writings of someone who has nothing against you, who doesn't know you as a human being other than as a vessel for making music. Someone you've probably never met, but with whom you'd likely be friends if you both lived in the same small town, given your shared passion for a marginalized art form. This person doesn't want you to fail. On the contrary, he understands that what he writes about your music is of less import than the music itself. His is just a voice in the (hopefully) continuing conversation about a general area of music that you both love. If he didn't have esteem for your intent—if he didn’t believe that what you do as a jazz musician is more important than 99% of all other music being made—he wouldn't write about your work at all, pro or con. He's just one person, with no power to make or break anyone. Don’t fret over his opinion, but take its very existence as a gesture of respect.
This blog article posted by Chris Kelsey.