The Jazz.com Blog
July 19, 2009 · 0 comments
A few weeks back, Chris Kelsey published an entry here on "Musicians and Bad Reviews." Michael J. West, a regular contributor to jazz.com, offers a different perspective on this subject below. T.G.
When I posted a Facebook link to Chris Kelsey’s piece on “Musicians and Bad Reviews” on the day it appeared, a rising young musician (who shall remain nameless) reminded me that he and I had had a very similar debate just a few weeks before. At the time, the musician had just read an unfavorable review of a recording he’d done within a jazz collective and was very unhappy. But it wasn’t the critic’s opinion that had made him angry; it was his mischaracterization of the musician’s work.
The critic had insisted that despite the group’s collectivist orientation, one of its other members was actually its leader. That irritated my musician friend; what made him downright angry, however, is that the critic had also dispatched his compositions—on which he’d worked long and hard—as “pretty much throwaways.”
The Basement of the Invention (2008)
Artwork by Jazzamoart
Barring the phrase “pretty much,” which is across-the-board weak journalism, a critic can easily mistake this kind of assessment for valid criticism without realizing the implication. Words like “uninspired,” “insubstantial,” or “dull” may not be terribly nice, but they’re in play when it comes to writing about music. It’s even reasonable to say that a tune “sounds like” or “comes off as” a throwaway, because the music is still the object of discussion. But to state flatly that a composition is a throwaway goes beyond discussion of the music and into claims about the musician’s practices and motivations—which, unless the musician has made them known, are out of bounds.
Kelsey is right when he says that reviews aren’t written for musicians, and aren’t personal. But that doesn’t mean that the critic isn’t duty-bound to be fair to the musician. Classical critic and arts-journalism educator Tim Page writes this month that “We must be reporters first, and nothing undermines the credibility of a critic more quickly and drastically than any misstatement.” His example is of writing erroneously that Beethoven’s Sixth had a saxophone solo, but the warning also applies to less obvious facts: what the artist does, how they do it, and even what they were trying to do. (Yes, in theory, if the artist’s intentions don’t speak for themselves, he/she has failed to realize them; in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.)
There is a message here, then, for both the critic and the musician. To the critic: Your job may be to formulate and express an opinion about a piece of art, but you still trade in facts, too. Whether the music sounds well constructed is a matter of opinion; whether the musician worked hard at constructing it is not. If you’re unclear on some of these facts, check them out—it isn’t forbidden to contact the musician with questions about the work you’re reviewing (as I’ve done more than once). And if the artist states that something works like so—a band’s working dynamic, for instance—don’t claim the opposite unless you have actual facts to support that claim.
To the musician: If critics’ misstatements rankle you, make yourself available to answer their questions, so those misstatements can be prevented from the beginning. Even if you follow Kelsey’s good advice to avoid reviews, help their writers get the facts straight; the dialogue to which they’re adding really is important. But also remember that sometimes the critic will make good faith efforts to understand the music and still won’t—or will understand the music and disapprove anyway.
Finally, while it’s true that complaining about bad reviews probably isn’t productive, it is productive to call out the critics on their bad facts, incorrect assumptions, and mischaracterizations. In fact it’s probably more productive for the critics than for you—pointing out their mistakes may not make you a better musician, but it will likely make them better critics.
This blog entry is posted by Michael J. West