An open letter from an anonymous musician on how negative criticism can be damaging, and what critics can do better
Mental Health: Beyond Awareness is a five-day campaign asking what we can do for mental health issues beyond ‘raising awareness’. Young people are more aware of mental health issues than ever, but our services are broken, the internet is stressing us out, and self-medication is on the rise. Who is campaigning for change? And how can we help ourselves? This week, Dazed is aiming to find out.
Once upon a time, I thought that a unique title for an album would carry the added bonus of being deeply Google-able – if nothing else previously had that title, my logic went, you might be able to see just how far its effect rippled out into the world. Not long after release, I stopped searching. I had never had Google Alerts before then, but I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy. I affirm that if you search your name on Twitter, you’re as likely to find negative portrayals of what you do as positive. D*n’t d* it.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to discuss how reductive criticism impacts musicians. On a personal level, a negative review will always sting, and its creeping influence on your own insecurity and imposter syndrome is very real. I’ve known talented friends who have released debut albums, been reviewed harshly, and never recovered from the unfair portrayals of their motivation, the caustic descriptions of their voices, or the disapproval of their songwriting. It may sound overly sensitive, but being misunderstood in a moment of vulnerability can create a genuine mental block when trying to write new music. Those friends are still out there, often overthinking their work, because the devil on their shoulder is now in residence, likely re-broadcasting the very worst of what was said.
It may be that some new music is underwhelming, or insufficiently developed from an artist’s initial promise, despite the hype or the talent involved. In which case, judicious and thoughtful criticism might (might!) highlight a future path for the artist to take. The flaws of contemporary criticism, however – those which really get inside our heads – are scoring systems and biased, unqualified writers.
At at moment where music platforms are beginning to recognise the flaws in rating/ranking systems, maybe no one should be scoring new music professionally. There’s a place for criticism, sure, but I’m uncertain what’s gained by assigning points. Good criticism adds value – it can provide insight and context to a new release, or raise important questions when seen through informed and critical eyes. But I think the value of that criticism is often directly related to how knowledgeable, how sensitive, and how generous a critic can be. And numbers can’t capture nuance (or a reviewer’s bias, which is evident in text), a problem compounded by sites like Metacritic, which convert even unscored reviews into points.
Music writers always quick to say when a established artist isn't innovating but I haven't been seeing any innovation in music writing 🌚— bae sremmurd (@Leonce) March 31, 2018
When talking critically with friends, I’ll often add caveats (“I’m biased because I’ve met them and I don’t like them,” “I don’t like something they said in the past which I think is hypocritical to their new position,” “I think this sucks because I’m actually envious”), and I deeply appreciate my peers in music who do the same. We all have biases and pre-existing grudges, and so much of that is based on ego, insecurity, and the constant grind of maintaining a foothold in an industry that prioritises novelty and male genius – the kind of men that often, strangely, look like the critics writing about them. Musicians often opt out of broadcasting these opinions about fellow musicians because it’s a constructive discussion within a community, behind closed doors. It’s sometimes staggering to me (to us!) to see less qualified folks say much worse, from a position of editorial power, and with far less self-awareness about their own implicit bias.
There are two types of bad review. There are the inconsequential ones, which we can shrug off, and then there are those from centres of power in our respective genres, where negativity and snark can literally ruin your year, derail an entire release, and put uncertainty into the hearts of the already somewhat easily influenced industry professionals you work with. I’ve met new collaborators one evening, known we were developing a rapport, and then seen all interest fall away the next morning after they’ve Googled my work. The top result? A bad review from a powerful music platform. Those moments are crushing, and notably more so because we’re far from correcting the institutional fuckery that undermines musicians who aren’t straight white men.
“A negative review will always sting, and its creeping influence on your own insecurity and imposter syndrome is very real”
White men and women are often deeply unqualified to cover certain forms of music. White people had a good run covering genres like rock and indie, which were dominated by musicians that looked like them. But when you’re still taking up editorial space at the top of the tree, and the music world is moving on, it’s time to step aside. It’s awkward to see formerly rockist critics pontificating about black women at the Grammys, Beyoncé’s political relevance, or pop releases just because these have become part of an ‘alternative’ music discourse. The same critics had no real awareness of black music beyond the moment it became necessary to have one. Musicians are frequently derided for not staying in their lane, and the same should be said for writers. If your entire iTunes collection is rock, or weighted towards white artists, perhaps consider giving a piece about R&B and hip hop to black writers who’ve been listening to that music their whole lives.
A voyeuristic outsider can now repackage opinions about black musicians based entirely on the thoughts and feelings of a timeline of colour, and pass this off as journalism – see white journalists referencing the sunken place, or discussing a non-white audience’s feelings about musicians from their own community. At a time when even sports commentators are scrutinised for bias and racialised language, music criticism doesn’t self-regulate by any means as thoughtfully. It seems very often the pushback against the most egregious examples of prejudice have to start with the artist, or their peers, before the cause is picked up by fellow journalists. A blatantly crass review of Nabihah Iqbal’s recent album was an unfortunate case in point.
If you work in music journalism because you want to be a musician, that’s understandable, in a twisted kinda way. But the minute you start to release music, it’s time to step away from the critical pen. You are now inherently in competition with the people you’re writing about, even if they work in other genres. All of music media is simply a framing of subject through language – what’s put out into the world cumulatively contextualises individuals and their output. It’s unfair to carry biases relating to the realisation of ideas, to access, to budgets, to methods of songwriting – and be swayed by those in your criticism. There’s no right way to write a song, or release it! It seems complicated, and unfair, to be able to work as critic and artist simultaneously. If the rest of us call you out, we come across as churlish and ungenerous, when in fact the decision to stand in solidarity with your musical peers was yours all along.
If you work in music journalism to take musicians down a peg or two, you’re the worst of all, and this open letter is essentially for you. Once upon a time, the Dr Dres and Lou Reeds of this world existed in a separate and inaccessible place. These musicians were destined for greatness (no matter what you wrote about them), they were generationally uninterested in the opinions of people younger, or less experienced than them, and they had the kind of force-field generated by job security and money – a lot of money. In 2018, for many of artists being written about on platforms like Resident Advisor and Pitchfork, their income and age will be comparable to those of the writers writing their reviews. Musicians’ career prospects are fleeting and intangible. Our nerves are shot already from the constant self-doubt that haunts every living, working artist, and it can be a push over the edge to have someone attack you in the centre of your vulnerabilities. Because the worst thing about the ‘put you in your place’ critics is that they’ve worked out what hurts, in the same way school bullies know your weaknesses.
My favourite works of criticism are those written by those who deeply understand the position and vulnerability of the artist. That’s something which is all too rare in music writing today. Jenna Wortham’s piece on Janelle Monae managed to ask probing questions of its subject, and frame critical moments sensitively, because it was a queer black woman writing about a queer black woman. I would love to see all criticism come from a similar place of empathy and reflection. We know we’re going to fail a little with every record we make, and it helps for you to know we hurt and bleed as much as you do.