10 Rules for Musicians (and Everybody Else) on How to Deal with Criticism
A recent incident with Rickie Lee Jones forces me to consider the critic's craft, both from the giving and receiving end
Even I felt awkward about this.
An interviewer recently asked Rickie Lee Jones to respond to something I wrote about her. I’m grateful that the journalist quoted some of the more positive things I’d said in a very long essay on Jones’s music and career—there were other passages not quite so flattering, which were quietly ignored. Even so, I found the whole situation a little unsettling.
After all, I’m writing for readers, and not to interrogate musicians. In fact, I came to the sad conclusion long ago that my vocation as a music writer makes it almost impossible—except in rare instances—to have genuine friendships with the artists I write about. So if Paul McCartney phones and asks me to join him for dinner, I simply must refuse.
Just joking there. I’m actually having dinner with Paul tomorrow.
In all seriousness, there are trade-offs in any vocation. I wish I didn’t have to be so professional in my dealings with many musicians, but the implicit covenant between a music writer and the reader imposes legitimate constraints. A writer’s responsibility to the reader comes first, overriding all other agendas—at least that’s how I see it. And that’s that.
But I have to say I loved Rickie Lee Jones’s response to the interviewer—which was, more or less, that she didn’t give a rat’s ass what Ted Gioia thinks.
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See, she grasps that her vocation also has its demands. And the last thing any musician should do is construct songs in order to please critics. Her responsibility is to her art, just as mine is to speak honestly and forthrightly to my reader. The only genuine, heartfelt advice I’d give to talented musicians is to have the courage of their convictions, and pursue their projects at the highest level they can achieve. Only they know how to do that, and what demands it imposes.
But this raises a much larger question—which is how musicians should deal with criticism. I’m claiming this is a bigger subject, because it’s relevant for everyone, whether you’re a rock star or a factory worker on the assembly line. Everybody gets criticized in this world. (And if you’re active on social media, get ready for a triple dose of it.) None of us can change that, but we can adjust how we respond to criticism.
I consider it a great advantage (although sometimes a painful one) that I have been criticized in public regularly over the years. Unlike many music writers, I have focused most of my energy on writing books, not articles. When you write books, you must deal with the reviews. And after you’ve written as many books as I have, you have learned to deal with every kind of review—harsh, kind, glowing, cruel, fastidious, dishonest, erudite, reductionist, and every other flavor.
I’ve had the unadulterated joy of reading a few reviewers who seemed to understand what I wrote even better than I did—they explain my viewpoint so much better than I did myself, that I wish I had hired them to write parts of the book. On the other extreme, I’ve dealt with reviewers who attribute all sorts of ridiculous viewpoints to me, filling their reviews with supposed paraphrases of my work that have no resemblance to what I wrote. The mismatch is so great that even I walk away from the review saying to myself: “This Gioia dude is a total idiot—how can that damned fool hold such nonsensical opinions?”
But the simple fact that I’ve been reviewed hundreds of times has had a sobering impact on my own reviewing. I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of these journalistic exercises. This unwanted education has made me a better critic, or at least a less clumsy and heavy-handed one.
Having experienced the process on both sides, let me offer some suggestions on how musicians (and others) ought to deal with criticism. Here are ten rules I try to live by in my own experiences with harsh feedback.
(1) Never let a total stranger control or define your sense of who you are, and what your mission in life is. Of course, there are some people whose criticisms I must take to heart—starting with my wife, and close family members. But it’s not a large number of people. And it certainly doesn’t include the reviewer at the Poughkeepsie Times.
(2) That said, you can’t just ignore criticism. I applaud writers who claim never to read reviews, but I don’t suggest you emulate them. And for the simple reason that critics impact your life, and you often need to deal with the fallout. That’s true if your boss takes you to task. (“Ted, you’re not making enough widgets on the widget assembly line—I’m taking away your overtime hours.”) And it’s also true if a hit piece on you runs in the New York Times. So you pay attention to the criticism, not because it defines you (it doesn’t), but because as a professional you responsibly deal with the consequences of your actions, whether deserved or not.
(3) Absolutely try to learn from every bit of criticism, if at all possible—although you shouldn’t assume the critic understands what you do better than you do yourself. In general, people are overly polite in our day-to-day lives, and will avoid telling us unpleasant truths. So it’s a great favor to us when they speak bluntly and honestly. Receiving tough feedback is never fun, but it can be one of the most productive experiences in your life. However. . . .
(4) Much of what passes for criticism can be safely ignored because—and I hate to say this—it isn’t honest criticism. So it’s impossible to get much useful feedback from it. It pains me to make that admission. As a critic, I like to think highly of my tribe. But so much of what is published nowadays is grandstanding, posturing, click-chasing, score-settling, spin, hot takes, and the exact opposite of the frank, honest guidance we want and deserve from critics. This is sad for many reasons, but one of them is that it limits our ability to learn and genuinely benefit from criticism.
(5) It’s almost never a good idea to respond to a critic. Don’t do this unless it is absolutely unavoidable. If the original criticism is valid, you learn from it and move on. But if the criticism is dishonest or angry or openly hostile, follow-up exchanges won’t be any better.
I can only recall two times in my entire life when I wrote a response to a negative review. And it might have been better to let even those two instances pass by unnoticed. I do believe it’s acceptable to clarify specific factual errors in someone’s account of your work. But just debating opinions—which, after all, are the reviewer’s stock in trade—is almost pointless. Let people who disagree with you have their chance to speak their mind, and live with it.
(6) If your creative work is taking you in new and bold directions, don't let critics see it until it’s ready for their feedback. I’ve learned this the hard way. I won’t even whisper about the books and essays I’m writing nowadays until they are almost completely finished. I’ve had promising projects destroyed because I let outsiders critique them too soon. You can’t judge a vacation by the plane trip to the destination, and no critic can fairly assess your work if it’s still in embryonic (or even post-embryonic) condition. So protect yourself by keeping the engine room of your creativity well guarded.
(7) Don’t let your emotions rule you when dealing with criticism. I saw this at work in my early years. The boss would walk in the door and scream in people’s faces. Some of my colleagues would fume for days after these incidents, but I saw that as letting the boss live rent-free inside your head. Just on principle, you shouldn’t let anybody do that, whether a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a teacher in school, or even a columnist at the Altoona Daily News.
(8) Even unfair criticism can make you stronger. The world is far gentler today than it once was, but back in the day, I encountered sports coaches, bosses, teachers, and other people in positions of authority whose criticism was as subtle as a hand grenade in a foxhole. They often crossed the line, and I absolutely don’t condone their techniques. They espoused a theory of criticsm that would get you fired in the current day, and legitimately so. But here’s the good news: almost nothing fazes me at this stage in my life. I couldn’t have gotten to that rare place without having lived through those over-the-top experiences. Like the boy named Sue, you can benefit from even the most unfair labels and critiques.
(9) And consider this: If criticism is getting more intense, it’s often a sign that you’re having an impact and some success. During the first decade of my work as a musician and writer, no one ever criticized what I did—and for the simple fact that nobody paid the slightest attention to it. But when I started selling books in larger quantities, the intensity of criticism increased in direct proportion to my royalty checks.
I didn’t experience my first genuine hatchet job until the age of 40—what a shock that was! But it’s no coincidence that this hostile rant came in response to the breakout book that would give me access to a large global audience. I now grasp that this is a fairly common rite of passage. And, as far as I can tell, it’s the same in every sphere of life. If you shoot hoops at the gym, no one cares, but if you play in the NBA Finals, a million people criticize your every move. And it’s just as true in everyday work environments—the more responsibility you take on, the more you will be scrutinized and found wanting. So at least comfort yourself with the realization that tough and even unwarranted criticism is typically a sign that you’ve made some genuine progress.
And, finally. . .
(10) The only way to avoid criticism completely is to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. If you go down that path, the critics will disappear. But don’t ever give them that much power over you.
These rules have been helpful for me, and I hope you find value in them too. Of course, this is only half of the story. I plan to write again on this same subject from the opposite perspective—in other words, addressing the duties and responsibilities of the critic who dishes out all this tough love. Those devilish reviewers deserve some honest feedback too, and we won’t let them off easily.