The 10 Mistakes I Made as a Music Critic
I had to break these bad habits, and not just in my writing
I started my writing career early—around the same time I began shaving and learned to drive a car. Long before I went to college, I was publishing reviews. I’ve been doing it ever since.
I was just 16 or 17 years old when I walked into the office of the Hawthorne Press-Tribune, my home town newspaper, and handed the editor a movie review I’d written. The newspaper published it a few days later.
Nobody was more surprised than me.
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I had no business writing for a commercial newspaper. But I didn’t know enough to know that. As the proverb goes: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
But even at that young age, I had the benefit of excellent training. My high school journalism teacher Konnie Krislock started guiding and mentoring me when I was just 13 years old. (And she still does today—God bless all teachers!) I also benefited from other instructors, especially my high school Latin teacher Ray Garza, who literally forced his students to read The New Yorker.
It was a different world back then. Hawthorne was a working class neighborhood, but I could learn Latin and read The New Yorker at the public high school. You might not even get that at hoity-toity prep schools nowadays.
Despite all that, I’m embarrassed to read anything I wrote back then. The same is true of the weekly reviews I wrote for my college newspaper—I published a hundred or so articles there, all at various levels of enthusiastic mediocrity. And then, during my senior year in college, I got hired by Paul Emerson just a week before his death (it may have been the last editorial decision he made) to write jazz articles for the Palo Alto Times, which soon changed its name to the Peninsula Times Tribune.
I received $15 per article back then. If I judge matters by their quality, I was overpaid.
I did get better. Finally, in my mid-twenties, I sometimes wrote an entire paragraph that made me proud. But it took hundreds of subpar articles to get there. And even then, I was still aware of my limitations.
I’m still working on them.
But progress often is less about what you do, and more about what you stop doing. There’s a reason why commandments often begin with the words Thou shalt not…. The fastest path to improvement is giving up a bad habit.
The same is true in journalism. I gradually discovered that my biggest leaps forward as a critic came from bravely giving up some lazy or bad habit I’d grown to depend on in my writing.
It sounds so simple. But it’s harder than you think.
Many of these bad habits are tempting. That’s because they make it easier to write an article or meet a deadline. Or, in other instances, editors encourage them—because they believe they attract readers. And there are many other reasons why journalists knowingly and willingly write below their potential (but that’s a subject for another article).
I didn’t want to be like that.
I eventually developed my own ten commandments of criticism. They list the mistakes I strive to avoid. Maybe that’s only half the recipe for good writing—because a critic needs to do more than just break bad habits. But all the stylish prose in the world doesn’t help if you commit these unforced errors.
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS OF CRITICISM
(1) Thou shalt not overstate or understate—but always aim to be judicious and fair.
This seems so obvious. A critic must always be fair—it goes without saying. Doesn’t it?
But until you’ve actually written reviews for publication, you have no idea how tempting it is to exaggerate and make everything as flamboyant as possible. Editors want that. Readers want that. This is how you generate clicks and make your name as a critic.
When I read articles from my teens and early 20s (which I try to do as rarely as possible, but sometimes people thrust them in front of me), this is the bad habit that bothers me the most. Why didn’t I tone things down? Why didn’t I exercise more restraint?
Even before I turned twenty, I realized that my writing was too flamboyant—and not in a good way. But what else could I do? I didn’t know whether I could make my articles interesting without all those extravagant gestures.
But that’s the newspaper industry for you. It’s another curse of journalism—namely that fair, judicious writing is considered boring. The media business talks about fairness, but they actually hate it. It doesn’t sell newspapers and advertising.
I eventually decided that I had to do what was right, even if it was painful. So I started taking scrupulous care in formulating judgments, and deleted any over-the-top sentences. I aspired to a translucent kind of fairness in my writing. It’s hard to achieve, but at least that was my goal.
Of course, this also meant that I had to write better. Because I didn’t want to fill my articles with boring platitudes or obvious statements. I needed to teach myself how to write fairly and with excitement and energy (relying on humor, metaphor, surprise, intrigue, anecdote, quotation, incident, etc.).
That was a huge step forward for me. And it made it possible to write my debut book, The Imperfect Art—which was my first extended attempt to set off some intellectual fireworks while presenting judicious and precise expositions of cultural issues.
(2) Do not settle scores. The primary responsibility of a music review is to assess the music, not retribution.
What does a reviewer do if a musician who is a total jerk releases an album? (You might be surprised how often this happens.) Or, even worse, imagine a musician has treated you very badly in the past. Do you use a review for payback and revenge?
I grew up in a Sicilian family that took revenge very seriously. I could share stories that would make your blood run cold and sluggish like day-old marinara sauce. I vaguely recall that the first word I learned after Mama and Dada was Vendetta.
So I know all about revenge. But I renounced it as a mature adult.
Alas, I will never be a wise guy or a made man. Whatever is the opposite to those is where I prefer to make my stand.
So I have had a musician call me every name in the book—and I still put his album on my best of year list. In fact, there’s an artist who will grace my list of best recordings this year but is such a tool that he should put Black & Decker on his business card. Nonetheless, the music is outstanding, and I will give it due homage.
I hate to have to say this, but if they made bad behaving artists give back their gold records, there wouldn’t be enough room in Fort Knox to hold all of them.
Of course, there are extreme cases, and there is a time and place to call people out. Musical talent does not give you license for cruel behavior, and an artist who crosses the line deserves to pay a price for it. But if a musician does something really despicable, we turn to laws and courts to handle those things, not the music column in the Tuscaloosa Tribune.
And maybe you can mention it as background information in an album or concert review. But retribution and vengeance can never replace actually listening to the music and assessing it on its merits.
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