Dw. Dunphy On… Criticism

I think you’ve gotten us all wrong, and it’s time to set the record straight.

I’m not going to say there isn’t a contingent of malcontents in the field of criticism, because that would be a lie. There are plenty of people who got into the game because of a grudge against that which they’ve chosen to review. I once knew a movie critic, a local guy for a local newspaper, who frequently and regularly savaged the films he saw. It didn’t matter what it was — comedy, drama, animation, universally lauded, universally panned, the danger money was on him trashing the subject. In the meantime, he shopped spec scripts to agents and sent off treatments to studios. The more he sent, the more he was rejected. The more he was rejected, the nastier his criticism became. His reportage was venomous, like hate notes from a spurned lover.

That, right there, is the underlying truth. Even though that writer was an exception to the rule, approaching everything with aforethought disappointment, most of us critics don’t and it is because we’re still in love, if not with the media of our choosing then with the promise that’s always there. Somewhere in our adolescent lives, we stumbled into a movie theater and saw something that set our eyes on fire, made the blood flow a little faster, gave us something we hadn’t experienced up to that point. For me, it was music and I can’t very well say when it first caught on. Was it my mother’s records of The Coasters Greatest Hits, or The Fifth Dimension or even “Cathy’s Clown” by The Everly Brothers? Was it Dad crooning along to Sinatra and Perry Como on those long, languid summer drives? Was it when we lived in that rental house and I played the 45 RPM record of E.L.O.’s “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” until the sunset, and I stared at that beige United Artists record label spin ’round and ’round? Was it that weird, unsteady feeling I got when the right chords were strung along, exploding into a surprising and pleasant direction? There is a love there that is almost impossible to adequately describe, but is there in most critics.

So why do we give negative reviews when something doesn’t quite measure up in our opinion? Why is it that we reserve our most evil side for our heroes when they don’t blow us away or, God forbid, outright disappoint us? Well, to be this entrenched in something is to admit a form of addiction. I’m sure that if you had me strapped down for an MRI test and played a song that really gets to me, my brain would go biofluorescent. I feel something unique and very physical when I hear new music that presses the right buttons. On the other hand, when the promise isn’t delivered, or a musician I count upon to spark that thrill fails to do so, the reaction is more than just intellectual.

Is it any wonder that I would express my dissatisfaction when my euphoria was denied? Is it at all a shock when a movie critic comes back from a brand new Martin Scorsese movie feeling like the director withheld the best reel of the show, then says so in their respective columns? Like I said before — it’s a love affair, and sometimes, love hurts. What also hurts is the realization that, over time, your reaction will not be as fresh, exciting or as revelatory as it once was. Plot lines become tired. Chord progressions become dangerously similar. Fire comes with desire, hearts get torn apart and seemingly every world is promised to every girl. I can still experience that joy, that high, when I hear a new tune that demands to be played again and again, but it will never be “Along Came Jones,” or “Cathy’s Clown,” “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” or even “One For My Baby, And One More For The Road” — and I have to accept that.

And I do.

So I come to you, our readership, with a challenge. When you’re reading the latest piece from your favorite journalist, know that none of us are objective in the slightest. We didn’t get into this to walk that path of blankness, ready to be shifted to one side or the other. We’ve already chosen our sides, we’re just hoping there’s something for us upon arrival. You don’t buy music with the intention of hating it, or set out to the theater to waste one and a half to two hours. You want to be thrilled, overjoyed, you want to see something that sets your eyes on fire, makes the blood flow a little faster, gives you something you hadn’t experienced up to that point. So in a way, we’re all critics.

I can’t wait for the show to start.

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  • MichaelFortes

    You're right on the money, Dw. Though I must say, often I do “walk that path of blankness” if only because discovering a new perspective much later on that can shift an old one can be just as thrilling as walking in right away hoping to be excited. It's more of a long-term, drawn out kind of thrill, but then again, I'm a weirdo like that. But yeah, right on. This is great stuff!

  • http://www.kenshane.com kshane

    Well said. Thank you.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    It's something that's been on my mind for a while. The misconception that the critic dislikes, if not downright hates, that which they review without exception is a total falsehood. Like I said, we've got it bad. We want to love it, almost always.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I'd love to be that objective, but usually I'm in the tank already. When I have nothing nice to say about something, not even about how pretty the CD design is, you know someone down the line screwed it royal.

  • http://www.kenshane.com kshane

    I only work on things that I specifically seek out, not things that are sent to me unsolicited. That's not to say that the occasional unsolicited submission can't catch my ear and inspire me to write about it, but in general I write about things that I'm interested in.

  • http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/ GrayFlannelSuit

    Same here, which is why I suspect the flow of CDs to Gray Flannel HQ is a fraction of what it used to be (that and it takes me forever to get around to writing unless I'm really inspired). I'd rather not publish a review at all if I thought something stunk, unless it's of an artist I already like. So chances are if a CD review shows up on my site it's going to be positive.

  • http://www.kenshane.com kshane

    I make it a point to never slag indie bands. I am not going to attack some kids who are driving around the country in an old van, living hand to mouth. If I don't like their album, I won't write about it. When indie bands get big, say The Decemberists, or now Grizzly Bear, or if they have a major label deal, the gloves are off.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I learned my lesson in High School which, I suppose, is what I was always supposed to do. Regardless, the school paper always printed reviews of music referring things as being “so very awesome!” and “sooooo cute!” and “the best and rockinest of all times!” To retaliate, when I got into journalism class, I reviewed Sting's Nothing Like The Sun, the Madonna dance-mix album You Can Dance and the first Martha Davis solo album – and I slagged them all. It was not about the music, it was about what I perceived to be realigning the machine.

    What it really was was being an ass. In high school, you're all up in arms about what real music, and the best music, and such are and you're so uptight about 'selling out'. After the bad reviews ran, I felt self-satisfied for all of five minutes. I was not writing about these albums, I was being a vigilante and it was stupid.

    So I learned from that experience to really take the task of listening to music, then writing critically, with genuine love of music and not with love for verbal firepower.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I learned my lesson in High School which, I suppose, is what I was always supposed to do. Regardless, the school paper always printed reviews of music referring things as being “so very awesome!” and “sooooo cute!” and “the best and rockinest of all times!” To retaliate, when I got into journalism class, I reviewed Sting's Nothing Like The Sun, the Madonna dance-mix album You Can Dance and the first Martha Davis solo album – and I slagged them all. It was not about the music, it was about what I perceived to be realigning the machine.

    What it really was was being an ass. In high school, you're all up in arms about what real music, and the best music, and such are and you're so uptight about 'selling out'. After the bad reviews ran, I felt self-satisfied for all of five minutes. I was not writing about these albums, I was being a vigilante and it was stupid.

    So I learned from that experience to really take the task of listening to music, then writing critically, with genuine love of music and not with love for verbal firepower.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I had to write about a few indie bands in the past and always, always, always dreaded if their stuff was terrible. I'm in exactly the same position as they are, so I haven't the right to stick it to them, especially while they're still so fresh on their learning arc. I can appreciate when some of the reviewers I sent my stuff to conveniently lost those discs (I'm getting better!)

    Now, I have no qualms about saying that I thought Neil Young's most recent, Fork In The Road, was godawful silly. I know he's capable of so much better, and he could have found infinitely more eloquent ways to support the Prius. That he didn't kind of smacks his previous highlights around so, yeah, gloves off. Neil Young should have totally known better.

  • breadalbane

    To be fair, the Sting album was at times hollow and pompous, the Madonna re-mix album was pretty much a cash grab, and the Martha Davis album was … well, it just plain wasn't very good now, was it?

    But I know where you're coming from. And hopefully, as we get older we all learn to temper our enthusiams *and* our criticisms — without becoming dithering, mushy or bland.
    .

  • Bill Lloyd

    Well said!

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    I don't know if I can get behind that, Ken. I've taken some heat for being “unnecessarily hard” on indie acts, but I've got to call 'em as I see 'em. Does it do an artist a favor to surround him or her in a cocoon of positivity? If anything, I think that smaller acts are the ones who have the most to gain from honestly-offered criticism.

    Big acts are surrounded every day by insincere hacks all too eager to tell them how fucking brilliant they are; if you can't get a little harsh truth when you're just starting out, when are you gonna get it?

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    < What also hurts is the realization that, over time, your reaction will not be as fresh, exciting or as revelatory as it once was.

    I am so, so there.

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    < What also hurts is the realization that, over time, your reaction will not be as fresh, exciting or as revelatory as it once was.

    I am so, so there.

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    < What also hurts is the realization that, over time, your reaction will not be as fresh, exciting or as revelatory as it once was.

    I am so, so there.