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The other day, I found myself at odds with John Doe, the co-founder of the great punk quartet X.



John Doe, back in the days when X was young and tearin' down the walls...


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by Michael Goldberg

Monday, May 17, 2004

Two Hats

At times, the role of the 'critic' and the role of the 'creator' seem at odds

It struck me as absurd. The other day, I found myself at odds with John Doe, the co-founder of the great punk quartet X. Somehow the two of us, along with British academic and journalist Simon Warner, had been picked to judge the "Music Criticism" category of the annual Association of Alternative Newsweeklies editorial contest.

It had seemed, at the outset, simple enough. Two other judges would read through a zillion entries and pick the best six writers in each of two circulation categories: "Over 50,000" and "Under 50,000." Then we three would read those writers' submissions and come to a consensus regarding them.

Of course I should have figured that if there were three judges, there would be three very different opinions regarding the writings. And so it was. For some reason it seemed that any two of us — Doe and Warner, Warner and I, Doe and I — were in agreement regarding particular writers, but at odds over others.

After we had exchanged a few rounds of emails — a conference call hadn't worked out, 'cause Doe was auditioning for an acting part — I found myself wondering what, exactly, I was doing. Why did this matter? Did I actually feel strongly about anything I had read? And did that have to do with the subject matter, or my mood, or the writing, or what?

In Judgment

As an editor, I have to make judgment calls all the time. Is the review well written? Does it communicate the essence of the album under consideration? Has the writer really come to terms with what the artist is saying? Those are some of the thoughts that go through my head as I work on a piece.

Or the question can be more basic: Is this a writer I want to work with? Do they have talent? Do they have potential? Or even, do they have good taste?

I constantly have to judge. Is this a good album? Is this a good song? Which song do I want to feature as a free download? Which songs make the cut for my radio show?

And every decision has an impact on a real flesh-and-blood human being. That writer I turn down has feelings. And so does the musician whose album I don't like. I try not to think about the impact of my decisions on them. I certainly don't want to hurt anyone, but I can't be a "nice guy" either. If I want Neumu to be a compelling, quality online magazine, with good writing about music that is worth people's time (and money!), I can't let that "emotional stuff," my concern for the writer's (or the musician's) feelings, get in the way of my critical judgment.

In the journalism business, this is business as usual. Either a writer cuts it, or they don't. Either the music moves me, or it doesn't. Pretty cut and dry.

But what if I'm wrong? What if I was just in a really bad mood the day I listened to five or 10 seconds each of the first three tracks off some album that arrived in the mail? In the late '60s, the first time I heard a solo recording by Van Morrison, I didn't like his voice. I have thought about that many, many times over the years.

The Problem

The problem is that as a writer, the last thing you want to be thinking about is whether what you're writing is "any good." That's the quickest way to stifle creativity. Writing is more than just a craft. Writers (and artists and musicians) talk about "being inspired"; they talk about words or images or melodies just coming to them. Or coming through them. And that happens to me — often.

But how can you be open to words (or images or music) coming into and through you from somewhere outside you if you're all uptight, sweating every word, wondering if your editor (or gallery or record company) will like what you're writing (painting, recording), wondering if it's any good. Wondering, worrying. Frozen.

I recently spent a weekend at a workshop called "The Painting Experience." The point of the workshop wasn't to learn how to paint. And it wasn't to walk out the door with "product," completed paintings ready for framing and selling. The workshop was about being in the moment. It was about the experience. It was about going with your intuition, and about getting what is inside you onto the canvas. "Good" or "bad" was not the point at all. We were, in fact, specifically told to do our best not to judge our work. And no one was to comment in any way on the work of other participants.

During an interview with my wife last year, the artist Viola Frey said that when she taught art, one of her assignments would be for her students to paint something "dumb." "I remember assigning the students to do something 'small,' 'medium,' and 'large,'" Frey said. "I told them to make something 'dumb.' Dumb was especially important."

"Good art only comes from bad taste, which, when you think about it, it's true," Frey told writer Richard Whittaker, during an interview published online at Works + Conversations (www.conversations.org). "When you try to make art based on the best examples around, nothing ever happens. But if you do it from things that are considered bad taste, then you have a chance to create something."

On the one hand I must judge, judge, judge. And on the other, I must put myself in a place where I am not judging at all in order to let my own words flow freely. The way I've dealt with this contradiction is to compartmentalize. I have my editor's hat and my writer's hat. When I'm wearing the editor's hat, I'm all business. I'm the critic. When I'm wearing my writer's hat, I'm just letting it flow. I'm not concerning myself with good or bad, with grammar or spelling or any of that. The point is to let the words tumble out, to let them spatter all over the page the way Jackson Pollock created his paintings.

The Best?

And so, here I was, lightly arguing via email with John Doe (Warner and I seemed to agree on things a bit more easily). Doe dismissed the writing of one entrant as "very small town." Summing up another writer, one whose work I found kind of boring and without much energy, Doe wrote: "rhythm in his writing most like the rhythm of the music. great grasp of history w/out showing off or going over the reader's head w/ obscure references. seems to find an interesting story where other might not see it."

It was after I'd read the line about one of my favorites being "very small town," that I sat up in my chair and began to wonder if I was losing my mind. I went back and read the three pieces by that writer. I still liked them. I didn't see what was "small town' about them. But now the writing didn't strike me as being quite as good as I remembered it. Hmmm. Perhaps it was the subjects that I was taken with, I thought. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that the writer had chosen the kind of subjects that I used to choose when I was a freelance writer, in my youth. Perhaps it was because the writer had written the kind of pieces I like to run on Neumu.

Maybe, I now considered, John Doe was right.

Or maybe this is all just so, so silly.

I mean, I guess it might help the writers' careers to get first or second or third prize, or even an honorable mention. Awards are good to bring out when you're making a move to a more prestigious publication. So on that level, this means something.

But that's not the level I'm concerned with. What I care about are people who care passionately about music communicating their passion to others. Sure, I care about good writing. But, really, every piece I'd read that was submitted for this damn contest was well enough written to do the job. And, clearly, if something I found a bit boring excited John Doe and Simon Warner, then who, really was to say if it was "good" or "bad"? Let the readers judge for themselves.

But here's the rub. Much as I dislike the idea of anointing certain writers (and musicians) as "good" and dismissing others, I also get off on that role. It's fun to be a "tastemaker," to hip people to the cool stuff. And so I will continue to wear my two hats. Some days I'll put on my "critic" hat, and other days my "writer" hat. And sometimes I'll just jam one right on top of the other.

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