The awful truth

SN&R’s Clubber columnist joins local and nationally known music critics in debating the question ‘Can you ever be too honest in print?’

Illustration By Mike Gorman

The situation is simple and understandable. First, imagine you and your friends start a band in your mom’s garage. You have an electric guitar, and for Christmas, your parents buy you a small amplifier. You pick your drummer not because he’s great but because he has a drum set and his parents let him borrow their car. Your brother plays bass. No one wants to sing, but someone has to, so you do it. The three of you practice hard, and you all agree that you sound good together.

Another friend has a band that has been playing shows around town, and he offers you a gig with them. You snap at the opportunity, and suddenly there you are, on a stage, in front of a staggering 30 people—more people than you have ever played for in your life. The lights are hot and bright in your eyes, and those 30 people are like ghosts out there. When the drummer counts off the first song, and you launch into that carefully practiced guitar intro, you realize that this is your dream come true, that this will be your life.

You and your band play a few more shows. Your friends, the only people who regularly attend your performances, say you’re getting better. After a few months, you send some press kits to the local papers. You hope someone will come by and be as wowed as your friends are and that they will write something to support what you and your bandmates know in your hearts: that a major label will sign you. That you will be famous. That you will be rich. That your music is great.

A few weeks pass. You pick up the weekly paper and are surprised to see a write-up on your band. It’s a review of a show you played the previous week. For a moment, you are elated. After all, there are few media outlets in your town. For a local band to get any press is an achievement in itself. But then you read on.

The review has a few positive things to say, but on the whole it’s not pretty. They say your singing is off-key, your drummer isn’t particularly skilled, and your songwriting seems hollow. It feels as if the paper has told the whole world that no major label will ever sign you. That you will never be rich or famous. That your music is unimportant. That your music is crap.

This is an essentially true story, played out in every town that has a press interested in providing honest, critical views of its local music scene. It is a heartbreaking story in many ways, for the crushing of young egos is never pretty.

However, even the most headstrong musician on the local stage is still out there doing something that is, at its core, a noble endeavor: creating art. It might be good art, or it might be bad art, but it’s difficult to argue against the idea that even bad art is worth something.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the review from the local paper was an honest and truthful assessment. The local band in the preceding story had unwarranted delusions of grandeur, which is to say it wasn’t nearly as good as it thought it was. The newspaper’s assessment of the band was accurate, in that it reflected the accurate opinion of the music critic who wrote it, but was it fair?

Not according to Jerry Perry, longtime publisher of Alive & Kicking, a monthly newspaper devoted to the Sacramento music scene. Perry’s perspective on the negative reviewing of local bands is unequivocal. “I don’t want to get into the business of slamming bands with no recourse,” Perry said.

Alive & Kicking’s longtime policy has been to publish only positive reviews of local bands. According to Perry, “[Music critics] have virtually a bully pulpit because we have the means to write about local music, and the local music we write about has no real recourse. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”

As Perry pointed out, the music scene in Sacramento offers a far more limited arena of public debate than the national music scene (or even larger music towns). In fact, the press here is so limited that a negative review published in this paper might be the only review a band ever receives. This situation offers music critics like myself a sticky problem—where to draw the line. If I see a band performing on a Sacramento stage, and I feel it isn’t any good, should I tell my readers that information, or should I move on to the next venue in hopes that I can find some band to throw accolades at? Exactly how honest should a critic of local music be?

Greil Marcus, former editor at Rolling Stone and author of The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, commented on this aspect of honesty in reviewing music. “The purpose [of music criticism] is to say what you think,” Marcus said during a phone interview from his Berkeley office. “The purpose is to be honest. To not lie to your readers or lie to yourself. When you start doing that, you corrupt yourself and your ability to write about anything. So, the germ of the lie you tell when you give a band or a singer or whatever a pass; or you praise them when you shouldn’t; or you leave out a comment that you feel you want to make about where they failed, where they cheated, where they didn’t get it right, where they didn’t live up to their own ability or their own promise, that will affect everything you do. And you’ll know it. And it will make it impossible for you to know your own mind.”

Jim DeRogatis agreed. A veteran music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic, DeRogatis spoke with me via phone. “If you’re reviewing a local band,” DeRogatis said, “and you don’t treat them with the same honesty that you’d have in critiquing Ashlee Simpson or U2, you’re not doing them any service. If they sucked, you have to say they sucked and not just give them a pass because they’re a struggling local band.”

But why? Perhaps the answer has something to do with understanding music as an art form worth talking about. Take it from this perspective: If every printed movie review were positive, would those reviews be useful in making an entertainment decision? Of course not. A moviegoer would rely instead on other sources to make his or her decision: friends, word-of-mouth, knowledge of the director or star, or the film’s advertisements. However, if the printed movie reviews were honest and intelligently critical, moviegoers would have one additional source to look to—one written (the reader hopes) by someone who thinks a great deal about movies and has an educated opinion about them.

Sacramento’s music scene has fewer alternate sources of information, but those that do exist are quite capable of creating a dialogue about music. This paper, the other paper, a few monthlies devoted to music, the Internet and word of mouth all come together to form an ongoing debate. Is Jackie Greene really that good? Is the new Jackpot album worth listening to? What about that unknown singer-songwriter at the Fox & Goose? What do I want to tell my friends to listen to or avoid?

The function of printed music criticism in this dialogue is one of informed opinion, for music critics are people who eat, drink and sleep music. We research it, read about it, study it, perform it (in many cases) and argue about it—and, in the end, it is this body of knowledge we bring to bear on what we write. At heart, that doesn’t make our opinions worth anything more than the opinion of any other music fan, but it may make them more informed.

A musician once told me that he felt that Clubber—the weekly live-music review column I pen for this paper—was aptly named, because it clubbed the music scene to death on a weekly basis. But a healthy music scene is one that incorporates many voices, including critical viewpoints in the media. If we all want the same thing—a vibrant and interesting live-music scene in Sacramento—don’t we owe it to ourselves to embrace the idea of criticism in general, even if that criticism sometimes makes us angry? At least for this writer, music criticism’s primary function is to verbalize what it is about a particular music that is interesting, moving and effective (or, on the flip side, what is boring, static and ineffective).

As former SN&R Arts Editor Jackson Griffith commented via e-mail, “What a good writer does is hold a mirror, with as little distortion as possible, up to the people who are playing music, and said critic should have the guts to say what needs to be said.” Without that level of “guts,” how useful is the critic’s viewpoint in the dialogue? Isn’t honesty—above all else—what makes a review worth reading?

Perhaps it’s most easily summed up by the words of DeRogatis: “If you’re writing bogus reviews, and I’m a teenage kid, and I’ve got $20 in my pocket, and I’m going to buy their CD or concert ticket, then I’ve been had, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

As for the hypothetical local band that started this piece, maybe it auditions a number of singers, chooses a young woman who is both beautiful and covered with tattoos, gets signed, cuts a record, makes some money and tours the world until the band finally breaks up over a drug-fueled love triangle. Or maybe its members decide that the music critic who slammed them in the paper was full of crap, and they just keep on making music in the garage. Maybe they still get signed, or maybe not.

The rest of the story doesn’t have much to do with the critic. The band’s future can be talked up by writers, listeners and fans, but in the end, that future is determined only by the band itself—through its music. To that end, this critic can offer only seven brief words: Rock on, ladies and gentlemen. Rock on.