The Localist: The Art of Giving and Receiving Critique
A number of years ago, a fellow songwriter friend of mine who I deeply respect told me that one of my songs was bad. Actually, he was more specific than that, he said the lyrics felt forced and that I was trying too hard with the lyrics. He was very nice about it, and in fact I agreed with him, at least to some degree. The song, which you’ll probably never hear, is not a great song, and it will probably sit somewhere in the bottom 20% of songs in my oeuvre for eternity. I may try and write another song that captures the sentiment of that song, or I may try and adjust it, but if I do it will be at least partially in line with the critique that he gave me.
The thing is, judgment and critique is a necessary part of growing up as an artist. And it requires having a very good artistic relationship with someone to be able to give and receive critique well. There are people with whom I don’t feel comfortable giving critique to, and I’m sure the same thing exists the other way around. These relationships take time to develop. Of course the tradition of critique extends beyond songwriting. Classical music instruction at Juilliard involves focused critique on interpretation of a piece. Painting classes oftentimes involve critique where the students provide critique of each other’s work in a group setting. Fiction writing groups exist because writers actively seek the critical feedback of other writers. It’s a practice that master artists have engaged in for millennia.
In such settings the critique is useful for the person critiqued but it’s also useful for the person giving the critique as well. Because giving a critique involves exercising one’s analytical powers. You have to have a viewpoint and be able to apply it, and the act of giving critique can oftentimes help focus, clarify and challenge one’s own point of view. And, of course, there are better and worse ways to give a critique. People talk about the idea of “constructive critique”, which can oftentimes mean critique that is not delivered offensively, and incorporates specific content-relevant observations that provide the musician with a proposal for concrete steps for moving forward.
It goes without saying that a person can give a bad critique. I used to participate in a subReddit where songwriters would anonymously post songs for anonymous feedback by other songwriters. The format was actually a bit genius because people felt comfortable to say what they wanted, without the awkwardness of encroaching on existing relationships. But not all of the critique was useful or apt. And just in the way that giving a critique can focus your viewpoint as a songwriter, being able to filter critique well requires developing your own viewpoint as well. I will oftentimes dismiss certain critiques or types of critiques, based on my evaluation of it. But oftentimes I take it to heart and think critically about how to grow as an artist.
And, of course, someone can receive critiques poorly as well. Two classic reactions to critique that eviscerate the value of critique are: “well, I meant to do that”, and “well, that’s just your opinion.” The first is a poor response because it adopts the assumption that one’s intending to do something means that it is good. The second is a poor response because it is tantamount to a refusal to participate in the idea of critique. Regarding the latter, it’s important to note the difference between rejecting a critique because one takes all viewpoints to be merely opinions, and rejecting a critique because one evaluates the critique in a thoughtful manner and rejects it for considered reasons. And, really, only the latter amounts to really respecting the feedback of others. The former is a kind of theoretical lip service.
Sometimes I wonder if the activity of critique is something that is falling by the wayside, especially since social media metrics perform something akin to a publicly vetted evaluation of one’s work. Social media metrics log public feedback in the form of aggregated yay-or-nay numbers, and they seem to do so in a way that has the feel of democracy, because each person gets one and only one Like. But, of course democracy doesn’t work for everything – you wouldn’t want the hands performing your brain surgery to be controlled by popular vote, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that social media metrics aren’t a good substitute for honest critical feedback from a fellow artist.
Anyway, it’s worth thinking about the songwriter relationships that you have, and if you have relationships where you feel comfortable giving and receiving critique. Having a community where you have or can develop such relationships is crucial for growing as a songwriter. And if you haven’t found that yet, maybe it’s a good time to think about how to develop that relationship. Sometimes all you need is to do is visit a good local open mic.