Recently a popular metal band publicly made a filled-baby’s-diaper kind of complaint that Decibel had given them a bad review. If you’ve spent your whole career wondering what the quickest way to make people think you’re an asshole, then, eureka—welcome to the internet! I figured this shit out in the ’90s, but I understand if you might have missed it since those really cool cornrows probably took up a lot of your free time.
This isn’t just to dogpile on a man obviously having a difficult time with old age, though. This time-wasting “think piece” is here to consider the concept of reviews and the complicated relationship between reviewers, reviewees (not a word, I guess) and, for lack of a better word, etiquette. As some of you know, I’ve been a “musician” for well over 20 years now. Surprisingly, I’ve had one or two bad reviews in that time period. I’ve learned a few things from the (obviously infrequent) experience in regards on how to handle criticism without filling my own diaper and then throwing it while shrieking from the top of a lamppost.
I also published one issue of a Xeroxed zine in 1995 that I hope no one still has, so I’m obviously qualified to speak from the side of the reviewer.
Everyone has different motives for doing whatever creative thing we do until we rejoin the screaming void at the end of our lives; some of us are compelled by a neurotic need, others because of the challenge, and more still because they need money to keep up a crippling drug habit. At the end of creating something, the most important person who should feel satisfied with it is the one who dealt it. But in this age of instant gratification and absolutely unparalleled sensitivity, it’s becoming more about the ones who smelt it.
I understand that as a musician (and someone who has a very poor temperament, trust issues and occasional thoughts of opening the car door and rolling out when I’m going 70 mph), it can be difficult to see something that consumed your life for a period of time and tearing it apart quicker than most premature ejaculation apologies, but that’s the nature of the game. The music-listening public is fucking fickle and has no real attention span. How can they? There have been four dozen records released in the time it took me to think up that fart joke in the previous paragraph. If you’re trying to do this for reasons other than having the satisfaction of taking an idea out of the ether and giving it life then I can understand why this sort of thing is stressful. But much like how not everyone is going to think your music is visionary, not everyone is going to agree with naysayers and they might even listen to it BECAUSE people talked shit on it (I discovered Ildjarn after Terrorizer gave Forest Poetry a 0/10 to give a pointless example). But they might avoid it entirely if you come out acting like someone slighted your honor and you’re ready to have a fucking duel because someone said something mean about your music in a magazine. It exudes the kind of maturity of a six-year-old who died and now haunts a house by drawing ghost dicks on the fogged-up mirror when you shower.
Ego obviously plays a huge role in this. Either you’re too fucking insecure to handle a bad review that people will probably read once and forget later, or you’re a fucking narcissist that can’t handle being told your dick isn’t nearly as big as you described it on Tinder. I’m sure both of these are healthy and well-adjusted reactions, but only when answered internally. That’s what our inner monologue is for; talking ourselves up, talking shit on everyone else and getting the Smurf’s Christmas album stuck in your head in July. And I know we’re told not to bottle things up because that’s how we get asshole cancer but taking the internal and spraying it externally to a large crowd may not get the response of sympathy that you expected. In some cases that shit can get you 15-20. It betrays a lack of confidence in yourself and that kind of thing is repellant to listeners already overburdened with choices. It shows you let someone who wasn’t involved in your creation get to you. You know what else it does? It lengthens the lifespan of the negative comments while shortening the attention people will actually pay to your music. You’re shining the fucking bat signal onto the negative shit, you’re giving it life and (perceived) importance. At this point, it’s no longer the review that is harmful to you: it’s your own obsessive need to draw the attention of others to something negative. You’ve turned a paper cut into a beheading.
What’s the old saying? “Those who can, do. Those who cannot, review.” In some weird sense the relationship between artists and those who review art has become a battleground or, at the very least, a détente between two forces fighting for attention. Musicians are already aware that we possess large egos and any one of us who denies that is a fucking liar otherwise they wouldn’t put their music out for public consumption. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that many reviewers (and writers) also have massive egos, especially if they have a chip on their shoulder about not being able to create but rather only critique. And some of them get pretty into their role as “tastemaker,” giving you a countdown to a review like it’s the fucking ball-drop in Times Square. And those are the ones who’ll stab a musician in the back the moment it suits them. They’ll get personal in their reviews and they’ll brag to their friends that they somehow got one over on you. But #notallreviewers are like that. Most of them aren’t. What they are is overloaded with shit to listen to and try to give an objective opinion in 100 words to things they probably would never listen to in their own time.
As a reader, it’s not difficult to ascertain a writer’s enthusiasm (or lack of) or if they’re getting personal or just have the written voice of an asshole (yes, ha-ha, like me, your joke is very original) but the most important thing to remember about any of this, no matter if you’re the writer or the musician: reviews are all opinions and not fucking law. I’m pretty sure every musician has heard a record they thought was dogshit from a band they used to like. I’m personally sick to fucking death of Beyoncé and Jay Z working out their marital issues through their records but does that matter? No, because it’s an opinion. Reviews are opinions. Read that again and then think to yourself if you’ve ever had an opinion. You have? Good, now shut the fuck up because someone gave you a bad review. It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.
Twenty years down the road, what’s going to matter to you more: The fact that you went and created something or the fact that some people, possibly even many people, did not have that creation resonate with them? And will you be able to look back on how you handled yourself with a sense of dignity or regret?
I’ve seen those frosted-tips pictures. I’m sure you know what two decades worth of regret feels like.
Neill Jameson is a regular Decibel columnist and the frontman and founder of Krieg, one of the U.S.’s longest-running black metal acts.