On the encouragement of a friend of mine, I’m undertaking an extracurricular project, documenting conversations with friends of mine. While these aren’t necessarily within the scope of what I do with The Recoup, I do recognize that some conversations might be of interest to readers here, as this first one touches on the creative process of reviewing music and art. You can read more at my Medium page, where these will be featured. –JK
What do you think when people ask you about authenticity, Joseph?
I find it to be somewhat of a portentous subject, one that is quite complex in nature, with varying levels of interest. It’s not an unimportant topic, mind you, but it’s one that’s become so hackneyed, especially in today’s oversaturated opinion market of the online world. To me, it’s one of those questions I tend to avoid, simply because there’s no right answer, it’s completely subjective, and I don’t like to cause controversy or possibly offend people by saying something is “right” or “wrong.” I mean, who am I to judge?
But isn’t that what you do as a writer and a critic? Isn’t that part of your job description? (Laughs)
Well, yes, if you want to be pedantic about it. (Laughs) The difficulty that arises is distinguishing between what you know and what you experience. Because of the rise of the opinion market, that line is fading rapidly—if it even exists anymore. For instance, I know that there are operas that are masterful works of composition and execution, and if done right, they are completely sublime. However, that doesn’t mean that I like opera, or that going to see The Marriage of Figaro would necessarily be something I would regularly want to do. If I want to see an opera, I’m going to enjoy the experience a lot more than if I’m required to see an opera.
The conundrum arises right there. I know that this particular opera is considered a masterpiece by the standards of which such things are judged. It is a brilliant work by a true musical genius. But if I go and I find it boring and tedious, does it really make it boring and tedious simply because that’s how I felt? I mean, what’s my one negative opinion, when the world has said otherwise for the past two hundred and thirty years?
Of course, I should add that since I’m not an Opera expert, I wouldn’t feel comfortable critiquing it. But that’s not the point, really; the point is experience doesn’t necessarily reflect on the reality, be it in critiquing art, dealing with people in general, or almost any facet of humanity.
How you react to a work of art or a book or a song—don’t you think that that’s as essential to the overall point of art? Aren’t you limiting yourself and putting roadblocks in front of you when you do that?
Here’s an example I like to use. I am a fan of instrumental guitar music—almost any style, if it’s instrumental, and it’s guitar, I’m going to give it a listen, and I’ll probably like it. I love the proficiency and skill of a John Fahey or a Django Reinhardt or a Chet Atkins, but when it comes to, say, Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani, I’m simply bored. I like hard rock and metal, but to me, what they do—their compositions are technically impressive, but their performances are boring to me. It’s all flash and glam, and it overwhelms the quality of what they do, and that is a valid criticism. Wouldn’t you agree?
I would, yes. In fact, I’ve used a similar analogy before. (Pause) I think part of it—at least for me—is that I’m susceptible to the dismissiveness of the critic. I fear that the path we’re on now, with the opinion market of the Internet, we are reaching a point where the critical voice is becoming an endangered species. There’s an interview with David Brinkley on the Criterion version of the documentary Hearts & Minds, and it is shockingly prescient. In it, he says that media and criticism is in danger of becoming niche spheres, where the only news and opinions one wants to hear are the ones that satisfy the viewer’s opinions and beliefs. People don’t want to hear things that challenge them or might make them realize that what they believe could possibly be wrong.
Iconoclasm is the biggest problem with the opinion market. In the sinking ship of criticism, one of the tools used to make oneself heard is to take on sacred cows and things beloved by others, simply to rile up the readership and to generate hits. I’m not completely innocent of this; when I was a younger writer, I occasionally went negative for the sake of negativity, and you know what? That wasn’t me. It was someone else. It didn’t ring true. I’m not proud of doing it, either.
There’s so much negativity in the world—why add more to it?
Plus, there’s a certain level of pettiness that’s involved. It’s almost a form of anti-social behavior—let me modify that; it’s not almost, it actually is. Recently I watched a critic friend of mine take on a young writer for their dismissal of a beloved hip-hop album for an internationally acclaimed media outlet. Instead of a rebuttal to the offending article, my friend went one further, and actually talked to the group being targeted. The young writer, he didn’t care for this at all. He couldn’t handle the criticism. He went on a childish tirade against my friend, accusing him of racism, and threw out all sorts of invectives towards the one who showed him up. While this kid was doing this on Twitter, I was conversing with my friend about this guy’s attacks towards him, and what struck me was that the kid was seriously delusional about what he’d done. He came across as feeling entitled to not being called out. He was seriously upset by the fact that he’d angered people, as if his words were sacrosanct. He didn’t get it at all. It was a pathetic display, and yet it’s painfully atypical of the opinion market we’ve perpetuated. Dissent is in. Defining your beliefs through attacking others, it’s just not my thing. I can’t fathom negativity like that.
So, what is authenticity to you, Joseph?
It’s the level of honesty that comes shining through one’s work. A lack of irony helps, too. Something that’s real, that feels real, and from the heart. Visceral experiences, not intellectual ones. There’s a wonderful scene in the film Inside Llewyn Davis that really captures that for me. Towards the end of the film, this guy who makes a non-living out of playing folk tunes from the Appalachians, he’s watching this woman from the Ozarks play a song on an autoharp—and he starts berating her, heckling her, and harassing her. Why? Because she’s authentic. Here is the poseur, and he’s seeing the real thing, the kind of thing he emulates, and he mocks it. He does so because—well, aside from the fact that he’s drunk—he does it because it is something that he’ll never be—and that thing is real. Perhaps he felt like he won a victory for putting her down—and possibly silencing her voice forever; the woman comes across as shy and nervous; who would want to set foot on stage again after experiencing something like that? I know I wouldn’t.
What does writing mean to you, then? When you sit down to critique something, what are you listening for or looking for?
I don’t think I’m necessarily looking for anything. I sit down with something and go into it with no expectations one way or the other. If I find myself reacting to it positively, I’m going to go further into it, and I start looking for the proper words to serve it justice. If I initially react positively, and upon further examination find that I’m not particularly enjoying the experience, I try to figure out why I feel that way, and I usually stop listening or watching or reading whatever it is when I’m not connecting with it. It could be that I’m not in the right mood for it; it could be that I’m not open to what it has to offer. Or it could be that, well, I simply don’t care for it. It’s easy to lead yourself astray. I mean, if it’s the middle of the day, is it the right time to appreciate a soft ambient record? If it’s in the evening, are you really sure it’s right to listen to something hyper and upbeat? You have to learn to gauge yourself and understand your environment and how it affects your listening or reading or watching experience.
I used to rate ambient and instrumental records based on their propensity to make me fall asleep. (Laughs) No, seriously! If a record lulled me into slumber, that was a good thing, because the nature of such music is to entice you into another level of consciousness—or unconsciousness, if you will. You might think that a musician or a composer might find that to be insulting, but that’s not always the case. One composer a few years back sent me an email about my commentary of the record putting me to sleep, and he said it made him happy for someone to finally say that! He told me he had been a chronic insomniac for most of his adult life, and he wanted to present what he felt and what he hoped would be a balm for those who suffer the same affliction. He also told me that he felt so many writers pussyfoot around with that, because they’re afraid that saying, “This record made me fall asleep” is insulting. Such phrasing can be, of course; again, it goes back to understanding context and the visceral nature of the listening experience.
Do you find, then, that having a “no negative” policy to be liberating, or confining?
It’s extremely liberating. It saves time, and what’s more, it cuts down on my worry time. To me, coming up with constructive criticism is difficult; it’s easy to understand the appeal of blunt negativity. It requires less thought and diplomacy. Perhaps that represents a level of laziness on my part; perhaps I am limiting myself when I do that. The nice thing about being in control of my writing and my destiny is that I’m allowed the option of changing my mind. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself; in discussing this, I’ve been thinking about something I’ve recently heard that I was disinclined to give a positive review, and now I may in fact actually take it on, simply because I’m sitting here thinking about it all and thinking about what to say and how I would say it, and I’m already formulating in my mind what it is I would say.
I’m curious; what do you mean by “Worry Time?”
I understand the power of words and how those words can be extremely damaging if mishandled. In my first year of upper-level history courses in college, we had an assignment of critiquing another student’s work. The person I partnered up with was a friend, someone I liked. When he handed me his paper, it was, in a word, terrible. I hadn’t yet learned the art of the constructive criticism, and it worried me. This was a friend, after all. So I went to my professor, and I told him how I felt and how hard it was for me. He smiled for a moment, and then said something rather damning: “Well, you know, you don’t have to be honest. I also don’t have to give you a passing grade, either. This is what you’re here to do. No one said it was easy. This is how you learn.” So I knew I had to do it. I realized that going to the professor was a mistake; there was no way I could not give his work a negative review. So I thought long and hard, came up with the kindest, most honest critique that I could…nothing personal, just sticking to the facts…and I never spoke to the guy again. I got an A for the assignment and the class, but it was bittersweet.
I’ve been on both sides of the negative review, and I know that it can really hurt people. So I take constructive criticism very seriously. Words are powerful things; they can cut deep and long if you use them wrong. I’ve used them wrong in the past, and I never want to do that again.