On Perspective and Criticism

Originally posted April 28, 2019.

This isn’t about gaining, and it’s only tangentially about writing.  But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I want to get my thoughts down.

On April 19th, Lizzo released her major label debut album, Cuz I Love You.  You might have seen some of the songs from it going around, like “Juice” and “Tempo”, both self esteem anthems, the latter of which has been especially popular in the gainer community for its fat-positive message.  I personally have been a huge fan of Lizzo for a while now–“Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell” are my personal favorites–and was very much looking forward to this album.  Unfortunately, I was pretty let down by the album as a whole.  But I seem to be in the minority on that, as it’s been getting very positive reviews.

But rather than focus on that, Lizzo seems to have focused on one of the few negative reviews.  In a tweet that she has since deleted, she said, “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED”.  When someone suggested that if the review in question had been positive, she wouldn’t have cared whether the reviewer made music or not, she said, “Ur absolutely right.”

Suffice it to say that I’m pretty disappointed that one of my favorite artists would not only take this position, but double down on it.  Even her fans were disagreeing with her rather than defending her, which is how you know you dun goofed.  But it’s something I want to talk about anyway.

Now, obviously this stance is pure defensiveness, plain and simple.  Even without the follow up, the idea is patently ridiculous.  By this logic, no one can ever leave a review on anything on Amazon if they don’t make it themselves.  Did those headphone you buy break after a week?  Sorry, unless you work in the manufacture of audio equipment, you can’t complain.  Throw in her follow-up about how only negative reviews are invalid if they come from someone who doesn’t make music, and it’s obvious that this line of thinking is plainly ridiculous.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that even if Lizzo were making this argument in good faith, I still strongly disagree.

I have never made music myself.  I’ve tried to play a couple instruments here and there–got decently good at drums before I stopped practicing, tried bass guitar and gave it up when I was not immediately excellent (that’s that former gifted child syndrome for ya)–but I’ve never recorded anything.  However, I’ve been a fervent music fan for about six years now. (I listened to music all my life, but it didn’t become a huge passion of mine and something I spend a lot of time on until I graduated college.) I spend a lot of time looking for new music and listening to the music in my collection.  I love talking about music, breaking down what I do and don’t like about music, and debating where music is going.

In contrast. I’ve been writing and sharing my writing in some form for nearly a decade now.  It started with blogging, then I got involved in my local spoken-word poetry scene for about four years.  Then I dabbled in fiction for a while, before settling into gaining fiction, and that’s where I’ve been the last three-and-a-half years.  I’ve been quite prolific in all of my endeavors, and with the exception of the non-erotic fiction, made a name for myself in my own way in each arena. (Not to brag, but let’s call it like it is.)

And yet, I don’t really read.  I read social media posts and the occasional online article, but I find books to be tedious and boring, and I don’t read the kind of stuff I write nearly as often as you might think.  They say that the key to being a good writer is reading a lot, and that’s true to an extent.  But I don’t read nearly as much gainer fic as I used to, because writing it myself has made me really picky. (Incidentally, this is also why I don’t make music:  I fear becoming even more picky about music than I already am.  A friend of mine who has recorded albums has said that exact thing happened to him.)

Based on the above information, you might think I’d make a better critic of writing than of music.  It seems Lizzo certainly would.  But I feel way more confident in my ability to review music than my ability to review writing.  Granted, my “reviews” haven’t amounted to anything more than opinionated Facebook posts, but I did recently copy them to my RateYourMusic profile if you’d like to read them yourself.  But the point is, I feel way more confident in my ability to critique music than to critique writing.

Because at the end of the day, reviews aren’t for artists.  They’re for the listeners, the readers, the viewers, the players, etc.  It’s not about answering the question, “Is this a good piece of art?”, although I’m sure some reviewers do fancy themselves arbiters of that question.  It’s about describing the experience of partaking of that art.  It’s inherently subjective, because the experience of enjoying art is inherently subjective.  As I think I said in my third-anniversary Q&A, I’m of the opinion that art isn’t this monolith that’s made by the artist , with the spectator being tasked with teasing out the “true meaning”.  Art is what happens between the piece of art and the spectator.  It’s inherently interactive, even if the spectator is “passively” taking it in.

What makes a good reviewer is how well they can express their subjective impressions, how well they can describe what happened between the art and them.  And that doesn’t come with a familiarity with the creative process.  That comes with a familiarity with the experience of partaking of that art.  That comes with being an avid reader, not a writer.  And that comes with being an avid listener, not a musician.

When I posted about Lizzo’s tweets on Facebook, that friend of mine who has recorded several albums said, “I feel like reviewing from non-creators is essential for artistic development.  They bring an entirely different perspective to your art.”  And that’s an important point too.  While art is ultimately a form of self-expression, if you’re going to share your art with the world, then it’s important to have an idea of how your art is perceived.  Otherwise, you get whatever Kanye West’s career is right now.  Sure, an artist could argue, “I’m making this art for myself, not for anyone else’s approval.”  But if that were true, then they wouldn’t have any desire to share it with the world.  If you’re going to share your art, then deep down somewhere, you do care how others perceive it.  And the only way to learn that is from non-creator reviews.

In short, people who listen to music without making it are exactly the kind of people who should be reviewing music, assuming they’ve listened to a lot of music and can think about it deeply.  If I got two pieces of critique, one from someone who has written a hundred gainer stories but doesn’t read them, and one from someone who’s read thousands of stories but never written one, I’d take the latter way more to heart.  Because I don’t write to impress my fellow writers.  I write for you folks.

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