I recently published my first professional Piece of Creative Non-fiction About a Concert I Attended. It was, maybe, what other people would call a concert review.
I have long been hesitant to publicly dip my toes into those waters. Because:
1. Writing a review of someone else’s work is an act of chutzpah at best and egomania at worst. When I read a negative review of a performance or a composition, I often wonder if the critic has any idea of the challenges that performers and composers face. I often wonder where the critic gets off thinking that his opinion matters. Many concert reviews, even the positive ones, have a tone of omniscient superiority that I don’t want anywhere near my writing.
2. If I write reviews of concerts in Chicago, it’s quite likely that I’ll end up reviewing the work of someone that I regularly drink beers with. Do I have opinions about my friends’ work? Absolutely. Are my feelings about their work entirely separate from my feelings about them personally? No, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise.
3. The act of public criticism frankly runs counter to my gender socialization. As a female performer who wants to write about music in a critically engaged way, I have a few role models, but they’re greatly outnumbered by male colleagues. Sure, there are lots of female performers, but most of the people in my field who could be classified as big-time writers and tastemakers — those who compose, conduct, curate, and review music — are men. Let me be clear, these are men whose work, careers, and characters I deeply admire. But women are socialized to be “nice”; to make other people feel good, to listen more than we talk. So I hesitate to sound “mean” (see item 1) or hurt my friends’ feelings (see item 2). Research has shown that strong, successful women are considered less likable. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that I hesitate to get up on a platform of any size and proclaim what is good and what is not.
And so this is why I am not a critic.
I’ve been having an argument with myself on all three of these points.
First of all, in answer to item one, I believe that engaging music writing is really important to our field. We are all engaged in a musical, intellectual, and personal conversation with one another, and writing is a big part of making that conversation vibrant and thoughtful. And music writing doesn’t just take the form of reviews. The best writing about music goes way beyond the dry, 300-word piece that we’re lucky if any newspaper prints these days.
AND, in answer to item two, I’d like to throw away the idea that we must write about music from a supposedly unbiased critical distance. My vantage point is, and always will be, a perspective from inside the art form.
AND, in answer to item three, it’s a sad fact that there aren’t enough women in music writing. And maybe, just maybe, I can do something about that. Thinking and writing critically about the art and artists around me has always been a part of my process as a performer — and perhaps by sharing that part of myself, I’ll encourage other women to do the same. I’m just going to have to wade through some of the fear that comes along with the role of public thinker.
Some interesting reading on this subject:
Olivia Giovetti’s amazingly awesome post about gender and curation is one of the best things I’ve ever read on the subject. (Unfortunately for my point and hers, the sexist post that she was responding to has been taken down.)
Georgia Kral argues that women are encouraged to be fans, not critics.
A roundtable discussion of female music writers.