Occasional Guardian writer and former Melody Maker journo Everett True says it best on his website profile, which reads as follows:
“My name is Everett True. I am a music critic. This is what I do. I criticise music. The clue is in my job description – music critic. I do not consider myself a journalist, as I do not research or report hard news. I do not consider myself a commentator as I believe that everyone should be a participant. I criticise people and in return I am not surprised if other people criticise me. It is part of the whole deal of being in the public arena. I am Everett True. Believe in me and I have power like a God. Quit believing in me and I no longer exist.”
Everett True: the man who ‘discovered’ Nirvana knows how to be critical
It was reading Melody Maker from around 1987 and onwards through the early 90s that made me want to be a music writer (not a journalist per se, but someone who writes about music)I always preferred MM to the NME because the writing always struck me as being far superior, more intelligent – and when it wasn’t overtly intelligent, its parodic columns and humour amused me no end. I owe a great deal to the paper’s contributors for introducing me to or piquing my interest in so many bands – and also for making me realise just how many ways there were to dismantle a release with an all-guns-blazing slating review.
The first time I tried out as a music reviewer, I submitted a sample piece to the Lincolnshire Echo who were looking for a contributor. A live review of a local band that very weekend, it was pretty brutal. I got a call from the music editor within days. He loved it. I got the ‘job’ (I say ‘job’ because it was unpaid). It was unlike your regular local paper review: it wasn’t pedestrian or polite, and instead took is cues from the national music press, and I’d gone all out to show could write and be critical and creative at the same time. I’d never expected it to land in the public domain, but the editor loved it so much he ran it that very week. For the first time in the paper’s history, a music review received letters of complaint, as well as compliment. Some found my brand of music criticism refreshing. Others thought it was simply horrible and nasty. I was torn between a sense of guilt and gleeful delight. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I soon came to terms with the fact that what I had written was the review I had wanted to write. There was little point in writing if not to be read, and I’d have to deal with any consequences of that. Besides, it would be shameful hypocrisy to think a critic should be above criticism themselves.
It wasn’t the first time something I had penned had stirred things up. During first year of GCSE studies, I had come up with the idea of writing a gossip column based on my schooling peers: a friend with a computer had helped facilitate the publication, which was distributed by hand to select individuals. The second or third issue of The Parish News was produced during the summer holidays, so I decided to post them to people. Unfortunately, one recipient shared an initial with her mother, who on opening and reading the little zine, took umbrage to references to her daughter’s ‘tight jumpers’ and called the police, who came round to my house to give me a ticking off and insisted I cease publication.
I didn’t, of course. I was simply more careful about my distribution methods from thereon in. it seemed ironic, though, that of all of the things that could have caused offense, what got me into trouble was someone reacting disproportionately to something extremely minor.
And so it’s been throughout my career (such as it is) as a writer, and in particular as a music critic. On one occasion, a ‘find and replace’ typo error on an artist’s name prompted the artist to declare me a ‘moron’ on Twitter and resulted in a deluge of comments from fans decrying my piece ‘the worst review ever written’. I doubt they’d have been quite as bothered if I hadn’t been giving a 5-star review that described the songs as ‘contrived’ and ‘twee’.
Another less than complimentary review of another act provoked a single reader’s one-word comment: ‘cunt’, while parodic pieces penned on the death of Michael Jackson and the evolution of Linkin Park’s sound elicited a tidal wave of declarations of how dumb I was, with the former article bombarded by irate commenters telling me that Michael wasn’t really dead.
But more often than not, as was the case with the ‘contrived’ review, it’s the criticisms of the lesser acts that cause the greatest antagonism. Maybe it’s because in some cases, niche / cult acts have the more ardent fans. In other instances, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the friends and parents of those little bands who can’t believe anyone would have a bad word to say about them.
And so it was when I received an email from a harassed editor, who’d had to fend off some heavy threats from a certain label / management company in light of a less than complimentary review I’d penned of one of their bands’ releases.
I’d said the production was lousy and the songs generic. I’d said they’d be huge, at least for a while. But what sealed it was that I’d referred to them as ‘fuckers’ and ‘dismal twats’. The complainants wanted the review pulled. My editor, thankfully, refused. But what they seemed to object even more than the grim two stars were my chosen descriptors, and they threatened to take the matter further. Needless to say, said review was hurriedly cut and all the rest and a crisis was averted.
I have no difficulty is understanding why they were unhappy with the review, of course. But was a crappy review by a reviewer who very few people pay attention to on a small indie website really likely to damage the band’s sales or reputations? It wasn’t as though I’d written anything genuinely damaging. Their many fans, if any of them bothered to read my review, would likely dismiss me as a grouchy crank.
The heavy-handed threats and forced retraction, then, were tantamount to censorship. And this is where things get difficult. Matters of ‘free speech’ and ‘free press’ are hot topics in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and in light of the recent rise in right-wing extremism and rising tensions amidst religious militants around the globe. I understand that with freedom of speech comes responsibility, and I would never incite hatred or violence, even in jest. To do so would be dangerous and irresponsible. But to slam a band… that’s another matter entirely. By putting their music out there, they’re automatically opening themselves to critical analysis. Let’s also be clear here: they – the band’s ‘people’ who are acting on behalf of the band and therefore represent them and their interests – saw that their music came my way, which is essentially asking for my opinion. And I gave it. This wasn’t some unprovoked attack and it wasn’t exactly ‘personal’ in the true sense. It was just a rather fiery review in which they opinion I gave was negative, i.e. not the one they wanted to hear. While I doubt – or at least like to believe – they wouldn’t have been too affronted by negative comments on a forum posted by the member of the public, as a music critic it’s surely my prerogative to criticise, at least provided I justify my criticism, which I did, with reference to the material and production, amongst other things. So why the furious reaction? It wasn’t as if I’d fallaciously accused them of being Nazi sympathisers or paedophiles. I would challenge them to prove in court that they’re not ‘dismal twats’.
I therefore feel we’re on dangerous ground, not with the ‘free speech’ debate (here, at least, although those who use it as a means of justifying sending threats of death and rape on social networking sites are over the dangerous ground and into the domain of the prosecutable) but in terms of media manipulation through fear. Little zines and zero-budget websites can’t afford lawyers. But if the threat of litigation means it’s possible to ensure only positive reviews are published, what of free speech and journalistic integrity then? Moreover, have we really come to this? Where will it end? I expect if I stick with it long enough, I’ll find out… Meanwhile, whatever happened to simply sending a turd in the mail?