John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions, is the drummer and founder of Oneida and Man Forever. He has performed with Royal Trux, Boredoms, Spiritualized, Akron/Family, Marnie Stern and Yo La Tengo. The new Man Forever album, Play What They Want, is out now on Thrill Jockey. Follow him on Twitter here.
Let’s make a couple of assumptions: one, that if we are creating music, then we are artists; and two, that artists are sensitive. Sensitivity is a key element of creativity — it allows us to translate experience into art. Without sensitivity, an attuned awareness to the weather inside and out, the artist will die. So we need it, and there’s a high premium placed on vulnerability: the perceived vulnerability of the songwriter or performer, and maybe even the actual vulnerability of the performer. What is at stake within the boundaries of the performance? How much risk is at play with a particular performance? If an artist is seen as not taking enough risk, or taking too much risk, there’s often a reaction: a bad review. The critic is disappointed because the artist did not meet expectations in some way, and feels the need to outline the nature and degree of that transgression as a service to the potential audience.
So what happens to us when something we created gets trashed?
There are so many strategies for dealing with reviews, bad or good. When Oneida started in 1997, we received almost no reviews. During a two-and-a-half-month tour of the US, with a publicist on payroll, we received the sum total of one review. It wasn’t a rave, but it was ink — a short paragraph in a free weekly. It felt like a triumph. True, the words didn’t seem to have any relationship to the music we created, but at least someone had listened.
One thing I noticed early on when I started working with musicians (I used to book tours for Knitting Factory artists in the mid-’90s) was that some would home in on the one phrase out of a five-paragraph piece that might be faintly critical of their work. These people were inconsolable, hurt to the point of anger. But mostly hurt to the point of distraction: these people could not see the praise. Critics became synonymous with rejection and so their opinions had to be denigrated in the extreme. This might result in an all-out condemnation of all writers as parasitical vermin who want to destroy one’s art. I saw this kind of reaction and I’ve even flirted with it myself — it’s definitely a choice you can make. You could call this an adversarial relationship with the folks who love music and who happen to write about it. This relationship to your bad reviews is not advisable.
You also might even have critics who wade into this kind of shit-storm — they might announce directly to an artist via social media that, “Hey, I actually appreciate what you do!” The artist’s ego gets a boost and the writer feels vindicated because this creative person accepts the admiration as truth. That kind of interaction is also fraudulent because it doesn’t acknowledge the reality of what occurs with a critical evaluation. There are always flecks of meaning that end up on the floor when a work is assessed. The essence of the appraisal is not simple and it’s never clear. Even the reviews that praise you to high heaven never feel authentic. This is because, as an artist, you step in and say, “Well, I’ve fooled this person. S/he does not realize how terrible I really am.” In today’s environment we can leave those kind balancing words to the comments section, the place where the subconscious roams under the guise of “anonymous.” I’m sure someone else has already pointed this out.
A bad review activates the rich vein of self-criticism that flows hard and heavy through every creative action that I take. I just listened to an interview with keyboardist Jamie Saft on The 5049 Podcast with Jeremiah Cymerman, and I envied his statement that he only makes music that he would want to listen to himself. How pure and lovely! (And I say that with sincerity, not irony.) But what if listening to your own music prompts those virulent seams of self-hatred that you’ve spent many years trying to control in order to be productive as an artist? I would say there are degrees of pleasure I could extract from something I created — the highest degree being that it’s finished and I no longer have to listen to it. I’ve brought it into the world despite its profound flaws and my own limits as a composer, a technician and a singer. It’s here, so now I can move on.
Consider the bad review: sometimes the context is all wrong. The critic just doesn’t get it. Perhaps they wanted something you could never provide, an experience better served up by an entirely different artist. Well, that’s a fool’s errand because I am not someone else. I am not Billy Cobham, John Bonham or Tony Williams. Most of the time, I just struggle to be Kid Millions.
In order to create something — to take that leap — you have to have moments when you truly do value yourself, even love yourself. There has to be a space where you can create without (self-)criticism. These periods can actually resemble a sort of mania — sometimes I’ve thought that an Oneida song was the most incredible piece of music ever composed. It’s exciting and it overwhelms the chorus of detractors, inside and out. These periods of approximate mania can cut through the certainty that the things you create are worthless. They may be worthless, but I’m not here to strike a bargain with the side of me that hates what I do.
But then sometimes a review questions whether or not you even deserve to be recording. Well, to answer that critique: no one deserves to be recording, least of all me. That’s never stopped me though. I just read a review of Fountain, a duo record I recorded with saxophonist Jim Sauter from Borbetomagus. (The review was in The Wire and is not accessible via the internet.) The writer questions whether Jim should have recorded with a drummer at all — whether he needed to — because he’s demonstrated plenty of propulsiveness without the accompaniment of a drummer. Then he characterizes my playing as “flailing.”
OK, so initially I was hurt because the gist of the review was that I did not deserve to be playing with Jim Sauter. Or at least this is what I took away from it, which is probably distorted in some way. But there’s a part of me that feels like I do not in fact deserve to be playing with a musician on the level of Sauter. It’s not the only thing I feel about it, but it’s there, swimming among a myriad of interpretations of the reality in which I find myself. So I was defensive. I looked up the writer because I didn’t know who he was. I wondered what kind of music he made. I tried to find a way I could dismiss his opinion somehow. I quickly saw this as an unhealthy reaction to one person’s opinion — so I stopped the search. But by then my insecurities as a drummer and an improvisor were invigorated. I was reminded why it is counterproductive to read reviews.
Jim and I discussed the review — he said some kind things to me, and of course I meditated on the fact that if you want to release records, this is the kind of blowback that you receive. It’s part of the game. The key is not to allow these opinions to coalesce into something meaningful or haunting.
Some artists advise never to read reviews, and I actually adhere to this — in theory. I don’t make it a point to seek out reviews of my work — it’s not an essential part of my relationship to something I’ve made. But it happens. I read them, and in general it’s a struggle to keep my reactions at bay while I go about the business of being creative.
Often, though, a bad review — whether it’s accurate or not — will dredge up the stuff that needs to be managed in order to create. The artist has already done all the critical prep-work. The essence of one’s bad review has existed for decades.