(An early version of this piece was first read on September 25, 2014, at Words and Guitars, a monthly music writing reading series I co-host in New York.)
With the caveat that I don't view anything that I wrote before the fall of 2005 as actually "counting," in any sort of professional sense, the meanest review I've ever written was a take down of a Nataly Dawn's solo album. All together now: who?
To answer: Nataly Dawn is the singer in a novelty group so forgettable that I had to Google their name while writing this piece, even though at one point, for professional research, I read a profile that stated that her group Pomplamoose was revolutionizing DIY music. Yes, some editor allowed that phrase to pass through.
Let me remind you of these guys for just one second, and then you can go back to forgetting them. Pomplamoose are two music school kids that got famous doing smirky sub-NPR folk-rock video covers of various Pharell and Lady Gaga songs, ones they clearly felt superior to because they'd actually gone to school for music, which made them inherently superior to pop claptrap. Fucking kill me.
They were/are a generally intolerable prospect, and a strong point for the argument that we should just shut the Internet down before things get even worse. That said, I should point out here that Nataly's solo album was all original material. I called it the sonic equivalent of beige and wondered aloud why it even existed. Which I admit now is pretty harsh, but the editor I wrote it for was really into harsh. It even ran in a section called Worst New Music.
And besides, they'd made fun of Beyoncé, so clearly they had it coming.
I stand behind every negative single slam I've ever written or uttered at the bar, including the pan of Wavves that one publication refused to run, or the 800-word eye roll I made at a circle-jerk branded content Vice festival for which a publicist later reamed me out. With all of that said, I would like to make very clear that even if an album is causing me to go to thesarus.com to look up a synonym for boring (I'm always a fan of stagnant or prole), I always do so with the utmost respect for the artist that oozed this flotsam out into the world. (With the caveat here that I've never been assigned to write about Chris Brown.)
Because even if an album is cliched, unforgivably derivative or so safe that it becomes paradoxically dangerous, at the very least —and I mean it, at the very, absolute least — the person who unleashed their mediocrity into the world had an idea and believed in enough to at least see the damn thing through to completion.
If nothing else, that is admirable. Hell, it's something to envy.
Every single terrible song you've ever heard in your life, from "With Arms Wide Open" to "Fancy," which is a garbage song and you know it, is something that someone could have easily bailed on, but didn't. As much as we all would have liked them to.
Now, by the time they've entered the studio with Dr. Luke and that guy from OneRepublic and whomever else, contracts have been signed and there will be hell to pay if the seesaw of doubt and arrogance tips the wrong way.
But long before they entered the studio and acquired a gang of sycophants who told them every terrible impulse they had was great, the hack that wrote the song or the future trivia contest answer that sang it must have thought that they didn't have it in them, and they should just stop. And you know what, I'm glad they didn't listen. For their sake, if not for mine. (And if they didn't have that thought, screw them for being overconfident.)
At the moment on my hard drive I have an outline for a graphic novel that seemed brilliant earlier this year and now seems like garbage, a very vague pitch for a book that gets worse each time I rewrite it, and a list of essay topics that I totally intend to get to at some point.
For the journalism work I actually get paid for, I can get that done, reasonably close to deadline. But for the stuff that no one is breathing down my neck for — that literally no one really asked for — it tends to lose out to the siren song of the Daily Show rerun sitting on my DVR, or my desire to check and see if anybody wrote anything on the internet.
The only reason you're reading this piece is that, in an effort to make new friends and get out of an ongoing rut, I started a reading series a while ago, and made a vow that, no matter what, I would do a piece a month, and I'd already I hit the ejector button on a different piece about how a Belle & Sebastian song taught me to raise my dating standards. (If there's nothing good on TV next week, maybe I'll finish that one. We'll have to see; I keep hearing mixed things about Gotham.)
Someone might have to write 100 bad songs before they write one good one, so I would never want to discourage someone's creativity, even if I'm willing, for a fee, to hand down an honest evaluation of their latest efforts. This can be a bit tough ethos to live by though, as when you're a person that loves music, you tend to have friends that love music, and some of those friends play music, and they need some time and love and support to work the kinks out, and you need to be supportive.
One my best friends in high school spent most of our senior year in a ska band, as was only right and proper in late '90s Orlando. The last time I saw him he was in a band that I would describe as kind of like late period Creedence Clearwater Revival, only funkier and more libertarian. Florida is a weird place to live.
That friend of mine might one day write a song better than the national anthem. Technically, that's true for all of us. So I didn't want to crush his dreams when he asked what I thought. But I would also never want to lie to him, as God will judge us for our sins, and you only lie to people you don't respect.
So should you ever find yourself in a situation like I was in then and sometimes find myself in today, feel free to use any of the following:
"Man, you guys had so much energy up there!"
"You really looked happy to be playing, and that's just great to see."
"You guys were just doing your thing."
I once had a conversation about this very topic with a fairly well-known publicist and an artist I was interviewing. She winced at that last line, and then made a face that people often make when they finally put two and two together. When I later asked her about her album, she asked if I thought she was doing her thing. She's probably one of the best singers working today, so I tip my hat to whomever gave her that noncommittal encouragement so many years ago.
The creative mind tends to vacillate between thinking that you make the Gods weep every time you touch the keyboard, to thinking that the only thing impressive about what you're doing is that it's even worse than that last thing you did, which everyone knows was the worst thing anyone's ever done.
I wish I had a solution for when you're in the former situation, but whenever I bring this issue up with my therapist, we get distracted by one of my other hundreds of fucking problems.
The best advice I can give is to push on anyways, even when it's not easy, even when it feels like fucking work and the whole reason you got into a "creative" field was because it was supposed to be fun, even when you don't really want to and you wondered why your passion ever seemed like a good idea.
It's what I'm going for anyways, and as such I thank all you for reading. If nothing else, I think we can all agree that I was really doing my thing up here.