"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
May 12, 2014

Don’t Criticise – Bare Your Soul

I made this thing last year, a little manifesto cast in plastic, a reaction against the negativity I was feeling around me at the time. I don’t believe we can ever remove disappointment, frustration and angst from our lives. But, I do believe we can harness those “negative” emotions and channel them into our work, […]

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I made this thing last year, a little manifesto cast in plastic, a reaction against the negativity I was feeling around me at the time. I don’t believe we can ever remove disappointment, frustration and angst from our lives. But, I do believe we can harness those “negative” emotions and channel them into our work, into our art and in so doing, make our lives better.

Don’t complain, make art is a manifesto for me. Now, I’d like to add something to that, a caveat of sorts, especially for those of us who spend a lit of time online; Don’t criticise, bare your soul.

The Case Of The Misunderstood Guitarist

I recently shared the video you see above on G+, Google’s slowly dying social media platform, to the usual near total silence that greets most people’s activity there. Out of the blue, an anonymous soul posted a scathing rant against Annie Clark, the lead singer and guitarist of St Vincent, who you see featured in the interview.

One quirk of G+ is when you share a YouTube video there, your comment also appears on YouTube page itself. I guess someone at Google thought this was a good idea. Sadly, it opens you up to all sorts of forum-like randomness and it does seem my G+ interlocutor, with his pet hate for Ms Clark was being very, very random indeed!

Of course, one could make an aesthetic case for not liking Annie Clark’s style. Many guitarists aspire to play with smooth, fluid phrasing, looking to emulate players like Robben Ford, Larry Carlton or Joe Satriani, but Clark has chosen a more angular path, reminding me of players like Marc Ribot, Vernon Reid, Adrian Belew and Frank Zappa (all of whom were, coincidentally, huge inspirations for me).

Guitar Today

The point for me, really isn’t about liking Annie Clark’s style or being a fan of St Vincent’s music (which you should check out, if you haven’t already). It’s really about how one approaches the craft of making music and those who are trying to do what they can, with the talent they have.

I adore the video above, with Alex Chadwick playing 100 of the greatest guitar riffs of all time.Sure, the fluffs the odd note and gets the feel wrong on a few riffs, but who cares? This isn’t just a test of skill and versatility (or, a great way to sell guitars and gear), it’s also a marvellous window into the evolving face of guitar driven music.

And, right at the end is St Vincent’s riff for the song Cruel. While the list is loaded with songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s, there’s not a lot from recent years, with only one from this decade (Cruel, 2011) and just five the last ten years (2005 onwards).

We could bemoan the lack of great guitar riffs in pop music today, but it’s far more reveling to look at how guitar playing is changing. I’ve recently checked out the instructional materials from David Grissom (Storyville, John Mellencamp, Dixie Chicks) and Adam Levy (Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman) on TruFire (a great learning resource) and both are solid, but a far cry from the way guitar was taught when I was starting out. Each course is a reminder of how guitar styles and popular music arrangements have evolved in the past 30 years.

Skin In The Game

What made our friend on G+/YouTube so obnoxious wasn’t just his obsession with Annie Clark, but the way he accused anyone who liked her music of lacking talent, or the ability to play guitar properly. The absurdity of this coming from someone who posted anonymously, with no videos or clips online to back up his claim to having “talent” was pointed out by many.

We might say this critic had “no skin in the game.” As I’ve pointed out before, it’s important to be cautious with this kind of criticism, especially online and especially from anonymous posters. Thankfully Social Media can be rather good at calling out this kind of BS and putting it in context.

But, even if this ranter had a stack of videos online showing their great skills, would that justify the attitude, the vitriol and the attacks on Ms Clark’s fans? No. The idea that you can hate just because you have skin in the game is not enough for me.

Soul In The Game

I’m indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for clarifying, in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder the idea of having “soul in the game,” which is not just being committed to the game, but being committed to making the game better. I want to push this idea further and suggest a change to the way we talk about our art, the way we evaluate our craft and the way we address each other.

Don’t criticise, bare your soul.

It’s easy, when we encounter something we don’t like, or find to be poorly done, to just point out the flaws and faults. But, I’d like us to consider doing something else, pointing instead not only to our own work, but also to our hopes, our dreams our reasons for being interested in this thing in the first place.

This simple step fundamentally changes the nature of our conversations and our relationship to our craft.

So, let’s say you encounter a musician whose work you don’t like much. Instead of slagging them off, take about what inspires you, instead of putting down their fans, talk about how you feel when you hear music that moves you, or how it feels to make music that has moved others. Instead of pointing out their perceived weaknesses, share your own processes.

It seems counter-inituitive to respond to trolls and hate by being more open, by baring more of our soul, by being more open. But, in the end, it’s not the trolls and haters who really matter; we didn’t get into this creative world for them and nothing we do will ever appease them anyway.

We got into this for the love of what we do, of what we make and how it makes people feel. This is what matters, this is what we should talk about, this is what we should point to and this, not criticism, not smug putdowns or snarky comments, is what we should be known for.

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