'Local IS Good'

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But isn't there room for constructive criticism?

On October 3, Kevin Kelly, a writer and editor with The Newfoundland Herald, had a letter to the editor published in The Telegram.

Kelly complained about an editorial cartoon by Kevin Tobin, which ran September 30. In the cartoon, Tobin lampooned members of the Wonderful Grand Band, depicting them as old folk and calling them Wonderful Grandpa Band.

Kelly thought the cartoon was in poor taste, and went on to list the bands many achievements and its contribution to Newfoundland and Labrador culture.

To denigrate their impact on not just Newfoundland and Labrador music, but our culture as a whole by this cartoon, spoofing them as old grandpas is quite disappointing to me, and to many local music fans, Kelly wrote (the letter is not online).

This item is not concerned with the cartoon (though I think there was nothing wrong with it, and that Tobin did not intend to denigrate the band or this provinces culture).

No, I was startled by Kevin Kellys letter because I seldom see critical commentary from the writer. Kelly writes up several local artists per week, and has nothing but kind words for everyone.

This may sound fine, on the surface. Its nice to support local artists. Most every group or performer, particularly those just starting out, love a good review. And its easy to make a lot of friends in the local music industry if you offer glowing praise for everyone.

However, readers expect and deserve more. They need critical commentary as well. They need reviewers to point out when a performance is weak or an album bad. If you write only good things about local artists, there is no contrast the stories all merge into sameness. The truly excellent performance is unrecognized because the superlatives have all been exhausted on the undeserving.

Before going further, some context. I was writing freelance concert reviews for The Herald back in 1981, when editor Linda Russell called and asked if I was interested in becoming a columnist. At the time, she was writing Upbeat, the magazines weekly music and nightlife column, but had decided to step aside.

We want to become more critical with the column, she said (and I am paraphrasing here). If someone does a lousy show, we want to say so. But I know these musicians. Theyre all my friends. I cant write negative things about them. Are you interested in taking it on?

Was I? Hell, yeah! I became a weekly contributor, was hired full-time within a year, and continued writing the column until 1987, when I became managing editor. During that time, I occasionally wrote negative things about local acts, though it was usually framed in a constructive way. I had the odd run-in with local musicians because of this, but, for the most part, the relationship between reviewed and reviewer was a cordial one.

As editor, I also encouraged other columnists to think critically about their subject matter, whether it was visual artists, authors, actors or whatever. The result was often lively, provocative content and some heated counterpoints in the letters to the editor section. This is the sign of a healthy publication.

When I left, several editors succeeded me, each bringing their own viewpoint to the issue of critical commentary. One of them was Bob Hallett, who left The Herald to build a stellar career with Great Big Sea.

When I was editor, I encouraged the local columnists, (Music, Art and Books) to be critical, Hallett said, in an email exchange. By my interpretation, that meant judge things in their context, and state an honest opinion as to whether or not they were worthy of the consumer dollar. One of my goals was, then and now, to encourage excellence in Newfoundland culture. If everything we do is good, how will it get any better? I do not believe that just because the music/art/etc. is made by a Newfoundlander it is any better than anything else. This, Hallett said, was not a popular opinion, and at best he was only partially successful.

The prevailing opinion at the Herald seemed to be that if anything at all came from a Newfoundlander, we should be supportive, even if it was terrible, and we all knew it. The Art Theatre columnist for most of my tenure, Peter Gard, was thoughtful and opinionated, and had no issue making critical remarks. As a result, he was widely vilified. Our book reviewers refused to make any critical remarks at all. I encouraged the music reviewers to be critical, but again had little success. Occasionally I would get fed up and do it myself. Immediately I would get angry phone calls, snotty letters, and enraged personal visits. A typical example - I reviewed a tape by a band named Newfie Pride. My review stated, more or less, that while the music was ok, I thought the band's name was ridiculous. They were livid, their argument being you can't say that. I countered that they had submitted their tape for review, so, what did they expect? Plainly, they expected some positive PR, and were dismayed and disgusted when they didn't get it. Hallett was at loggerheads with the critical culture of the Herald, which equated local with good.

This came from somewhere, as people before me had been fired for not toeing the line. I did what I wanted, but the Stirlings also left me alone. I suspect that after I left, inertia took over again. If the critical culture has changed at the Herald in the intervening 18 years, I have not noticed it.

This brings us full circle, to today, and the current culture of positivity that pervades local content at the magazine. The letter to the editor in The Telegram was the first critical commentary I had read from Kevin Kelly. Ironically enough, he was criticizing the media for saying something bad in his view about local musicians.

I sent a message to Kelly, noting the lack of critical content in the publication, and inquiring about his philosophy on writing about local entertainment. I asked if he saw himself as more of a supporter of local acts, and less of a critic. Here is the complete text of his reply:

My philosophy is this. I always thought my job as a music writer is to explore and promote the diverse talent that is visible throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, and educate people about it through The Herald and to a lesser extent, my radio show (on CHMR).

Even if I don't like a particular artist's music, that doesn't mean I shouldn't write about it, and find the positives in it. Because, as you know, I'm only one opinion. Someone out there might listen to this artist and really like what they're doing even if I don't personally.

There are articles I've written about artists that I haven't necessarily liked. But I didn't put off that negativity to the article, because again, I've always thought just because I didn't like something, didn't mean someone else wouldn't like it either.

It's a delicate balance, surely.

I'm sure it's the same for a guy who works at Rolling Stone, but might have to write an article about the Jonas Brothers, even though he may be more familiar with classic rock. You try to get the inside views about their music, try to present it in a logical and clear cut fashion, so that those Jonas Brothers naysayers might look at them differently.

If you ever read my columns especially about politics, I can be critical, but I can also be balanced. But music writing, to me, is to explore and analyze artists and their music, and present it to the public, so they can make up their own minds on whether they want to seek out their music, a show, or know more about them.

One of the few times I've wrote negatively was my review of a concert a few years back by Chantal Kreviazuk at Mile One. I like her music a lot, and was eager to attend the show. But the concert disappointed me especially in comparison to one of her past shows, and I said so in my review.

Even a couple of weeks ago, I was reviewing the Snoop Dogg show, and stated that it was too bad he only played for an hour, because he put off an entertaining show. But I also criticized the opening acts as lacklustre, because they were.

It is a delicate thing being an entertainment reporter in Newfoundland, but I try to give a fair, balanced assessment of an artist and their music in my writing, whether I like it, or whether I don't on a personal level.

Therein lies much of the problem. Kelly expresses critical comment only occasionally, and even then, never regarding local acts. Its easy to criticize Chantal and Snoop; not so easy to say negative things about an album by an artist you run into every weekend downtown.

As for the Rolling Stone comments, they dont hold up. Last time I looked, the state of critical thinking in that magazine was quite healthy.

There are ways to write in a 'positive' way, while still being critical. In fact, it brings balance to a review. I remember writing quite glowingly in The Herald about the WGB TV series, while criticizing the director for his choice of camera angles during one of Mr. Budgells dancing sequences, in which you couldnt see his feet. And if youve ever seen Budgell dance, you will know that his feet are the focal point.

Shying away from critical comment can also keep you from getting at controversial arts and entertainment stories. Right now, I know for a fact that some founding members of the WGB are hurt and disappointed angry may be too strong a word that they werent invited to make a walk-on appearance at any of the recent reunion shows. Some sort of acknowledgement would have been nice, said my source, but none was forthcoming. However, you cant get at stories like this if you shy away from critical content.

Anyway, I thanked Kevin for his note, and offered this follow-up question: I have since spoken with another former Herald editor, who said that local = good was part of the overall editorial philosophy; that reviewers were expected to write positively about local artists, and doing otherwise could get one in trouble. I'm not sure if you want to comment on this, or not...

Here is Kellys reply:

To me, most of the time, local IS good, and I have no problem saying so. There's a lot of great talents out there to profile, especially now. The bad ones just get overtaken by them, because they don't get the press. In my experience, I've never been told how to write a review. I'm more a music profiler in my mind than a reviewer.

It is not my intention here to gang up on Kevin Kelly. He is one of the nicest media guys out there, and I have a lot of time for him. However, I know from private conversations with Kelly that he does think critically, and is quick to express an opinion on pretty much any topic.

It would be nice to see him use that way of thinking in his music writing.

The readers and musicians deserve nothing less.

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  • Peter
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    I ran the entertainment section at The Telegram for about a decade. For much of that, I wrote classical, jazz and pop reviews (mostly the former). On occasion, I filled in as theatre critic as well. I once chaired a panel about arts criticism at the MUN School of Music. More importantly, I've struggled with the challenge of recruiting people to write reviews.
    When you consider that even larger publications like the Toronto Star struggle with the issue on occasion, it should come as no surprise that good criticism is hard to come by in this neck of the woods.
    The main problem is that you need someone who a) can write, b) knows something about music (or painting or theatre, etc.) and c) isn't afraid to knock their friends.
    Perhaps my standards were too high, but I didn't want anyone who was lacking in these three qualifications.
    If someone can write, but doesn't have a critical ear or eye, then they're not going to get the job done. They will either gloss over things that need to be brought up, or will "criticize" something for no sound reason. Criticism is not mere opinion. It should stem from some foundation of knowledge and experience. And objectivity actually plays a huge part. As Bob Hallett says, various genres of art should be taken in their own context. You can't say a blues band is no good because they use the same three chords. That's what most blues is about.
    By far, the biggest hurdle to criticism is the challenge of finding someone who's willing to crap on their friends or colleagues. Most critics spring from the local art community, or develop close ties to it. You can say that artists should be able to accept constructive criticism, but it doesn't work that way. Artists have egos -- let alone careers to protect -- and even the slightest hint of bad press hits them like a tonne of bricks. And that includes faint praise. I was lambasted once for not specifically praising a group's musicality in a passing reference.
    The attitude that local efforts are sacrosanct is difficult to counteract. Few writers want the grief. I experienced it for maybe five years, and it was not easy. The worst thing is, I think there are still friends of mine in the music/art field who still harbour the remnants of a grudge.
    But criticism serves a crucial purpose. It keeps people honest. It makes people strive more when they realize that some sort of public standard is being upheld. Non-critical arts writing is important, too. Interviewing artists, getting their outlook, talking about their ups and downs, chronicling their achievements -- that's all important. But someone also needs to call it like it is.
    Geoff mentions Peter Gard. He has served as a restaurant critic on a couple of occasions. I've heard he was even physically threatened on at least one occasion. The Telegram's food critic, Karl Wells, has also received a lot of invective. And it's usually the same complaint: who does he think he is pointing out faults in local restaurants? This, even though he's extremely careful about context, taking each restaurant for what it is.
    I wrote a mock restaurant review a while ago. I think (hope?) it illustrated how absurd it would be for a critic to be uncritical. You can find it online here: http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=269080&sc=86

    Thanks,

    Peter Jackson
    Commentary Editor
    The Telegram