The Value of Criticism

Written by on in Mumbai

As a thing that has often been associated with music and literature (including poetry, [screen]plays, etc.), criticism has been a part of Earthly society for eons. Here I will briefly de-construct the notion of criticism as a thing so often associated with music, from of course the point-of-view of a music performer, as that is my main vocation.

We musicians tend to have a somewhat uneasy relationship with our critics and their public assertions about our work. So…

Is there even a concept such as the critiquing of critics? Who decides what values and skills are appropriate for a critic; who licenses them to wax on about the objects of their analyses?

What are the elements of a balanced review? What factors determine and show incontestable skill on the part of a critic? What qualifications align to form a superior critic in all her or his glory? How can the novice reader/viewer/listener make good choices from having been ‘coached’ about who and/or what is good, bad or indifferent about a piece of music, a movie, a single performance or e.g., some strong opinions that may only tangentially relate to the artist or work but anyway seem compelling or at least rather persuasive?

Is there a scale, analogous to the Richter scale for temblors or the Brinell or Mohs material-hardness numbers? Or zero-to-five stars? Do decimal values have meaning here?

Are critics at times 78.2% accurate in their opinions? Are they ever 100% correct, when the nature of their opinions are always and forever wholly non-empirical?

Does that all seem as silly to you as it does to me? Should criticism as a pursuit be discredited or banned as in the simplistic notion that it often tends to discourage or to be somewhat counter-productive to the work that is otherwise its razón d’etre?

Have I asked silly enough questions yet? Lol. Okay, here are some thoughts. They’re simply my thoughts, not aimed at anyone in particular, Dad.

Everyone in this life is certainly entitled to their own thoughts and opinions. We are each unique with our own special gifts to share. As humans we offer some reflection of our creator(s), so in that we are mirrors to God of God’s ultimate beauty and diversity.

We are told in ancient scriptures to “make a joyful noise” to please the creator. While that seems simple enough on its face, in practice even the simple word joyful can be surprisingly problematic. One person’s joy can easily be another’s pain!

If you fancy yourself a critic but you’ve never been interviewed by or sat alongside luminaries like Karan Johar, is it possible that your self-opinion could be at least partly based upon false suppositions? Are you being paid to dissect the singing of every playback talent who crosses the margs in B-town?

Have you contributed to any deep conversations on music recording and soundtrack syncing? Are you adept with quickly-typed text and also with the raw emotions of those you criticise? AM I ever going to stop asking obvious questions? Are you, lol?

One old adage has it: everyone’s a critic. But I doubt there’s a parallel saying: everyone’s a producer (or director, or music director, or singer)!

I would say, “Yes, shower singers DO count!” If that’s you, own it! Not everyone sings in the bath—or at the BEST bus stops (nor thankfully on the bus, train or plane, as the case may be). There are probably millions of good singers who seldom let loose outside of their homes. Not every drummer plays the case [cajón]), the bass, the face and the Myss. But I digress (not often, but when writing [about criticism]), I suppose my latitude grows as does theirs to go on about the tiniest of factors giving them pause for fuller consideration.

Although I doubt that I’ll ever delight in carefully assessing every note of a musical recording or live performance, I am winding up to put forth the idea that those who criticise may be well advised to temper their remarks with equal parts of avid encouragement.

For to know an artist is one thing (and one hopes/prays it is to love them/us). To feel equipped to lambast even a single performance without the usual disclaimer “perhaps other factors impacted the quality of the music” seems to me rather ill-advised. Unless you were present in studio during each session involved.

I’m not typing this to discourage you/anyone from offering your/their own informed opinion. Certainly each of us can offer opinions and each of us has something to say.

What I mean to convey here is not that only super-qualified persons should be given a platform from which to provide their assertions. I’m saying that critics should consider the depth and scope by which their words and the notions behind them can affect sensitive artists. Do you personally know and/or are you well-versed about ANY insensitive artists? It seems to me that we’re nearly all well in touch with our feelings—and often, the feelings of others: e.g., lyricists, composers, and of course: audiences!

Playback singers have some rather specific matters to consider when we ply our trade: we must seek to bring the lyrics and music across in ways that allow a) the actors picturising the songs to look good, b) the sense of the story to guide our performances, c) the notes from both the film’s director and the music director to inform our takes, and last but not least d) we must imbue our takes with enough emotion but not too much to convey the romantic, comedic or tragic implications of the overall production.

Here’s another factor that may at times be overlooked: no film (at least in my 10+ years of singing in Bollywood) has an unlimited budget for music. The music director may want more players/singers and musical instruments, or more takes of each number—let’s say just to sync with the actors’ lips or dancers’ steps. Every artistic decision, it’s said can be fraught with compromise or held in contempt by various actors (here I don’t mean thespians) for their own valid reasons. I may want to re-tune (or a director may prefer to detune) any given note. It happens, and in this imperfect world I thank God that we aren’t still tracking to old-fashioned magnetic tape! What an imperfect medium it was!

As I’ve often remarked, every singer is usually willing if not eager to take another crack at a vocal part, but ultimately the director knows best what will work for the project.

While that could be characterised as a cop-out or excuse for a take or two that I’d have re-taken, I’m content with decisions that fall outside my own area. At least in the end, they will own up to what they choose. I will also own up to my singing. God knows I put substantial efforts into the success of every part I undertake. Actually, although I never cruise through any tracking session oblivious to the needs of others, I do tend to seek and find a “sweet spot” where skill becomes invisible and the lyrics take front-center stage.

That’s where I feel at home as an artist. I don’t always match every detail of my or others’ imagination when it comes to the ultimate performance. However I put forth enough effort so that if we can dial in the sync at some point and reach the director’s goals on time, we call it a success. Not every song has smash-hit potential. Not every movie has every ingredient of a true blockbuster.

While we cannot always ensure perfect takes every time, we can rehearse and capture our best efforts quite consistently. (Like any profession, that’s about all anyone truly expects from us.)

What this post is trying to convey is NOT that critics should simply SHUT UP, or give up their dreams of informing the people about what they regard as worth the audience’s time and money.

I simply mean to say that I’m almost overjoyed by the response my vocal tracks have received. I feel the Love, and it just makes me ready to keep doing this until the audience or the director says “enough”. Aka “cut and print,” lol. Team Antara has helped me reach to the stars on my quest. My dreams are coming true before your ears and eyes (and mine). Thank you one and all. By the way, if you’re NOT being PAID to pen your criticism, please consider the simple choice of holding your tongue? Tongues are fun.

Well-considered, constructive criticism can be compared to brain surgery. When it’s actually needed, it may turn out that less actual cutting and destroying is indicated. Not every bend and nook in a brain is a bad wrinkle badly needing removal. Sometimes the less-understood things have merit, too. It wasn’t easy for me to portray a “bad singer” on my first Bollywood playback project.

If you’re my harshest critic, perhaps you take issue with that, lol. Actually, in the end, it was all good fun! The movie director was happy and so was the music director. Although I wasn’t at all happy, that wasn’t the point. I learned to move past my personal feelings and to trust the right people and processes. That was a valuable lesson that serves me now.

Plus I was paid, so no harm, no foul. The game always proceeds apace. Without meaning it glibly in the least, “Next wicket—reset please, sticks up—thank you! Play on!!”

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