The best ways to handle criticism and rejection as an artist

Most of us don’t go into being an artist with any sense of preparation for criticism and rejection. We have a dream; maybe it started in front of the mirror in our bedroom. Some of us fantasize the fame and fortune we crave as our ultimate form of validation. We may even believe that we’re on a special mission and we’re compelled to fulfill it. However, we get brought right back down to earth and blindsided by the inevitable criticism and rejection that always comes, no matter how talented we may be. I would assume that none of us like being criticized and rejected, regardless of the bravado we may wear as a shield of armor. As someone who has been through this more times than I can count, here are my suggestions on how to handle the criticism and rejection that we all have to face as artists, and still thrive.

Start by self-critiquing your own work. Did you play and sing badly? Did you hit bad notes? Were the songs well rehearsed? Could you have been more professional? Are you ready for prime time? What did you miss? Do you know what your music is trying to communicate and are you pitching it to the right people? Record audio and video of your work and look at it as dispassionately as you can (this is not science, but always good to aim for as much objectivity as you can). Since there is always room for improvement, what areas do you still need to work on?

If a performance didn’t go well, were you perhaps in the wrong venue or playing the wrong style to the wrong audience? Remember the video of that wonderful scene from the “Blues Brothers” where Jake and Elwood are standing behind chicken wire singing “Rawhide” and everyone is throwing things at them? In this movie, here are these guys who loved the blues, yet by performing in a country bar, it didn’t work. Sometimes it’s not about the talent, but about the match between the artist and the audience.

Boy, did l learn this lesson the hard way many times. One of the greatest mismatches I went through as a performer was on February 4, 1977, when my band and I opened for 1950s nostalgia rockers “Sha Na Na” at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. What happened with it clearly being the wrong venue playing the wrong style to the wrong audience? The 6,000 member audience threw things, rioted, attempted to rush the stage and someone from the audience pointed a gun directly at me. The Chicago police forcibly stopped the show.

So whether you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time or not, be open and willing to always self-critique your own work, regardless of how successful you are or may become.

Some artists are simply too oversensitive to any form criticism, whether from themselves or others. The ego, necessary to being a performer, can also have the reverse effect of hindering us from improving our art through being defensive, closed to input and in denial of what we need to work on.

When someone criticizes and rejects your art, for most of us, our first reaction is to take it personally and have an internal reaction. Your emotions and ego get engaged, you feel upset, pissed off, hurt, etc. However, you have to be able to at least cope with this, and hopefully, learn from it.

Instead of being oversensitive and closed, ask yourself if there is any merit to the criticism? The reason I pose this question is because there is a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. If somebody is coming from a constructive place, it’s at least worth considering their opinion. Even then, though, some well-intention critiques may not be that valid or helpful, but it’s still important to be open to what is being said because something may be able to be learned.

It’s a completely different matter, though, when the criticism and rejection are destructive. If someone doesn’t like you, your style or art, if you happen to push their buttons or walk into their ego and defenses, or if your work is ahead of its time, many will attack. Never forget that art that is ahead of its time is always rejected in its time, and that genius is not for the masses. Since most people don’t function on the genius level, they can’t grasp or resonate with an artist who does.

In those instances, the criticism and rejection may be personal, prejudicial and highly biased by nature. Instead of someone just saying that they just don’t relate to or understand your work, they can engage in attack. This way, the artist looks inferior and wrong while the critic looks superior and right. They’ll usually be clever enough to claim what they’re saying is because of your lack of talent, bad performance, derivative songs, etc., and not personal by nature.

Because what I did was so different, I’ve gotten some really nasty and hateful reviews in my time. One of the most vicious ones came in February, 1978, when David Witz wrote a deliberately scathing article of my band and I in the Chicago Reader titled, “The Importance of Fleeing Skafish.” In the piece, he spoke of how awful it was that “Skafish” was representing Chicago, and how horrible that was for the city, especially because my band and I had already played places like New York. He referred to me as someone who couldn’t decide if I was a fat ugly 12 year old boy or a fat ugly 12 year old girl. He issued an impassioned plea for everyone to stop coming to my shows. He mentioned that my band could only play one chord together.

It is worth nothing that the band he was referring to includes a bass player who has been a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for over 25 years and has a Master’s Degree from the Julliard School of Music (one of the most prestigious schools on earth). That “one-chord band” also featured a drummer who at the time had a Bachelor’s Degree in Percussion from De Paul University. He is also the drummer that Iggy Pop snatched up as his touring drummer in the early 1980s.

Just like with David Witz’s highly personal attacks on me, you don’t have a chance as an artist – it’s not a fair fight. When that’s the case, you must remind yourself to consider the source and try to rise above such rejection. Even though it is personal by nature, try to not take it personally. Do your best to disregard what is said, because it is not coming from any semblance of objectivity.

Clearly, no matter who you are and what you do, no matter how great your art may be, everyone will not like it. They can’t. That’s because everyone is at different levels of consciousness and evolution on earth, therefore, something as subjective as one’s taste in art will also vary.

What’s always important, though, is how YOU react and deal with criticism and rejection as an artist. If you observe your reactions honestly, not defensively, you can learn about yourself, your art, and work toward improvement.

After being criticized and rejected, how have you reacted? Did you make excuses for yourself, like saying you just had a bad night on stage, or that the monitors weren’t right? That is not acceptable. To the person watching you perform, all they know is that the performance wasn’t very good. A great live performer is like a championship athlete, who no matter what, manages to get the job done. Did you engage in self-pity, based on your art and/or your life not going well? That is also not acceptable. Has criticism and rejection helped you to lose your focus as an artist, hold back your performing intensity, songwriting, musicianship, or singing? Worse yet is when one gets angry, acts out, or escapes through alcohol, drug use, and self-destruction.

If these are some of the issues you’re contending with, here are some suggestions:

Learn about yourself and how you react and work on healing those issues. Try to be OK with your art and believe in yourself. At the same time, accept criticism for what it is, especially when it’s coming from a centered perspective. Try to not get defensive because that turns you into a victim and a martyr, which will distort your entire perspective on art and life. Learn all the time, and don’t allow rejection the power to define you in a negative way. Instead, try to have a non-attached attitude, improve your art and make the journey on your terms.

Ask yourself if you really want rejection by someone else to define or interfere with your sense of who you are as an artist and as a person. In most instances, the internalization of rejection (without working on improving your art) will in one way or another adversely affect you. It will suppress, hold back and diminish your openness, light, power and expression. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s awfully hard to deliver as an artist and learn to get better, whether as a performer, songwriter, singer, or in any capacity.

When criticism and rejection is repetitive and coming from multiple sources, it can become overwhelming. In those instances, some artists try to compromise their art and its message as a way of seeking approval. It’s hard for me to put into words how horrible I think this is.

It is the artistic equivalent of changing your hair style because your neighbor made a snotty comment, hiding your sexuality because your family won’t approve of it, or dressing more conservatively because people will make fun of your appearance. As an artist, this sense of approval-seeking compromise will take the light, bite, emotions and power out of the work, and make it what your haters want, which is to suppress it, sanitize it and tone it down.

Sometimes, one can take the rejection and channel it into something positive. For example, when Michael Jackson’s album “Off the Wall” album didn’t garner as much acclaim as he wanted, he took that sense of “rejection” and deliberately channeled into his desire to create a huge blockbuster, and he did so with his next album, “Thriller.”

An artist can write a song about the rejection and channel their feelings in that way: The Sex Pistols joyously lampooned the record label that dropped them on the track “EMI.” In that sense, they got the last laugh.

It’s one thing to do your best to become immune to rejection, but another to not be open to constructive criticism and get toughened in the wrong way. Sometimes we go on the offensive, act out, and shut down to the joy that fueled our art in the first place. Toughness can also make one a really not nice person, which in my opinion, is never a good thing. It also adversely affects one’s art systemically, because closing down positive parts of you is not good for any part of the creative process.

Sometimes, an artist may try to counteract the criticism and rejection they may be experiencing through the media, the public, or through diminishing record sales by surrounding themselves with “yes men.” In need of approval, the artist may self-insulate and surround themselves with those who will tell them whatever they want to hear. Imagine how many people told Michael Jackson that he was here to heal the world and save all the children on earth. This type of situation is so dangerous because the artist might start believing what they are told! For me, “yes men” have no place in my life, and if you’re an artist, I would recommend that they have no place in yours, either.

Instead of “yes men,” surround yourself with honest friends and those who will tell you what they really feel. A truthful opinion with love is a priceless gift. If you write a song that is not any good, a valued person will tell you so, albeit in the nicest way possible. That sense of rejection is constructive criticism. Also, these should ideally be people who have something of value to offer. There is a difference between an acclaimed record producer giving you an opinion versus a snotty critic who for the most part, hates everything.

Through all of the different aspects of criticism and rejection and learning to deal with it correctly, here is a great way to not only survive it all, but to prosper: always come back to the real foundation of why you became an artist in the first place. That was because you loved it and you found magic in it. You experienced a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning and connection. You felt release, catharsis, freedom, excitement, and transcendence — and perhaps the best reason of all – was because you had fun. — Skafish


Songwriting Tip

Even though emotion is essential to a great song, it is not enough. Just because we feel passionately about a song we’re creating, that, in and of itself, doesn’t make it any good.

(It’s like someone who intensely wants to throw the football but doesn’t know the right techniques to do so. The ball goes all over the field.)

We need to be able to facilitate our feelings through the right musical forms and techniques: chords, vocal line, lyrics, hooks, rhythm, production, etc. And, of course, we need to work hard and be consistent. Paul McCartney once said something to the effect that one may write a hundred songs before they come up with anything good!

We should let wise dispassionate ears offer critique as well and ultimately, we hopefully end up with a piece that is a perfect expression of emotion through the right forms and techniques that work.


What’s money got to do with it? An artist’s perspective

If one considers art for art’s sake to be a concept worthy of merit, then money and art are often viewed as arch enemies, as if one corrupts the other. It has been long considered that if you’re a “real” artist, then you probably won’t make any money from your efforts. Conversely, if you make a lot of money from your art, then you’re considered by some to be a sellout, poser, or any number of derogatory expletives.

So what role does money play in the process of art, and if it does, should it?

From decades of personal experience, I can tell you that to keep the art going, an artist has to be able to at least make some sort of a living from it (unless you’ve got a wealthy patron, which most of us don’t have, lol). One doesn’t have to make tens of millions of dollars from a sold out world concert tour, but, one has to be able to at least pay the bills. I can testify to that from experience. If the money isn’t there, then the resources, time, effort and focus needed for the art greatly suffer. It doesn’t mean that one can’t do anything at all, but it can tremendously hinder the process.

Some artists don’t have to resort to other forms of work to try to make a living. Their art at least gives them enough money to be able to keep their art going. In those instances, it may not be glamorous, but it’s at least workable. A good example of this can be seen with my friends and fellow performers the Ramones. Even though they never made a lot of money, they at least were able to do well enough financially to keep their careers going.

In the instance of huge money-making artists, of course, they can easily keep it going, often at their own leisure, but what effect does making that amount of money have on their art? The danger is that in many instances, the artist becomes lazy, entitled, and that the quality of their work, especially their songwriting, suffers.

A perfect example of this is the songwriting of the Rolling Stones, arguably the biggest band in the world. I feel that the bulk of their songs have been lukewarm, forgettable and uninspired for decades. This is quite unlike their past catalogue, which contains some of the most fantastic rock songs of all time. I also feel this applies to Madonna, whose more recent material has felt completely devoid of any emotional conviction or feeling to me at all. Her newer songs sound like formulaic songwriting 101 hooks that don’t come from the heart at all, as if all it takes is a clever hook to sell a song. In comparison, many of her older songs contained the emotional connection that is such a vital component to a noteworthy hit song.

One could make the argument that styles change, which is why newer records by established artists don’t sell. That’s not entirely the case, though. I use the example of AC/DC’s “Black Ice,”  their most recent album, released in 2009. Even though I didn’t feel that it was a phenomenal album like 1980’s “Back in Black,”  it was a solid record from front to back – and it sold millions of copies. Certainly “Black Ice” didn’t break new ground, but I would assume it wasn’t supposed to. It was what one expects from AC/DC: loud guitars, simple songs about girls, partying, cars, a little satanic reference thrown in and high energy rock n roll.

So is money ultimately a good or bad thing for art?

To me, it cuts both ways: Money is necessary to be able to keep one’s art going, but it should never pollute the artist or the quality of the work, as it often does. Yet it doesn’t have to.

It’s important for an artist to aspire to build upon the commitment to the vision, the integrity and message of the work and to stay true to oneself, regardless of whether there’s any money involved or not. If the money is there to make a living or more, I believe that it’s important for an artist to never get lazy, egotistical, to believe that they’re invincible, pander to the audience or stay within the limits of their expectations. For so many artists, though, it’s far easier to just fall back on whatever the perceived formula is that got them there in the first place and then, the work declines and becomes second-rate.

Instead, an artist should continue to passionately evolve, whether anyone goes there with them or not – and that takes a lot of courage. Two strong examples of this evolution are the Beatles,  whose songwriting continued to improve and grow exponentially throughout their career, and Frank Zappa,  whose musical complexities and concepts continued to forge new ground for decades.

What a dream it would be if somehow, money was no longer a necessary part of the artistic process and everyone could have the resources to create their art without worry of survival. Of course, that’s not applicable in the material world, but I still feel that artists should aspire toward doing their best to create their art without letting economic concerns or pressures get in the way. And if the money is there, be absolutely grateful for it, but by all means, stick to the passion, principles and artistic hunger that were inspirational in the first place.


Beyoncé gets last laugh, sings National Anthem live at Super Bowl press conference

It’s ironic how the wave of popular opinion changes perhaps more swiftly than ever for or against an artist in today’s culture. Just days ago, many crucified Beyoncé for lip-synching the National Anthem at President Obama’s inauguration on January 21, 2013. In a smart PR move, Beyoncé decided to silence her critics by singing the National Anthem live and acapella at her Super Bowl press conference just yesterday, January 31, 2013.

So Beyoncé gets the last laugh — at least for now. The reason I say “for now,” is because the press, social media and people at large are always hungrily anticipating the next opportunity to turn on someone. As an artist myself who has been turned on more times than I can count, it’s always sort of looming out there. And it can be quite difficult to stop that momentum once it gets started.

But for now, Beyoncé proves what we all knew, which is that she sings well, and in literally a minute or two, she turned the wave of popular opinion back in her favor. At the moment, the fashionable position to take can be seen in quotes all over the press and social media such as, “Beyoncé kicks ass, “She proves her haters wrong,” and that the term “Beyoncé-gate” is ridiculous and overblown. As any artist knows, that wave is forever-changing and fleeting. Having been there myself, it’s never a matter of if, but when the next controversy arises.

Got anything to add?


Does an artist bear any responsibility for their art?

This question has been asked many times by politicians, religious leaders, and others: Does an artist bear any responsibility to the world for their art, how they affect children and the impact they have on society at large? My answer is, why yes; of course they do – absolutely! Here are my top 10 reasons why.

A responsible artist should:
1- Never compromise their vision based on the limits of society at any given time.

Bootleg 21-35 documents how my band and I did our best to shatter society’s limited expectations of rock music as a genre.

2-Challenge the status quo and the values that he or she disagrees with.

Pete Seeger, whose protest songs and stance for the common man got him blacklisted as a Communist and banned from commercial television.

3-Sound the alarm of societal, political and religious abuses.

Throughout his entire career, Bob Marley spoke out clearly and directly in his music against political and social oppression and abuse.

4-Never water down or censor their vision based on the fear of the powers that be, the need for approval from their audience or for commercial reasons.

Boundary-pushing comedian Lenny Bruce  was arrested and jailed multiple times for profanity and vulgarity throughout his career.

5-Be truthful to what they believe and feel.

Even though his band has had problems with the amount of effort and time he puts into his charitable work, U-2 front-person Bono  still stays true to his convictions.

6-Honor their talents regardless of peoples’ reactions.

Then folk hero Bob Dylan  committed what was considered to be sacrilege when he came onstage and performed with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965.

7- Be as unique as possible because only he or she can offer their individual talents and gifts to the world.

I fondly remember a Oui magazine article stating that The Residents and Skafish were the strangest acts in the world. To this day, The Residents and Skafish don’t fit into any of the nice little cookie-cutter boxes that people and the media try to stick artists into.

8-Stay committed to being the very best artist that they can be.

I’ve always admired the devotion that John Coltrane  had for his instrument, furthering and expanding jazz and his technical perfection through constant practice and rehearsal.

9- Stick to their work whether they make money or not.

As I can personally attest to, so many artists have lived through the horror of not making any money from their art, such as the great Vincent Van Gogh, yet the commitment must remain.

10-Do their very best to not be boring, lazy, or put out work that sucks, which in reality, is the most serious artistic crime against humanity of all.

And here’s an extra: An artist should always do their best to help others develop their own talents and gifts.

If all artists would just resist any nutty way-out-there extremist temptation to taint their gifts and stay accountable to these values, they would make an irreplaceable contribution that enlightens, enriches, and helps culture, society and this world to evolve into being a far better place!

Got any reasons you’d like to add?


Beyoncé Lip-Syncs National Anthem for Obama Inauguration

As a voice teacher and singer, I was curious to check out Beyoncé singing the National Anthem for President Obama’s inauguration on January 21, 2013. The National Anthem is a hard piece to sing because it covers a wide range of an octave and a perfect fifth, which is greater than most songs.

As I listened to her performance, I thought to myself that her lowest notes were weak and airy. Her vibrato wasn’t spinning at the same rate throughout her range. On some notes it was faster, while on others, it was slower. However, I was quite impressed with Beyoncé’s sense of pitch; it sounded perfect! Well, there was a reason why….

Beyoncé lip-synced her performance to a recording she made the day before. Ah, no wonder why her pitch was perfect. Recently, there has been a practice of backing up instrumental performances in case of weather related or technical problems, so Beyoncé is not the first or only person to do this.

As I read through peoples’ comments about this on CNN, I was surprised that they were mixed. I initially thought that everyone would rip her apart. After all, this was the inauguration of the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man on earth. Wouldn’t it make sense for there to at least be live singing for a couple of minutes for such an important event? While some people did criticize her, others were willing to give her a pass, based on things such as the fact that it was cold outside and that it could be hard to hear oneself sing in that environment.

It just goes to show that more and more, people want product perfect, and that they don’t care if it’s produced by technology. After all, people pay a lot of money to attend Britney Spears’  “concerts” that are lip-synced. Artistically speaking, if something happens frequently enough and long enough in our culture, it becomes more or less, accepted.

For me, I always go back to the fact that there was a time when technology couldn’t save an artist and that they had to get the job done. I would hope that if I was ever fortunate enough to sing for the inauguration of the President of the United States, that I would actually sing live for the minute or two that it takes to do the National Anthem.

What do you think: No lip-syncing allowed, or give the poor girl a break?


The Message Remains the Same

Driving in the car today, I heard “Diamonds,”  the recent #1 pop hit by Rihanna on the radio. One of the things that struck me about the song is that the lyric has been said a million times before, which of course, is why it connects with so many people. Often, those overused and cliché lyrics are easily relatable and therefore, able to reach a large number of people. The main lyric hooks of the song, “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky,” and “Shine bright like a diamond,” could have been in a hit song from any decade as far back as the 1930’s. Think of songs like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,”  “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” or any number of songs that deal with “Diamonds” as the lyrical center.

What does change decade to decade are the styles of the songs, the way the lyric gets dressed up by the melody, and the colloquialisms of the lyric. For example: a sexually desirable girl has been referred to everything from a dish to a dame to a chick to a broad to a bitch to a ho.

What also changes in songs are the rhythmical structures, and the production sound and techniques in any given era. The current era’s production techniques, as showcased by “Diamonds,” use technology to make everything sound perfect. Pitch corrected vocals can make singers sound in perfect tune, automated music that is computer generated plays in perfect time, computerized mixing gives the perfect mix, and in a sense, all of these things eliminate the human variable more and more. It’s like the aural equivalent of a perfectly air-brushed photograph. But often, throughout all those changes, the actual message of the lyric remains the same.

Got any “Diamonds” songs to add to the list?


Why Write a Song?

The reason to write a song is simple: It’s because it has to be written.

Once commercial concerns enter in, what the audience thinks, the question of if it’s good enough, comparing it to others’ songs, or worrying if it will be critically approved of, the song really suffers, especially in terms of its fluid emotional power and transcendent connection, where the reality of pure, sincere and real feelings and expression must always remain unencumbered!


What do the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and the Ramones all have in common?

What do these three great rock bands: The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and The Ramones, all have in common? After all, they are considered to be coming from very different styles, and in certain instances, fans of one group might hate one of the other bands.

The one essential element that ties them all together is that they have a large body of great songs that stand the test of time. No matter the image, style, marketing, or controversy, it always comes down to the songs.

Jagger can rock a stadium, Bon Scott and Brian Johnson can shriek, and Joey Ramone once wore his iconic ripped jeans, leather jacket and sunglasses, but none of that matters too much in the end. Those things, in and of themselves, won’t sell records. It is always about the songs, and without great ones, an artist has essentially nothing.

Even though these groups embody different styles: The Stones (classic blues-based garage rock), AC/DC, (hard-edged blues-based rock with heavy metal elements), and The Ramones (punk), the sense of classic songwriting is still there, where immediacy, structure, melody, and hooks are present.

As a songwriter, I draw parallels between the writing of Rogers and Hammerstein to Jagger and Richards, because both teams created classic songs that have transcended generations, and still stand the test of time. With the Stones, songs from Satisfaction, to Brown Sugar, to Start Me Up still hold up today.

 

I remember Joey Ramone commenting that he drew upon the chants of the Bay City Rollers for some Ramones tunes. Even though the Ramones are considered punk, many of their best songs, such as Blitzkrieg Bop, Sheena Is a Punk Rocker, and I Wanna Be Sedated, are catchy, pop-oriented, and in the best sense, sing-songy.

AC/DC may have vocals that wail like a banshee, and loud assault-style guitars, but their best songs are catchy rock/pop anthems, like Back in Black, Highway to Hell, and You Shook Me All Night Long.  

Musicians, producers, engineers, and even singers can be found, but the songs are the priceless gem stones that are the cornerstone of any artist’s career. In the instance of these three seemingly unrelated bands, they’ve got enough classics to fill more than an entire concert set.

As a songwriter, I have always said that one can never have enough great songs, and that the more that one can write, the better. With these bands, it’s clear what their songs have done for them and the millions of fans they have touched, and will continue to do so, beyond ever-changing styles and the publics’ fickle tastes, for generations to come.

Remembering Donna Summer…

Donna Summer, who had been battling cancer, transitioned into spirit today at the age of 63.

Being referred to as “the Queen of Disco,” can have a semi-derogatory tone. That’s because in the musical world, the word “disco” is the equivalent of your kindergarten classmates chanting on the playground that you’ve got the cooties.

However, if we look at the pop music of today, a large portion of it IS disco, except almost completely done on machines, with auto-tune, and a more technology based production style.  Still, the stigma of being called “disco” is a hard one to break.

The reality, though, is that Donna Summer was a tremendously innovative artist. “I Feel Love” was one of the first hit records to use a deliberately mechanical computer based sound, with the music actually being performed on sequencers. She was perhaps the first artist to create an international pop sound, versus one that was regional or national. That sound, which incorporated a more global sensibility, featuring dance, American R&B, euro, synthesizers, and yes, even guitars, paved the way for artists like Madonna.

I connected with a lot of Donna’s work, but I especially loved “Hot Stuff,” which featured her commanding, sassy vocal. That track not only had a sexy groove (featuring drummer Keith Forsey, who also played on Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony”), but an outstanding guitar solo. I use to perform “Hot Stuff” when I played music for strippers in the mid 1980’s, and as a cover during some of my solo shows.

Let’s salute Donna Summer, as not only the “Queen of Disco,” but as a truly groundbreaking artist who helped to pave the way for so many who followed her lead. Revisit the remarkably innovative hit, “I Feel Love” — Skafish