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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

Stay Tuned: Let’s get critical

Earlier this year, when Davis was still completely new to me, I decided it was time to take the guitar for a spin. Street performance is a wonderful way to get a feel for a new place.

I was playing outside Jamba Juice in the Davis Commons when a man in his 20s stopped to listen to the last 30 seconds of my song. As I finished he smiled.

“Sonic servitude,” he said over his shoulder as he began to leave.

“What? Is that a band?” I asked, taken off guard.

He smirked as he continued to walk away.

“Oh!” said a coffee drinker sitting behind me. “I get it,” he chuckled.

“Wait…” I said, feeling like a joke had just gone over my head. “Fill me in?”

“Sonic servitude,” he replied. “It means slave to music.”

I was lost.

“Huh… that’s uh… nice I guess?”

“No it’s uh, not a compliment. Means like, slave to pop, you know — same shit over and over again.”

“Um… oh,” I finished awkwardly.

I turned back around, confused at what had just happened. It sort of felt like I had been punched in the face by a stranger who then high-fived another stranger over my head. I milled around awkwardly for another few minutes, and then, realizing that my courage had left for the day, packed up.

If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all.

To which a critic might reply:

If you don’t have anything nice to play don’t play it at all.

We are all critical. There is no need to be ashamed of it. There is nothing wrong with having tastes, having preference. It is a part of what makes us individuals. At the end of the day though, it will always take more strength to find a passion yourself than to discredit others for theirs.

This is not to say that critiques haven’t got an important role in music or art, but there is an important distinction that must be made: constructive criticism is not the same as criticism. Let’s see if you can spot the difference.

“Hey, you suck!”

“Maybe you should try it an octave up.”

“Sounds terrible.”

“Hm, I liked the lyrics, you should enunciate more.”

“Your cover ruined the song for me.”


But let’s see what really separates these two forms of critiques.

Constructive criticism, true to its name, is served with the intention of building. It is there to encourage growth. One should not make the mistake of assuming it is always right, but knowing that it comes from a well-meaning place means it can be taken into consideration.

Insults meant to cut down or discourage are easy to recognize. Usually the provider of such insults will deliver these heckles in a moment of overzealous confidence. You can relate to them more than you might think. After all, the street musician is performing to have their voice heard, the hurtful critic is simply returning the sentiment in a less creative manner.

It is empowering, to put someone else down without any consequence; it is also immensely cowardly. They get to drop a bomb, walk away, and feel like they performed a public service. You get to try and dredge up enough pride to not leave as soon as you finish the song.

In this context their opinions have about as much credibility as a mean YouTube comment but it doesn’t make their comments sting any less. Don’t try to defend yourself, it will only validate their efforts. If the internet has taught our generation one thing, it is not to engage with trolls.

Getting insulted is your rite of passage as a street musician and an artist. Treat it as such. Don’t try ignoring it — because it will eat at you anyways. Don’t take it to heart — because there is a difference between a mean comment and constructive criticism. Simply put it in your back pocket, and years later, when you pull out that wadded up receipt of an insult, you’ll hardly be able to make out what it says.

If every artist listened to every critic, there would be no more artists left in the world on the grounds that “good” art is impossible to attain. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to make “good” art. Simply make art and keep making it.

Keep playing on the street corner where you got heckled. Keep writing the song that you were told sounds “exactly like bad 90s pop.” Keep playing. Keep writing. Keep going. Follow your own standards instead of listening to those who discourage you, and one day you might find that you have attained the impossible.

To leave a mean comment, contact ELLY OLTERSDORF at nothankyou@getahobby.com (jk, eroltersdorf@ucdavis.edu).



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