Saturday, September 18, 2010


Somebody, more than likely Elvis Costello, once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". A hotly contested opinion, the point is obvious: music criticism a pretty futile endeavor. Kind of like Richard Dawkins writing about religion, or Julius Malema saying, well, anything. The best response to critics is usually to ignore them. When it comes to criticism, however, all people involved in artistic creation have two things in common: we love a good review, and we hate a bad one.

So what was I to do when I came across a confusing review of "Come Out Fighting" in local SA rag Locally Whipped? Normally I'd cut it out and file it away with my accumulated press clippings (to 'ignore' in the future, of course), but this one made me think. Here's why.

Despite a strange assertion that "Own Way Home" has a very evident 'Nashville sound', the short review seems to be in favour of my record until the last sentence: "All in all, Ellis has made a great debut album and hopefully he won't get lost in the array of solo artists out there in South Africa." So far, so ok. Then, "If you like solid, feel good music, then give this a try but nothing extraordinary has been laid down on this album."

At the risk of sounding sour-grapey, here's my problem: if there's anything I've ever tried to steer clear of in my life as a songwriter, it's 'solid, feel-good music'. This is not a feel-good album. If anything, it's a feel-pissed-off-let's-do-something-about-it kind of record. Then, to go from 'great record' to 'nothing extraordinary' in a few words sounds like another reviewer wrote the end of it. A consistent opinion would have been nice. Most of all though, the words 'nothing extraordinary' made me think. Was I trying to make 'extraordinary' music? No. Am I trying to be an extraordinary artist? No. Is extraordinary even possible these days? How can you really compete with Lady GaGa in a meat dress? I don't think we'd even raise a bored eyebrow if Jacko came back from the dead and made a better album than Thriller and played all the London dates after all. We live in super-hyped, over-exposed, technologically-enhanced times, and nothing, and I mean nothing, surprises anymore. Tiger Woods? Oh well. Wayne Rooney? Yawn. Meat dress? Wow! Oh, it's just a dress...

I got a three-fingered review for my un-extraordinary, feel-good record. It's wise to ignore criticism, good and bad, but it's also nice to give a one-fingered response sometimes.

Post Script: "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk in order to provide articles for people who can't read." Frank Zappa


  1. [1] you'd look super fine in a

    [2] i was pretty completely convinced that MJ's death was a publicity stunt and would have been the least surprised if he had appeared just in time for his concerts - i'm starting to think that maybe i was wrong though cos he's really leaving it a little late

    [3] still need to track that cd down - this is not a hint - just a kick up my butt - then i will let you know how unextraordinary i think it is...

  2. So far, quite a few people are more concerned about the girl on the cover and the fact that I included it in my blog and as the thumbnail on facebook than the actual content of what I wrote. That's a subject in itself. People just don't know how to read critically and think for themselves anymore. Discuss.

  3. I’m a freelance music journalist (amongst other things) and I totally agree that the standard of music journalism, particularly in South Africa, is pretty shoddy. Live and album reviews often don’t make sense, and are more about trying to make the reviewer look cool and in-with-the-music-scene. Many reviewers are expert fence-sitters (they don’t want to lose any friends/ backstage passes) so they just make nonsense statements like “it’s good, but not amazing” rather than actually commenting on specifics.

    I attempt, in my reviews, to give a balanced judgement of the music, regardless of whether I offend the musician or their fans. I’m not saying I always get it ‘right’ but I truly believe (maybe it’s naïve of me) that the best kind of music journalism actually contributes to a robust music industry and helps to inspire a more critical audience. I take my responsibility seriously and I sincerely do hope my reviews make a difference.

    Also, the ‘dancing about architecture’ quote is kind of meaningless itself… writing is inherently removed from the thing it’s about, whether that’s art, music, politics, Lady Gaga… but that doesn’t mean we should stop writing. We just need better music writing, that more accurately and sensitively reflects the essence of the music it’s describing.

  4. All i can say is 'Great Album'! And wow, i thought only politicians made absolutely no sence...well turns out so does this reviewer! Wait...maybe the reviewer was a Politician in a past life! Lol. John, your album is an inspiration...

  5. I've never really listened to critics myself... I usually am hopelessly wrong. For example, when (I think its called) songs about Jane by Maroon 5 came out, I thought what a KAK album... they're not going to last, they're gonna be another one hit wonder band...

    Boy was I wrong... ok maybe not completely wrong cause they aren't doing that well... although some would probably beat me shitless cause I said that.

    The album began to grow on me and slowly I became a fan. I got to see the extraordinary aspects of the album...

    So what am I saying?

    These guys probably listen to the album once or twice and then write a review... I think one needs the album playing for a few months before they could give a honest and fair critic of it...

    that's my 2cents!

  6. I was curious about the picture of the girl, too, and why you included it.

    My family and I have been fans ever since you came on the music scene, John. We've loved all your music.

    I pray God will give you peace and extra ability to not care about the approval of men. I've not had to endure exposure in such a wide spotlight as you but as a pastor's wife I know somewhat how it feels to have your performance (or that of my husband) evaluated by others.

    Don't let what others think or say cause you to be bitter - that only hurts you and those who look up to you. Face it - you're a role model to many who have heard and been ministered to by your music.

    God bless you Brother John

  7. Reading back over my comment it seems rather condescending and preachy - not what I mean at all.

    I wish you the best