I never planned to be an arts critic. But I got a job writing for the semiweekly Bergen County newspaper, The Ridgewood News, in 1984, when I was 23. While no one was looking for me to write concert, album and book reviews, there were pages to fill, and my bosses weren’t about to turn down reviews if I volunteered to do them, in addition to my other work. And so I did. I’ve always been the kind of person who turns to the arts and entertainment section of the newspaper first, so I was happy for the opportunity.
After a couple of years there, I moved to the weekly East Coast Rocker newspaper (now known as The Aquarian). And then, a few years later, to New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, The Star-Ledger, where I covered the pop-rock beat from 1989 to 2010 before moving over the the editing side (while continuing to do some writing). In 2014, I left the paper and started my own website, NJArts.net, where I have reviewed theater (a lot), visual arts (a little) and film (somewhere between a lot and a little), in addition to music.
So I’ve been doing this for quite a while — 35 years, in all — and feel I’ve learned some things about arts reviewing that are worth sharing. I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing an article like this. Here it is.
As you can deduce from the three paragraphs above, I don’t have any formal credentials. I have never taken a journalism class (though I could probably teach one, at this point), and just learned, on the job, whatever I needed to know. That’s one of the great things about journalism: You can just start doing it without jumping through any institutional hoops.
Of course, you need to have some knowledge about the art form you’re writing about. But different critics have that to varying degrees. And, I swear, the ones who have more knowledge are not necessarily the better critics.
That’s because arts criticism is not about sharing knowledge (though that’s part of it). It’s primarily about being able to convey to a reader — clearly, and engagingly — your own subjective reaction to a piece of art.
I can’t tell you how many times, over the years, someone has complained to me, about some piece of criticism I wrote, “You’re not being objective.” No, no, no! An arts critic should strive to be open-minded, of course. But it’s not objectivity you’re striving for. It’s honesty.
Let me repeat that. It’s all about honesty, not objectivity.
In other words: You’re human, and you’re going to have a subjective reaction to a piece of art. There is no reason to fight that. Your subjective reaction gives you the core of your article.
I actually see the process of criticism as akin to the process of psychotherapy. You go into a concert — or a play or a film, or whatever — with certain expectations. You always love this artist. Or you always hate this kind of thing. Maybe there’s a lot of buzz about something, so you want to like it. Or maybe there’s a lot of buzz about it, by the wrong people, and so you want to pan it.
Afterwards, though, you have to sit down with yourself, look inside and acknowledge your preconceptions, but then try to strip them away and get to the essence of what you feel about the art in question. And then figure out why: What was it about the words or the images or the performances that made you feel that way?
If you can get those two things clear in your mind — what you felt, and why — trust me, you won’t have writer’s block. The review will practically write itself.
Occasionally, the what-you-felt-and-why will be instantly clear to you. But more often, there are some gray areas: You liked some things, but not some other things, and it’s hard to say exactly why, immediately. You’ve got to spend some time thinking about it. Digesting the experience.
I’ve always found reviewing concerts and theater more pleasurable than reviewing albums and books. That’s because with albums and books, there’s always the temptation to keep re-listening, or re-reading, to crystallize the work more in your mind. With a concert or a play, it happens, and you can’t go back and re-experience it. You just have to deal with your own memories of the experience, which are finite. And so that simplifies the process.
I’m aware of a certain irony here. I’m writing this at a time, in our society, when thorough, professional reviews are increasingly hard to find. Many arts positions that used to exist at my longtime outlet, The Star-Ledger, and other publications, simply don’t exist anymore.
Why am I writing this article at all? If reviewing is a dying craft, who is going to bother reading about the process?
Maybe I’m just stubborn. But I think it’s more that I’ve gotten more out of reviewing than I could have foreseen, 35 years ago. I know it sounds crazy, but writing about music and theater and the world of art in general has been, for me, an invaluable tool for self-discovery. And I just want people to understand that.
Here is information about the concerts for which my passes are shown in the photo above:
Top row, from left: Light of Day 2020 in Asbury Park, Montclair and elsewhere (Bruce Springsteen, Joe Grushecky, Willie Nile, Remember Jones, others); Net Aid at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, Oct. 9, 1999 (Bono, Wyclef Jean, Sting, Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes, others); Black Potatoe Music Festival at Red Mill Museum, Clinton, July 13-16, 2006 (Matt Angus Thing, Chris Barron, Danielia Cotton, Ellis Paul, others); Liberty R&B and Jazz Festival at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, Sept. 14, 2008 (Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu, Kem, others); GlobalFEST at Joe’s Pub, N.Y., Jan. 8, 2005 (Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Juana Molina, Ollabelle, others); New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Paramount Theatre, Asbury Park, Oct. 27, 2019 (Southside Johnny, The Smithereens, Jason Alexander, others); Jukestock (Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes convention) at Tinton Falls Holiday Inn, March 2-4, 2001; Paul Robeson Gala Tribute at NJPAC, Newark, Nov. 28, 2000 (Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Branford Marsalis, others).
Middle row, from left: Pete Townshend (with guest Eddie Vedder) at Supper Club, N.Y., July 29, 1999; Union County MusicFest at Nomahegan Park, Cranford (Chuck Berry, Fountains of Wayne, The Smithereens, others); Live Earth at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, July 7, 2007 (The Police, Roger Waters, Bon Jovi, Kanye West, others); Farm Aid at Randall’s Island, N.Y., Sept. 9, 2007 (Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, Allman Brothers Band, others); Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, July 15, 2003; The Music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin at Carnegie Hall, N.Y., Oct. 10, 2007 (Shawn Colvin, Aimee Mann, Roger McGuinn, others); Bonnie Raitt & Friends taping for VH1’s “Decades Rock Live!” at Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, Sept. 30, 2005 (Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss, Keb’ Mo’).
Bottom row, from left: Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (aka Bobfest) at Madison Square Garden, N.Y., Oct. 16, 1992 (George Harrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, others); Little Steven’s International Underground Garage Festival at Randall’s Island, N.Y., Aug. 14, 2004 (Iggy & the Stooges, New York Dolls, The Strokes, Bo Diddley, others); Leonard Cohen at Beacon Theatre, N.Y., Feb. 19, 2009; The Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at Municipal Stadium, Cleveland, Sept. 2, 1995 (Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, others); Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York, March 15, 1999 (Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Eric Clapton, others); A Day in the Garden at Max Yasgur’s Farm, Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15, 1998 (Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Pete Townshend, others); 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concerts at Madison Square Garden, N.Y., Oct. 29-30, 2009 (Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, U2, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, others).
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $10, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJ Arts Daily to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.