Sometimes You're the Pearl #3: Country Music Karen
Sometimes you're the pearl and sometimes you're the swine. This is another experience with criticism of my work that I wanted to tell you about.
I used to send songs to industry people for critique. Sometimes it was not in real time; I'd get an email evaluation. Sometimes it was in "webinar" form, where I'd hear the instructor's voice over some kind of pre-Zoom platform and we could chime in with comments, or be bombarded by the industry person's invaluable insights, if any.
I did one of these one time, early in my attempts to become "commercial" and make industry contacts. The facilitator was a music industry publisher person I'll call Karen.
I had written a song, a country song, about running into your ex at the grocery store. I didn't really understand country music, and my song was kind of jokey like a country song from 30 years ago, where country music was able to laugh at itself.
Karen heard my song, and she really, really hated it. It was brutal. One of the rules of commercial songwriting is to get to the chorus quickly, within a minute at the most. Karen said the song was "soooo long" and took forever to get to the chorus (it was about 40 seconds). I was stunned and horrified that she lost her professional kindness. She didn't think my song sucked; she hated it.
A healthier person might have shrugged and said, who cares what she thinks? She's just a ________ who doesn't even ______________ and _____________________. But there was something there and I wanted to know what it was, and I did figure it out.
My song offended her. How could I have offended her when she doesn't know me at all? How could she be so angry when my song was at a pretty high skill level and there are so many dreadful awful songs out there? Because at this point I thought skill was everything. Turns out, it's not. And I finally realized that my song was insulting to country music. Country music no longer thinks you picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille; it no longer wants to be taken home by country roads or to be a rhinestone cowboy.
Country music wants to be about sex and drugs and rock & roll; it wants to be a vital, cool force that shapes America as rock & roll once was. It's tired of being pop music's adorable kid brother and it does not want to make fun of itself. Like, ever. At least in the world where I, a bottom feeder, have to follow the rules but still be fresh and different if I'm ever going to get a foot in the door. Country music takes itself very seriously these days and I wasn't catering to that need.
I realized that Karen had every right to be offended. Me writing that song was like an older white guy I know who wrote a story from the point of view of a young black woman. Just, no. She should have been able to articulate that instead of just tearing me down, and if she ever wants one of my songs she will not get it. You don't forget a night like I had. But she really did me a favor too, because like Jacob wrestling God, I wouldn't let go until she blessed me with the insight I needed. People don't just respond to what I write with opinions about my skill. They respond to a song like it's a person. Did they fall in love with it? Can they not get enough of it? Or is it like an unbearable person that you can't wait to escape?
I really should not be writing country music. The industry and the songs it wants right now are so blatantly misogynistic and shallow that trying to please them makes me feel yucky, and I'm pleased to say that I'm mostly unsuccessful. I do continue to write things in that vein because I can't help it, but Karen really taught me a lot.
Recently I read a scene in front of people who had a similar reaction. These are friends, but they didn't like my piece, they didn't feel any kinship or warmth toward the character and her deep emotional struggle, and they felt preached at. It was another rough night, but I had Karen in my pocket reminding me that when my piece bugs someone, that's just a thing that a piece of writing can do. It's not a rejection of me, my struggles, or my skill. I ended up realizing that I had written about my struggle in a way that kept saying "this is hard, and you don't get it" and it didn't allow the audience to say "oh, I have my own version of this struggle." It was a really good lesson. I was able to "stay present" in figuring out why my piece bugged my audience and whether I wanted it to, and I learned a really big lesson about presenting my own really personal struggles in a way that invites rather than lectures.
You never know when something sucky and painful can become incredibly useful. Karen probably couldn't help anyone out of a paper bag on purpose, but I made sure she helped me.