Don't Give Up...

My first week on the job, I received a cold call from an aspiring gospel singer in Irving named Patrick Bradshaw. I was new; I picked up the phone.

"Why hello, Mizz Hepola." He was polite as a Sunday sermon. "I recently sent you a CD, and I wondered if you had received it."

Unfortunately, I had. The hideous cover featured him in a white suit against a Caribbean sunset backdrop, kind of an Olan Mills approach to album art. And yet, he was sweet, earnest and he persuaded me to listen to the album. Why not? What he might lack in plausible cover images he certainly made up for in charm. He called back the next day--same time, same tone. "Uh, yes, Mizz Hepola, I was wondering if you had a chance to listen to my CD yet and, if so, what you thought of it."

Here's the deal: I thought it was awful. I thought it was the worst kind of American Idol tripe--warbly and weak, with lyrics that would make boy bands reach for the rhyming dictionary. But I thought it took balls to call me. I also thought he was persistent. Mostly, I thought it would be hard to tell someone over the phone that, quite frankly, he sucked.

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"Your songs need work," I told him finally. "You overreach vocally, and the lyrics are simplistic." In the silence that followed, I thought I heard both our stomachs sink. "But I like your enthusiasm. Don't give up. I hope you send me your next CD."

He thanked me and quickly hung up.

I don't know what, if anything, he took from that conversation. But for me, it was my first hard lesson in music criticism--telling the truth about a thing as I see it. (Or, to be precise, as I hear it.) Over the next year and a half, I tried to retain that level of honesty and encouragement. I didn't always succeed. Most of us don't want to hear the truth about ourselves--that we are thinning a bit on top, that we could lose a few, that there is a conspicuous booger lodged in our right nostril. We want to hear that we are brilliant, and original, and superfoxy. That holds especially true for artists, who often treat criticism as though it were a form of verbal abuse. But it's true for critics, too--we are mostly sensitive writer-types who tear up at U2 concerts. Don't let the bully routine fool you. I don't know if everybody hurts, like R.E.M. says--but everybody, oh everybody, is afraid to suck.

And yet, our imperative here is to be honest--not to be "right" necessarily (this is art, not calculus), but to be honest. That means downplaying artists you may love at the expense of those you may hate, covering uncomfortable issues in Deep Ellum, casting aspersions on a dubious music fest. In exchange, people do believe we suck (see inset photo), and that's only fair. Get angry. Throw shit. Call us names. It's OK. I like to think we all suck in our own special way, unique as a snowflake. Once you recognize that, sucking doesn't seem so scary anymore.

But why dwell on this negativity? After all, this is the last time we'll be meeting here, you and I. The section will be taken over by Sam Machkovech, someone who has no problem telling the truth about things as he sees them. In August, I'm off to New York, where I hope to find work, adventure and some occasion to turn new people on to Dallas music. This is a good scene, by the way--even if the city treats it like a toothache, even if Deep Ellum seems to be withering (don't let it), even if the best bands always leave or get discovered elsewhere first. There's talent in these streets. Not as much as we all wish, but still.

In the end, the advice I gave to the aspiring gospel singer is probably something we could all use: Your songs need work. Don't overreach. But most important: Don't give up.

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