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How To Take Criticism: Taylor Swift vs. Bob Lefsetz

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I have read the Lefsetz Letter on and off for years, written by Bob Lefsetz, a music industry attorney, consultant and taste-maker. Last week he wrote responding to Taylor Swift's song "Mean," which he understood via the Howard Stern show may be directed at him for repeatedly articulating that Taylor Swift "can't sing." This is the same person who a year and a half ago said about Swift that "no one's done as much for women's music since Joni Mitchell." The turn doesn't make sense. Is "Mean" about him? Who knows. If it is, he's pretty upset about it, and chastises Swift for stooping so low, reiterating that she "still can't sing."

Stoop so low to respond in song?

(Maybe they're in cahoots and are creating buzz on the record.)

But the conflict brings up an issue I deal with as an artist and as a vocal coach with artists often: the difference between criticism and judgment.

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Artists absorb obnoxious comments from people who are being mean, but feel the critic status allows them that latitude.

How do we distinguish between criticism and judgment? Both are part of an artist's life and part of the commodification of all things created by people. Criticism is a creative endeavor to deconstruct and reconstruct art with the desire to unveil the subject of the artist, in an effort to draw near to the artist. Judgment is a totalitization of the artist -- "This is awesome!" "This sucks!" "Buy this!" "Don't buy this!" It is a projection of the pundit only. It has little to do with the work. It's an opinion. It reflects how the commentator feels about himself (or herself) when he listens to the artist. If Bob Lefetz writes that Talyor Swift "can't sing" -- it is mean. It's not a nice thing to say out loud, but it's not criticism. It's his judgment.

It's not true.

Producer Don Dixon told me while we were working on the record Fools and Kings. "Even if ten million people in this country buy your album, that means 250 million people don't know you, don't care or they don't like you." I pass this along to students. You're not playing for the people who think you're bad. You are playing for the people who like you.

When Lefsetz says "Taylor Swift can't sing," he's articulating that he doesn't connect to her voice anymore. Something happened that turned him off Swift. Whoever Swift is singing to in "Mean" -- she's basically saying "I'm rubber, you're glue." That response makes sense to me, but why do we waste our short time on earth wrapped up in insults and gossip?

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Because the put-downs that hurt us are the ones we fear are true.

At age 34, I had to walk around for months, repeating to myself "I don't care what anybody thinks of me" in order to separate my evaluation of myself from the evaluation of jackasses (especially one particular jackass). Months after that were followed with the mantra "I'm awesome." This actually unnerved Phil a little when he met me. "I know you're awesome. Why do you keep saying that?"

I had to say it to drown out the "I suck" still stuck in my brain. Like noise cancellation headphones.

If the judgments of random other people rattle your cage, you have to train your brain to drown out the arrogant voices. Give yourself enough positive feedback to maintain self-propriety, so that you might hear true criticism, which are the voices of those who want to understand you.

Do what what you gotta do, if it's looking in the mirror and saying I love you, if it's six months of saying "I'm awesome." Train your brain so you can spend your energy on what's important: getting good at what you do, along with personal and social responsibility.

Lefsetz praises Jennifer Anniston for taking it when people rip her a new one, unlike Swift. He's comparing the reaction of a 20-year-old with that of a 41-year-old. Maybe life experience has taught Aniston not to let the turkeys get her down. It's a rare bird born with that ability, and "Mean," could be what a girl's gotta sing til she gets there.

I have been stung. It's never fun. But the more experience you have with it, and the more you care about your work and not what some guy thinks of it, the more you learn to save your energy for what is important.

When my students are caught up in the fear of what others think, how they might be judged, I tell them to focus.

Become great at what you do, then remember that every note you sing is beautiful.

Everybody who can talk, can sing. Who cares what Bob Lefsetz thinks?