Monday, August 11, 2008

You're so vain

You probably think this post is about you.

John Mendels(s)ohn has left the isthmus. He made sure we all knew about it, too, in his article posted at dane101 today. Full disclosure: I did some copy editing on that sucker before it went live. That is, however, the extent of my interaction with the man. I've never met him, so I can't speak to his actual, in-real-life personality. The only thing I can speak to is how he comes across in his writing: self-important and humorously biting.

Mendels(s)ohn made his debut on the Madison scene with a highly critical but interesting piece about its music, to which many of the named bands and their fans took great umbrage. It's never easy to take criticism (I know this first hand from literally countless ocassions, so I feel I speak with some authority on the subject), and always easier to give. But it becomes especially difficult to even consider said criticism when it's delivered in tandem with the hulking pile of ego for which John has become somewhat notorious. Heck, that first article starts right off with "When I, a formerly famous music critic who has lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, relocated to Madison this past autumn...."

In his final piece at dane101, the ego flag is flown proudly above his prose: "If I’m a sensational writer, I’m an even better graphic and Web designer" and "Judging from their existing site, whose designer I adjudged myself to be approximately 10,000 times better than..." etc.

John's enormous sense of self import would be of little consequence to anyone save someone considering dating the man if it weren't for the fact that he's thrust his opinions onto the public stage. And he's got some good, challenging things to say. Madison's art and music scene is somewhat insular and protective of its own. In our desire to flip the bird to more well-known scenes, we are sometimes prone to intense navel-gazing that makes it difficult to really improve ourselves and grow. Really good criticism is frowned upon (just read most of the theatre reviews printed in this town). And certainly it becomes a much finer art to give constructive but negative crticism in a city as small as ours, where practically everyone in the scene knows each other.

But it's crucial that we be able to really examine ourselves and be open to growing and changing. That's why it's so frustrating, for me at least, when a critic like Mendels(s)ohn shows up and shows such potential, only to squander it so gleefully with mad egoism. Seriously, dude, we don't give a shit about where you've lived and who you've written for or why you insist on including parenthesis in your name--just tell us what you think. Leave the crotchety self-love out of it.

We need a better breed of critic in this town--not just for the arts, but for politics and everything else that makes this city what it is. I love Madison, and I firmly believe that it is a great place to live--but I try to make sure my love includes a desire to work for improvements where it's needed, too. We're not perfect, and there's room for a lot of tough conversations and changes.


illusory tenant said...

I think he's being mostly facetious with the self-aggrandizement and after all, he really was reviewing Beatles records for Rolling Stone when the Beatles were still together.

But that sure is a lot of touchy people, though, including -- maybe especially -- Mendels(s)ohn.

I don't quite get the reaction to his initial survey of the Madison music scene. My impression is he was going out of his way to be nice.

Many of us of a certain vintage are similarly unimpressed with the mediocrity and derivativeness of hundreds of t-shirt bands, as he calls them (although Mr. Mendels(s)ohn is considerably more vintage than I).

Too bad all around, however. Y'all lost a pretty good writer and something of a minor legend, at least in the world of rock music criticism (for whatever that's worth).

Palmer said...

"Really good criticism is frowned upon (just read most of the theatre reviews printed in this town)."

Was this a joke or a sense of self import?

Palmer said...

Sorry about that. I misread what you wrote as I was multitasking and haven't had enough coffee yet this morning.

How goes life without cable TV? So far, so good on this end.

Emily said...

IT - Again, I would have liked to see him stick around, too. Madison could use some good critics, and his pedigree was somewhat impressive. What got in the way, though, was that self-aggrandizement. Fecetious or not, it was obnoxious and got in the way of anything useful he had to say.

Palmer - Definitely a sense of self import. ;) Not having cable has been great so far--I've been catching up on a lot of reading I've been meaning to do. Just got the DSL installed today, so my no-internet-shakes have stopped, too.

M Big Mistake said...

His style, which he insists is tongue in cheek, didn't come across well in writing. And when that was suggested to him...he would get defensive and basically say that the locals were too stupid to get the joke. It strikes me as strange that someone who is a critic for a living can't take criticism, well-meaning or otherwise.

Maybe I'm not smart enough to get why he was so great, but his writing style was too hard for me to wade I don't think I ever read an entire (really long) article all the way through. It didn't seem like good writing to me (maybe I wouldn't know good writing if I saw it...but still). He could have said more with less words, certainly.

I think it is important to look at the things that you do critically...if you have a goal of getting better and/or reaching a wider audience. But I'm not sure that is necessarily what everyone in the scene is after. It's not particular what I'm after...and I'm pretty sure that the people singing at Gomeroke aren't after that either. Some of us are just out to have fun. People can criticize that from the peanut gallery if they want to...but if they don't have a thick enough skin to take the heat when it comes back, then they are probably in the wrong business. I find it hard to believe that, in the age of the internet, that he won't be attacked in a similar fashion anywhere that he goes (as are most people in the public realm). He seems to have taken it very personally that Madison is against him...but it seems very little to do with Madison at all.

The Costuminatrix said...

The less said about our illustrious Failed Rock Critic, the better. Kinda surprised Dane 101 gave him as much space as it did. *shrug*

But you make an interesting point in your offhand comment about Madison's theatre reviewers. If I am reading it correctly, you do not think much of them? I don't, myself. There are two main problems at play here: one is that the current crop of critics consistently review the script rather than the production (which would be acceptable for new or locally written works, but not for, say, Shakespeare); and the second is that anyone with genuine insight into how theatre works and the ability, therefore, to write about it - is too involved in the process to be able to objectively critique and is thus exhibiting conflict of interest. It's tough to find someone with true theatre knowledge who doesn't want to be involved in the making-of. In fact, it's one of the reasons I finished my theatre criticism degree and decamped immediately into costumes. Just my opinion, your mileage may vary.

The Costuminatrix said...

Oops, to clarify my second point, I should have specified that being involved with certain companies removes the ability to objectively critique said company. Didn't mean to imply that no one who does theatre in general should ever review theatre. Sorry 'bout that.

Emily said...

CX - You read me correctly, and I generally agree with your points. It's why I never felt entirely right reviewing plays by Mercury Players, because it's so conflict of interest-y.

That whole "reviewing the script, not the production" thing is the main point that annoys me, though. Stop giving us synopses of the show, and tell us what you thought of the acting, the lighting, the costumes, the directing! That'd be a refreshing change of pace in this town.

The Costuminatrix said...

I asked one of the Isthmus eds, once, to tell me why they concentrate so heavily on plot synopses to the detriment of actually discussing how the company interpreted the script - and he informed me that it was because your average reader doesn't want to know if the acting and design was good, they want to know what the play is about. I don't know that I agree with that. Seems a lazy way to do things to me.

ellie said...

What he wasback in the dark ages of the 70's and what he devoled into are two different things.
Almost everything I read that he wrote since he landed here seemed to be about him, and not about what he was reviewing.
After reading his self indulgent farewell fuck-off letter to Madison, I can't say I'll be missing his writing or his odd need to be a victim because he's being chased out of town by our town full of what he considers to be thuggish, beer drinking cheeseheads.

ellie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M Big Mistake said...

About the theater review someone who doesn't much care about theater or know much about theater I can confirm that, when I read a review, the main thing that I want to know is what the play is about. But I also want to know if it was done well. It seems like a sentence or two would do ya on plot synopsis and that the rest of the review could be about how well it was pulled off. Though a theater expert is probably best able to get into the technical aspects, even a lay-person ought to be able to say what was good or bad about the production in a general sense.

The Lost Albatross