Henry J. Kaiser uttered the quote that is the title of this article, and when I read that line, it struck a nerve.
It struck a nerve because I’ve been very guilty of “talking over” my work. Humility is a good thing. Not overpromising is a very good thing. At the same time, though, there’s a point where preemptive, overblown self-deprecation (and the tendency to explain everything to death in the wrong context) runs a person over. The opportunity to show someone that you know what you’re doing gets lost in all the noise you’re making.
And I’ve been behind mixing consoles on several occasions where musicians fell into this trap.
One of the most plainly visible examples is when, without irony, a musician tells the audience that the music being presented is bad. It seems like an embrace of one’s own limitations, and there’s nothing wrong with owning a total miscue, but there’s a problem with claiming – as a matter of regular course, and with a palpable sense that you mean what you say – that your art is crap:
The danger is that somebody might believe you.
The audience hears you say, “Sorry that this sucks so much,” and they subconsciously start to look for all the flaws they can find. Eventually, they find them, and start to agree. They end up pushing themselves away from what you’re doing, and with your help!
To channel Seth Godin for a moment: The vast majority of people in the world probably aren’t going to like your music, so why would you encourage everyone else to ALSO not like your music?
There are some acts out there who ironically claim that their tunes are just awful. There are blues musicians who have a whole schtick about how their guitar is always broke and their dog taught them how to sing…but it’s very recognizably a schtick. An act. Ironic. It’s easily recognizable that the players actually think that what they’re providing is quality entertainment. Their true confidence in what they’re doing is blindingly obvious. They aren’t overshadowing their own work with the commentary.
There’s also a more technical side.
I’ve been to shows where bands who have worked like CRAZY on their songs and their show end up getting in their own way. There are of course, many examples of how this can happen, but the one that stands out the most to me is that of being over-oriented to one part of the show at the expense of the whole thing.
For instance, some years ago a touring band came through my regular gig. They had decent songs and knew how to do the “small-time tour thing.” The stumbling block, though, was that the drummer seemed to believe that “energy” was all that mattered to the presentation. As such, the dude was hitting everything (especially the cymbals) as hard as was possible for him.
It looked great. VERY rock. The guy could have been on an enormous stage with a huge audience out in the seats. The visual aspect was certainly convincing.
But he OBLITERATED the actual music. All the carefully crafted lyrics, all the punch of the guitars, all the real emotional connection was lost in a storm of percussion. The music was trying to talk, but the “spectacle” was too loud. The flavors have to be in balance, or the holistic effect gets lost.
If your art is speaking to people, let it have its say.