It has been some time since I had hate mail, and while I can’t say I miss it I always used to read the letters with interest and thought about what the people had to say. Then I chucked them away.
Hate mail wasn’t that common when I was at the Herald, but every now and again someone would fire something off, usually intemperate and you felt you could smell the wine on their hot breath as you opened the fat envelope. Typically hate mail runs to pages of uninterrupted bile.
I felt it best just to forget about them afterwards, the writer had got whatever it was off their pounding chest.
But the other day I got a piece of nasty mail, from someone I’d been trying to help. Events unravelled like this.
I still get bits of mail sent to me at the Herald and so every fortnight or so go in and pick up form letters, the odd CD and invitations to things which have usually been and gone.
About three weeks ago I picked up some stuff and among them was a large envelope. It contained a covering letter and about 12 pages of song lyrics.
The writer from the South Island asked if I would take her lyrics to various record companies as she was looking to get signed.
There were a few glaring problems with this approach of course: that it is not my job to take someone’s lyrics to record companies, least of all someone I don‘t know; that lyrics need to have a tune attached to be of interest to anyone, especially a record company; and that the author of the letter suffered from dyslexia and admitted as much. It was readily apparent.
So I read the letter and looked at the lyrics, all of which were appallingly spelled and sometimes had in a scribbled hand something along the lines of “like Neil Finn” at the bottom, which I take to mean the song was a sort of Crowded House thing.
Generally I admire people of ambition and I stand on my record of being helpful to aspiring writers, journalists, musicians and so on who come for advice, references for arts council grants and contact phone numbers. But this letter was just wishful thinking if not downright misguided.
So I sent off a reply (I could have ignored it, of course) which went along the following lines, that “with all due respect, I am a journalist and it is not my job to find a record company for you”. I then said that the copy of her lyrics as they stood would not impress anyone (“okay you are dyslexic, but why not get someone who isn’t to correct your spelling? That seems kinda obvious to me.”)
Then I went on to point out that record companies need to HEAR the songs so she should get a tape of them together. I suggested she ring their head offices in Auckland to find out specifically who to send the tapes to, and that she should add a covering letter (“correctly spelled”) with contact details and a stamped self-addressed envelope in case she wanted her tape returned.
I then pointed out that even if all this happened the likelihood of finding someone interested was very small, that in this country it is singer-songwriters who have success, not just people who write songs. I suggested getting a good professional singer to record the songs.
I then added that I was “sorry to be so blunt but you really need to put in a lot of time and do your homework rather than just throw out some song lyrics in the hope that someone somewhere sees your potential”.
I added that the music business is a BUSINESS.
I signed off “all the best” and noted after my signature “formerly of the New Zealand Herald” just to inform this person that I no longer worked at the place she had sent her letter to.
I thought then, and still think, all that was fair enough and I had taken to the time to respond to an unsolicited letter from someone wanting me to do something for free for them to help advance their career.
I didn’t expect thanks -- but I also didn’t expect hate mail.
The other day I picked up some stuff from the Herald again and there among the letters was a rejoinder from the songwriter in the South. She was nasty.
In what I took to be a satirical twist she quoted back my “with all due respect” then said that regarding the bad spelling it appeared that I was unable to get over myself (whatever that means).
She went on to say “while I don’t have a personal secretary to proof read all my emails and letters this does not stop me going forward and engaging with the world”.
She then asked that if someone told me they were deaf would I insist on a translator or ask them to speak louder, because that would obviously be a solution for me.
(Note: I am using corrected spelling here, lest it look like I am holding hers up for ridicule.)
She trumped me with, “while I may be dyslexic I can be glad that unlike you I am not stupid”.
She told me that regarding the music advice I offered she had already done all those things and had had airplay and interviews. (Pity she hadn’t mentioned that in the previous letter.)
Then she delivered the kicker, “clearly no one has ever asked your advice like this before hence the ridiculous response unlike many other professionals in the industry.”
(In a slightly amusing coincidence here I should note I picked up this letter after I had been at Mainz on the invitation of Harry Lyon -- for the second time in as many months -- to speak to his music students, this time about how to effectively market yourself to the media.)
She went on, “Perhaps this also explains why you are formerly of the New Zealand Herald to which I wonder why you sign your name in your past life”.
She signed her name and added “formerly gave a shxx (perhaps you can spell that)”
I read this with alarm at the amount of vitriol that had been poured into such a short letter and, as I have already observed because I do take such things seriously, I thought about it for a bit -- and then threw it away.
But then I rescued it from the rubbish (and from beneath day-old cat food which was very unpleasant) and considered it again.
Let us leave behind how abusive, personal and ill-informed it is -- on reflection my advice still seemed reasonable and such an angry response unwarranted -- and consider what I think is actually being said here.
It is not about whether my advice had been useful or honest or helpful or otherwise, it was about her claiming her “special-ness”, and that was what she couldn’t see past. I hadn’t criticised or condemned her for being dyslexic, I had merely offered that it seems obvious if you are going to communicate in a businesslike way with people then it’s a good idea to do it with clarity. I hadn’t suggested she have a proof reader, just that she might like to run it past someone to correct mistakes which she knew she had made.
Or does acknowledging in advance that you make mistakes render them somehow acceptable?
As the art critic Robert Hughes wrote in Culture of Complain, we live in a time when people are quick to claim their victim status. This is what the songwriter was doing: the subtext seemed to be, “I am dyslexic and so any criticism you make of me and my approach must be premised on the fact you have a problem with that“.
Well, sorry to tell you this songwriter. I don’t. I don’t actually care. I was offering what I thought to be useful advice and some wise counsel borne of years working in journalism, often at the cusp of the music business. I think the words I am looking for here are, she couldn’t get over herself. Whatever that means.
I have no idea whether this woman’s music is any good -- how could I know from pages of lyrics? -- but what I do know is that she can’t take advice (never a good sign if you hope to enter the public arena). I don’t envy the critic who doesn’t like her work and is prepared to say as much in print. That person will receive a very long letter I suspect.
Without wishing to go the whole Prince Charles and say some people shouldn’t rise above their station, it seems to me that many people -- using their shortcomings, disadvantages or personal problems as an excuse -- shift responsibility onto others. If this songwriter doesn’t make it for whatever reason can I guess it will be because people like me were not “supportive”?
But the music industry isn’t a support group, it isn’t a place where your go for therapy and healing. It is a business and if your songs are good you’ve got a chance.
I hate to tell anyone this, but it does seem to be borne out by experience: short, fat and ugly girls won’t be catwalk models; people who can’t hold a tune won’t win New Zealand Idol; people who can’t run fast won’t break sprint records.
I won’t ever be an All Black, an award-inning novelist or a movie star. I live with that.
Finally this though: what I also learned a long time ago was that personal matters should never intrude on professional responsibilities. I have no time for people who hold grudges, or harbour envy or resentment and allow that to impinge on their professional decisions. Personal feelings and professional responsibilities are very separate things.
So I threw that letter away sure in the knowledge that if she had occasion to approach me again -- because I have done this before with people who have been offensive, rude or spiteful -- that I would hold no animosity towards her despite her churlishness and intemperate rudeness.
If she is successful because her songs are good I will genuinely applaud that, not because she is dyslexic.
But I won’t be applauding louder because she did it despite a shit like me who obviously can’t get over myself. Whatever that means.