Shit-Talking’s Only a Problem When You’ve Got Something to Hide

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

Recently I was talking to a local music-industry guy about the social awkwardness he felt when he moved to Seattle from the Midwest. Specifically, my friend said that the hardest adjustment for him was that musicians in Seattle talked shit about each other.

“In the Midwest, you would never, ever talk shit about your friends in bands,” he said, “but in Seattle everyone talks shit about their friends constantly. It’s been very hard to get used to.”

I’ve been in the Northwest music scene for 20 years, and I have to admit that a fair amount of shit-talking goes on here. It’s not universal–some musicians wouldn’t talk shit about you if you were driving out to Enumclaw with a video camera and a copy of Horse & Rider–but most people I know will drop a dime on their closest friend without much prompting. As a result, I’ve never felt it was particularly noble to “not talk shit.” There are ways to talk shit about people that essentially hold to lines of mutual respect, admiration, good humor, and a code of honor, while also leaving it clear that the person you’re talking about is a four-flusher who should not be left alone with the cocaine. It’s basic musician grammar.

In fact, for each of the five primary varieties of Northwest shit-talking, there exists a reason why you shouldn’t be upset about it.

1. When friends say TRUE things about you to each other that you don’t like. When one friend is talking to another friend about you and what they’re saying is TRUE, it isn’t “shit-talking.” It’s “conversation.”

2. When a friend says TRUE things about you to people you don’t know. You’re just worried that your potential new friends and romantic conquests are hearing about you before you can bullshit them with the carefully constructed false personality you front with. The only solution is to drop the act and stop lying. That way you’ll never disappoint anyone again.

3. When people you don’t know say TRUE things about you. Whoops, looks like the word is out about you. Asshole.

4. When friends say FALSE things about you. In 90 percent of these cases, the friend is actually saying TRUE things about you that you either won’t admit or can’t acknowledge. On the rare occasion a friend actually says completely false things about you, it’s usually a case where you made the mistake of having sex with somebody who’s crazy.

5. When strangers say false things about you. How do you even know? Are you reading blogs? Don’t read blogs!

A few weeks after that exchange with my colleague from the Midwest, I was blindsided at a rock concert by an old friend who is a prominent Seattle producer. He grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Quit talking shit about me!”

I was confused. “What? Who, me? Was I talking shit about you?”

“I keep hearing from people that you’ve been talking shit about me!” he whined.

I searched the recent past, trying to remember an incident when I was talking shit about this person. Then I realized that I talked shit about him almost constantly.

“Well, yes,” I said, “I do talk shit about you. Constantly.”

“Why?!” he pleaded.

“Because it’s hilarious?” I answered. (It IS hilarious.)

This man is a deeply funny, talented, and delightful person, yet I would not leave him alone with your cocaine. The shit-talking I do about him is on the order of: “I watched him eat a human baby once” or “He has all the charisma of a sack of candles.” It’s the sort of shit-talking that happens in place of other gratuitous talking–replacing platitudes with insults, as a form of compliment–while also managing to communicate that the guy is kind of a jerk. Affectionate mockery is the absolute soul of friendship, a shared acknowledgment that the music world is full of insincere glad-handers and the only people you can really trust are the ones unafraid to lay down some ridiculous jive on you now and again.

Don’t get me wrong–plenty of people in the Northwest music scene believe that niceness is a powerful force, that politeness is a form of generosity, and that every encounter with people is an opportunity to “pay it forward” and spread the love. Fuck those hippies. I guarantee they are wearing mohair cardigans and, right now, tearing up that I called them hippies.

The plain fact is that I don’t trust anyone who won’t talk a little shit about me, or who can’t have a little shit talked about them. It is a sign of humanity, a willingness to admit that you are not perfect and not afraid that people know it. The music business revolves around false portrayals of musicians as saints, which teaches us to be so afraid of being criticized, so guarded in interviews, so terrified of being misrepresented, that we will only permit ourselves to be portrayed as the blandest, most empty-eyed caricatures. It’s dehumanizing, and our willingness here to openly throw a little flak at each other is one of the few examples when the phrase “keeping it real” actually means something.
A little shit-talking actually keeps people real.