New Copies

(March 2019: Originally posted to a long-dead blog in early 2004, then heavily revised and reposted as six sections a year later at another equally long-dead blog. Presented here as a single post, with a few more minor edits for clarity.)

1 · this is pop

Modern “originality” sometimes strikes me as little more than novelty generated through imitation. (The method is deeply imitative, but the product is novel.) Then introduce drift and random mutations, and — pop! — you’ve got yourself a culture.

2 · “the new cannot be melodic”

Our obsession with originality for its own sake is often so overpowering that we find it difficult to evaluate the quality of a work of art (or any work of human creativity, ingenuity, or industry at all) without taking into account its novelty, its individuality, its departure from some tradition or other. But this is not necessarily the most important or meaningful gauge of a work’s value.

3 · stop and go

(red light)

(I don’t knock novelty in itself, only novelty as the sole measure of value or brilliance. I think of the saying: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Good advice, but useful principally in a cultural setting where the act of breaking rules is already common, routine, expected. Another way of phrasing this might be, “You must understand the rules that you break,” since this suggests that the rule breaker should be exercising some judgment, but does not imply, as the other saying does, that your goal is to break the rules.)

green light

It seems to me that originality almost always occurs in the form, that mutations in content are surprisingly rare. And everytime some newfangled thingamabob comes along (say, a villanelle or camera or 3-minute pop song or blog) what do we use this newfangled thing for? Same old same old: for documenting our sorrows and heartbreaks, and loves and fears, and the sun and moon, and everything that’s always been right there in front of us, right there inside us, perplexing us and confusing us and dazzling us, all this time. We haven’t figured out how to make love stay or make hate go away, or stop wars or start utopias, or anything else of any value whatsoever, despite all our endless chatter, yawps, wiggling, carving, doodling. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And then, one fine morning—

4 · hand hand take me by the hand

1 | When I was a kid, I listened to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 every Sunday night as I was falling asleep, and I remember lying there in despair: every week there were more new songs, with new melodies, and I was convinced that by the time I was, say, fourteen, all the possible combinations of notes and harmonies and chord progressions were going to be exhausted. I was genuinely scared that there would be no more music. (Of course, in my cynical moments, I feel that this has already come to pass…)

2 | Apart from displaying a dreadfully poor grasp of basic combinatorics, I also didn’t yet understand that coming up with a new melody isn’t always the point. Sometimes it’s more important to take a sad song and make it better. The movement you need is, after all, on your shoulder. And I later realized this sort of thing is happening all the time. Think, for example, of Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” What did he do? He generated a conversation between the original and his own interpretation. Old and new.

Conversations must partake of both old and new, familiar and strange, in order to exist. If all you and I said to each other was what we’d always said to each other, you couldn’t describe the exchange as a conversation. Conversely, if we spoke in nothing but neologisms describing completely strange and novel concepts, neither of us would have any possible frame of reference to understand what the other was saying.

This is why an over-reliance on novelty for its own sake can sometimes actually stifle the artistic impulse, and thwart an audience’s attempts at enjoyment, understanding, and empathy, and lead to the development of a hermetic and inbred artistic cult, dependent on jargon, rife with smug élitism. And, of course, a slavish allegience to the familiar and the received often strands us in a mire of drab clichés and shopworn platitudes.

5 · The crux of the biscuit

All this shallow so-called “original content” can be generated by following a few simple rules. Novelty is almost always generated by fiddling with the variation knobs on the Content Engine, but not very often by changing to a completely different Content Engine.

In, for example, pop music, so much content is generated based on several dazzlingly simple formulas — I/V/vi/IV; I/IV/V/IV; the answer, my friend, is: she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; don’t go breakin’ my heart: that’s my soul up there… Yet pop culture is on a constant hunt for the Next New Thing. How can this be? By walking a very thin line between shock and cliché.

Modern art relies on formulas but pretends it doesn’t, as though formula were something to be ashamed of. (It is shameful if we rely too heavily on formula, and don’t bring enough newness to it, and therefore descend into kitsch, doggerel, or cliché.)

Oral epics such as the Iliad or the Kalevala are deeply formulaic, drawing extensively on tales that would have been very familiar to their audiences. The value these works had to their original audiences was not in the invention of any new tale, but how the tales were developed and deepened. To quote Douglas Hofstadter, ‘Variations on a theme’ is the crux of creativity.

We are making new copies.

6 · And besides, we can’t walk away

In the end, real progress (whatever you wish to mean by that word) can occur only when new ideas are expressed using familiar terms or when old ideas are reintroduced and reinvigorated using new terms. Something must be familiar in order for me to understand what’s strange. I must, for example, have a grasp of “ugliness” in order to comprehend “beauty.” Everyone in Omelas understands this. Otherwise, what are we talking about?