Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Anxiety of Being Influenced

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I used to look for wisdom in interviews with rock musicians. I've long since adopted the attitude that Socrates acquired after he tried to learn wisdom from the poets:

Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.

However, I'll have to admit that I ran across a quote in an interview with the Arcade Fire's Win Butler, that I found to be nothing short of profound. It may be profound in its simplicity, but it did give me pause: don't listen to Queen and say, "Oh, why did they have to have 100 tracks on the vocals!" That's just what they sound like. People can be like, "Oh man, they're so overblown, they use all these vocals." It's like yeah, but that's why Queen are Queen, that's what they sound like. When I hear a record, that's what it is.

There's this weird thing where people think they can change records. "Oh, if only this were there and this were here, it would be a super record." But that's the record, that's the way it sounds! You can't change the record; you didn't make the record. I didn't make "We Are the Champions", Queen did, and that's the way it sounds. It's almost like people think they can control something. It never even occurred to me that I could change the way something sounds.

I'm skeptical that Butler actually practices this theory, for two reasons. The first reason is that it is antithetical to our critical culture. Part of the reason that distinctions between high and low art are minimal today is that everyone is a critic. Spider-Man 3 set worldwide box office records last month, and I heard and participated in many conversations about the film both in person and on-line. I can't think of anyone taking Butler's position in relation to the movie. Almost everyone who enjoyed the film had some caveat, some piece of advice for the directors, producers, and writers, about what could have been done differently.

The second reason I am skeptical about Butler's claim is that it is antithetical to the attitude of an artist in the Western world. Scholar Harold Bloom is famous for the theory of the "Anxiety of Influence," the idea that all great art comes about as a result of an artist being hyper-aware of the successes of previous artists, and the desire to exceed them. To be completely at peace with the art that has come before you is more indicative of an Eastern mindset, where a desire to emulate the old masters has led to relatively little evolution in art through centuries.

Actually, the philosophy Butler expounds sounds like an Eastern approach not only to production of art, but consumption as well. Would art be more entertaining, would it be more pacifying, perhaps even more edifying, if we were to evaluate it for what it is rather than what it could be? I don't think Butler's approach necessarily forces us to turn off our critical faculties. In fact, I think it can be argued that by reigning in our desire to create, we can be better critics.

However, before completely jumping on board with Butler's approach to consumption, I have to question the veracity of his assumption that people truly lack control in the creative process. Assuming Freddie Mercury hadn't died, would it really be too late to change "We Are the Champions?" After all, Jimi Hendrix changed "All Along the Watchtower." Bob Dylan, the original writer of the song, has literally performed it live thousands of times, but never once has it sounded more like his original version than the Hendrix version.

One may argue that few of us are Jimi Hendrix, that although Butler's assertion may not be valid for the few, but still applies to the many. To that, I would respond with a recent quote from Tim Story, director of the "Fantastic Four" movies. Story told the Comics Continuum website that he paid attention to fan reaction to the first film when working on the sequel:

In the early parts of, through pre-production and the early parts of filming, I continued to read things on the web and just anything that I can use and kinda bring to the screen, I would
It almost makes me wonder if Win Butler ever logs on the Internet to see what his fans are saying.


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