Sunday, May 8, 2011
In praise of derivativeness
Last.fm, one of my favorite tools of procrastination, is littered with comments denouncing certain musical acts for ripping off others. This raises an issue that has intrigued me for a while: the questions of when imitation is acceptable in the arts and when it isn't. I've noticed that in certain art forms, such as film, giving a knowing tip of the hat to another artist is considered okay. It's an homage! And it shows you have good taste. Visual artists have often used obvious "copying" of preceding artists in a subversive and illuminating way. In these mediums, visual references are something that those who are "in the know" hunt for and feel gratified to find. It makes you feel that you are a member of a club and it enhances your understanding of a piece. In pop music however, it seems that most of the time, this sort of behavior is frowned upon. I wonder why. If one of you favorite bands is no longer together, shouldn't it be exciting to have the opportunity to see a similar-sounding band play live? Almost as good as the real thing, right? Apparently most people don't think so. It seems to be considered a sin against rock n roll to "steal" the sound of an older or more obscure musical act. Which is strange because rock n roll is all about stealing -- it began by stealing from the blues, jazz, and other African American musical traditions. Rock artists continue to steal riffs and chord progressions from each other. As Picasso (might have) said, "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal." And as T. S. Eliot pointed out in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," tradition is an essential component to change. Most importantly, if you like something, why worry about it? Rock n roll is best when it's carefree and fun, not putting on airs. It's interesting to learn about influences and important to respect groundbreaking artists. But why should that ruin your enjoyment of another?