Thoughts On Originality

by Andrew C. Schlett

Our culture, our society, our entire world is beset with countless numbers of
problems. Most of those are best commented on by people who are much smarter, more
important, and more in touch with these actual problems than I am. But there is one thing
that’s really been apparent to me of late, and that is the seemingly absolute lack of any
originality or creativeness within the realm of modern popular entertainment.

There could be a couple of reasons for this disheartening trend. The first, and
least likely, is that the well of humanity’s creative inventiveness has simply run dry.
There is nothing new that can be done. Every song that could be sung, every movie that
could be made, every book that can be written, already has been. We have simply
reached the maximum limit of our creative capacity and there is nothing more we can do
about it. That, as I said, is the least likely reason. It’s much more likely that this overall
dilution of the talent pool can be laid at the feet of two of humanity’s most boldfaced
flaws, lethargy and avariciousness. That, my friends, is old-fashioned laziness and greed.

Really, why would anyone want to create something original in a culture where
the re-interpretation of previously explored ideas and concepts, to put it in a nice way, has
gained widespread acceptance and even accreditation as legitimate production? We’ve
accepted that it’s okay to re-do somebody else’s work and thus no longer need to create
anything ourselves.

For example, suppose that I as a writer could not compose anything that expressed
my views on any given subject better than a column previously written by Leon Hale of
the Houston Chronicle. Is it okay for me to take his column, tweak it a little bit, give it a
more up-to-date rewrite, call these efforts a ‘cover’ and publish it again with my name
attached? Of course it’s not, if you’re a writer they call that plagiarism, but it’s the same
thing that movie producers do every time they remake old movies and make old TV
shows into movies. “Carrie” is an excellent current example. I have not seen the remake,
but I really doubt that it’s better than the Sissy Spacek original. Consider “Charlie’s
Angels”, “Mission Impossible”, the many releases of “Batman”, “The Addams Family”,
“Bewitched”, and the entirely misguided re-launch of the “Star Trek” line. The list goes
on and on, as does the never-ending cycle of rehashing the same ideas over and over for
commercial profit.

Truly, commercial profit is the wellspring for this widespread dearth of creativity.
It costs a lot of money to make movies and the enormous corporations who financially
support the production of these movies expect a generous estimate of revenue before they
even agree to fund any particular film project. If something generated revenue in 1978, it
will probably generate revenue now. I get that. I also understand that the bulk of the
viewing public who pay money to see these reruns is not like me. I saw the “Dark
Shadows” remake when it came out to the theaters recently because I love Dark Shadows
(and was, for the record, saddened by the result), but prior to that I had not sat in a movie
theater since “Beavis and Butthead Do America”. That was quite a while ago.

In music too, which I care about far more than movies, cover work is
commonplace. Christina Aguilera does Carole King and solidifies her reputation as a pop
diva? Ok, that music is not in my realm anyway, but if you say so. What passes for
originality in current popular music is usually expressed as overdone ridiculousness, such
as Lady Gaga’s meat dress or Miley Cyrus’s hyperextended tongue. Justin Bieber’s
entire career is nothing but a continuation of what the Backstreet Boys were doing
twenty-five years ago. For the most part, popular music is easy for me to dismiss. I
don’t expect there to be anything good out there anyway. To listen to FM commercial
rock radio here in Houston - which I will point out is all Clear Channel – is to put
yourself at the mercy of the lowest common denominator of music appreciation. Pretty
much everything these days either totally sucks or is a remake of something that probably
sucked to begin with. Clear Channel Radio is to music what the Elephant’s Graveyard is
to Africa: it is the place where Originality goes to die.

This is why I am so grateful to be a fan of local, underground Houston music and
why I want to express my opinions on these matters specifically to everyone who is
involved in what we are calling our “scene” these days. As editor of this fine, esteemed
publication, I am in the unique position of usually listening to music that is made either
by people whom I know personally, or at least know of through others. In the course of
my work with Rivethead I have come into contact with some of the best players this town
has to offer, and it is to all of you, those I have met and those I have yet to meet, that I
address this commentary.

Do it right, and for the right reasons.

Originality is difficult to define, but we know it when we see or hear it. If you are
a painter, heavily influenced by Dali distortion, and paint original works that really look
like Salvador Dali painted them in his bathroom, then that’s not very original. If you
write your own songs, original songs written by your own self, you still fail at being
original if your songs sound exactly like the songs of your influences. Any musician who
is so heavily influenced by, lets say, Black Sabbath, to the point that all of his guitar riffs
sound like those of Tommy Iommi, does not succeed at being anything more than an
Iommi rip-off no matter how much he claims to scoff at copycats. Sucking, too, is
difficult to define, but trust me, we know it when we see it.

I’m not going to call any local bands out by name. It is possible that given
enough time the Scene itself may weed out those bands that do not live up to the
standards of creativity laid down in this town many many years ago. A wise friend,
commenting upon the state of Houston music way back in 1991, said that “everything
sucks except for Lunacy”. Of course he was not serious, but it does beg the question of
what standards we have today. Everything sucks except for whom?

Much more likely is that the bands who follow the path of least resistance, those
who make a sound so commonplace and unremarkable that listeners will think they’re
hearing something off of FM 94.5 The Buzz (what barely passes for a rock station here in
Houston) will be the ones who succeed. The ‘why’ of this is because the general public
has come to accept bland and familiar as their first choice in musical taste. The ‘how’ is
that too many bands are now eager to play crappy music in hopes of getting noticed and
made famous by somebody in the music industry. Don’t freakin’ laugh. Crappy artists
get famous every day in this business. That’s the whole reason I felt compelled to write
this column in the first place. I’m not saying anybody in particular sucks, I’m saying that
it seems sometimes people want to suck in order that they can sound exactly like
everybody else out there, almost all of whom suck, because that’s what everybody else is
doing right now and that’s what gets bands signed to major labels.

As well, please understand that I am not talking about actual cover bands here. If
you’re in a cover band I have absolutely no idea why, but I do know that both the Concert
Pubs (North and Galleria) would not still be open today without you. I don’t personally get
why somebody would prefer to spend their life recreating the life of somebody else, but
at least there’s no deception there. Cover songs themselves are not the problem either. All
great bands have a few covers that they drop from time to time, but that can’t be your
main line unless your band is made up of part-timers, people who have steady jobs and
families and only get together on the weekends to jam.

If you’re going to put yourself out there as a real band, an original band, and you
are claiming to play entirely original music, please do exactly that. Don’t write a song
that sounds like what everybody else in town is doing, put your own lyrics to it, and call
it original. Don’t write what that bad-ass band that you saw down at the corner bar last
week wrote either. Don’t write Tool. Tool has already written Tool. Black Sabbath has
already written Black Sabbath. Write your own music. Incorporate your influences and
the basic parameters of your genre, yes, but write your own damn music. Please. There
is enough crap in this world of ours already. Do you really want to add more just to hear
yourself on the radio and sell millions of records to people who require nothing more out
of their music than a catchy beat and some clever lyrics? Don’t answer that. Those
people, though, they could care less for any actual artistic ability or real talent you may
possess, just as long as you keep them dancing.

There are too many musicians in Houston who are willing to simply keep them
dancing. There are, however, numerous others working unnoticed in small clubs and
practice rooms across our region who are defying the trends, who are writing and playing
some of the most original music out there today. They do not get fanfare or hoopla.
There are no hot young groupies standing outside the back door of the club waiting for
them after the show. They will never get a record deal and if they do put a record out it
will probably be self-financed and go nowhere. But they do it anyway, because to some
of us, music is about more than simply power chords, screaming fans, chicks, and fame.
All of these aspects are an integral part of the rock star lifestyle, and rightly so, but they
should stem from individual creative worth, not from how trendy you sound.

Sadly, too many superb musicians are starving and not paying their rent because
the popular appetite is always to the fluff. This is what I decry, and why I shy away from
mainstream entertainment. I understand that most other people don’t, which makes me
something of a purist. I’m okay with that. I also understand that if all musicians
followed the guidelines I’ve suggested in this column, most of you would be doomed to
poverty and obscurity. Do what you have to in order that you survive and make a little
money if you can. Just remember where it all is supposed to be coming from. If your
motives and your music are pure and true to the art, then any forthcoming successes
pursuant to that are worthy and well-earned.

Play it because it comes from inside you. Everything else is gravy.

The Editor's Desk

because the music matters!!!