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The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
A serious AI thought
I know... right as we finish up the gong show segment? What's serious about AI right now? (Then again, what is ever serious about AI?)

And yet, I'm serious. Weird.

We see it every few bad contestants--the one who storms out going, "I can't believe they didn't listen to me! They'll be sorry!"

And we all laugh, because we've all just seen the audition and winced and waited for Simon to say what everyone thinks. You'd think that after five years worth of nationally televised public shaming, there would be fewer of these. Maybe there are--maybe they have to search through more auditions to find the truly horrifying now. But I doubt it.

It was one of the not-entirely-horrifying auditions last week that got me thinking. A teenage kid came in going on about how Chris Daughtry had made the show safe for rockers. He came in, put on this bizarre growly voice, and managed to carry a tune in such a way that I thought he was going to rupture his vocal cords. Guest judge Jewel even commented that she was worried about him damaging his voice, and Simon told him to try an ABBA song, presumably to hear how he'd do if forced to sing in anothe genre. He dutifully went out and learned the lyrics to "Dancing Queen" (after a fashion)--then proceeded to come in and sing it in the same painful, growly voice, completely ignoring the advice of the judges, and was then shocked and disappointed that they turned him down. To the camera afterward, he said, "But I'm not going to change my voice!!!"

Why would he do that? He's not even twenty, for crying out loud. He has plenty of time to grow and develop.

Except that that's referred to as "selling out."


The heart of the problem seems to be a particular school of thought that's pervasive in a lot of fields (including, to my shock, math): If the experts do a thing, then the best path for beginners is to do what the experts do. Experts use their own distinctive style, making a decisive imprint on everything they do. You can spot a Frank Sinatra song without looking at the credits, after all. All the greats developed their own style and didn't sell out. It was their thing. Therefore, the most important thing is to develop your own style and stick with it, right?

No. Dear God, please no.

You don't develop your own style in anything by concentrating on developing your own style, because you build your style with the tools you've acquired along the way. It doesn't have to be formal training, but it is deep immersion. As a writer, I've read a lot of Stephen King, and it shows, but I also read a lot of Rowling, Potok, Card, Tolkien, Twain, and a whole lot of other people. King's probably influenced me inordinately not just because I absorbed some of his traits, but because he's quoted a lot of other people, who I've then gone off and read, and, well... lines of influence. And I'm just a journeyman.

Musically, this kid has shot himself in the foot by not only refusing to try a different style, but by defining that refusal as a virtue. Yes, part of the different genre weeks on AI is showing versatility, but another part--the part that's more important in the long run--is that it's filling that toolbox, and the contestants will be able to draw on all the new tools they pick up from each sort of music. Being a "rocker" doesn't mean that you will have nothing to do with country (it would be silly to assume there's rock without country), soul (which would go from merely silly to totally absurd), or dance. It doesn't mean that you should sneer at those flouncy opera singers (just ask Pat Benatar) or declare that you don't need to learn such high-falutin' stuff. Yeah, maybe you don't need to learn it, per se, but if you have a chance to put that in your toolbox, why on Earth would you pass it up? Let alone brag about having done so? Imagine someone trying to get a job on a pit crew saying, "I change tires. That's what I do. I had a chance to learn about transmissions, but that's not who I am. It's tire-changing or nothing. I'm not going to sell out to the mechanical establishment." I suspect such an applicant's resume would find its way into the circular file rather quickly.

But in the arts, somehow or other, it's supposed to not only be a symptom of youth, but actually admirable. "I won't be made to sing that crap I don't like, or try to do something in a way that's not the way I always do it." Or maybe, "I write the way I want to write, and I don't have to learn about spelling and punctuation... I like e.e. cummings, after all!" This is popularly defined as, of all things, artistic integrity.

The ironic part of all of this focus on integrity is that it will inevitably develop a much more derivative style, because the learner has focused so incredibly tightly on a single thing that nothing is entering his vocabulary other than what's already there. A personal style needs to be an exciting new synthesis, the sum total of all the things to which an artist has been exposed, remixed through that person's perspective, with a touch of that person's soul added to bind it all together. When you take the approach of the growly-voiced kid on AI, you end up with something like mitosis, at the best hope--two identical copies of each other. More likely, it ends up like increasingly blurry generations of Xerox copies. And no, I don't give much credence to the idea that someone is spontaneously coming up with a new style--everyone is mimicking at first. That's how we learn. Style emerges slowly, from a long process of learning and mimicking. You usually don't know it's there until someone says, "Oh, I knew that was you even without having your name attached to it." And even then, you can't approach art saying, "Well, my style dictates that I do x instead of y." Instead, you do x instead of y because that's what all of your education and experience has led to. And if a chance to do z comes along, you give it a try just for the hell of it, because it never hurts to add a new element.


P.S.: Oddball related book recommendation on this topic--My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. Asher is a Hasidic Jew who is born an art prodigy. He's obviously very talented, and eventually, the rebbe, with everyone at a loss for what to do with Aryeh Lev's troublesome boy, finds him an art teacher--who proceeds to introduce him to the entire realm of art history, including nudes... and Madonnas and Crucifixions. Because he says that Asher needs to have these tools in his artistic vocabulary, and Asher indeed discovers that he has a use for them, much to everyone's discomfort. It's an interesting study.
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emmagrant01 From: emmagrant01 Date: January 26th, 2007 01:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I rolled my eyes when that kid said he wasn't going to change for pretty much this reason -- only I don't think I could have put it so eloquently. ;-)

If I might extend your metaphor a bit, I think this is true in education in general. As a (math) teacher, I often hear students whine and say, "I'm never going to use this! Why do I have to take this stupid math class?" And they never seem to hear my response, which is along the lines of what you say here: "How do you know you won't need this somewhere down the line? What's the harm in learning something?"

Because the thing about education is that it gives you a broad set of tools from which to work. You may not ever use a particular one, but if you don't have it, you certainly can't use it. And worse, you might never know that you could have used a tool you at one point refused to learn. In the end, we are each of us at the very least the sum and product of our experiences and knowledge. Education gives us a broad set of tools, experiences, and knowledge, and we return to that set every day of our lives. There is no benefit in refusing to make that toolkit as big as possible, nor is there any harm in learning as much as you can; yet there seems to be some bizarre cultural value placed on ignorance.

It makes me want to take kids by the shoulders and scream at them, sometimes. :-P
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 26th, 2007 01:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Sincerely--what if the artsy kid wants to be an architect? Not going to get far without math. Like science? Try doing lab work without it.

And I'll vouch for sticking with math, largely because I didn't. I was a year ahead of myself and just hated it, so I dropped it after tenth grade... and have more or less had to re-teach myself from scratch, because you find that you need it in the oddest of places, not just balancing checkbooks, but trying to figure out how much floor space there is in a room and how many small, odd-shaped tables can comfortably fit in it... before you actually have the tables. I could kick myself for not going into pre-calc when I finished trig.

And yes, I get the kids in complaining from Latin school, "Oh, but why do we have to learn Latin? What will I need Latin for?" And then acing SATs because, dang, how that Latin helps in parsing out unfamiliar words.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 26th, 2007 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)
yet there seems to be some bizarre cultural value placed on ignorance.

And just to continue ranting...

Yes, that's exactly it. I can't really lay this one on the shoulders of the artists--I have yet to see a decent artist who isn't more than happy to say, "I studied this that and the other thing." That absolutely includes the ones that the kids think they're saluting by refusing to "compromise." This is one where critics are largely at fault, going on at length about how such-and-such or so-and-so is just mimicking thus-and-such from another, greater artist, and forgetting to mention that the Great Artist also would have aped those things with which he was familiar. This gives the false impression that true art means having no influences and learning nothing, which is obnoxious and ridiculous, and harmful to kids who then take away the notion that, if they are to be true artists, they too must avoid, well, learning their crafts.

Writers, in particular, need to have some pretty broad-based education, not just in writing, but in the things they have some intention of writing about. You don't have to do a thesis on wolf behavior to write about werewolves, but it's really, really helpful to know how a pack is organized, how wolves tend to fight (Greyback was right on the money going for Bill's face--wolves like to put an opponent into shock by crushing the nose and interfering with air flow). Talking to my physics-teacher uncle about space travel and electron tunneling gave me an idea for how to get people from place to place. Being interested in history gives an idea of how people behave. And so on.

That's going to help a whole lot more than "developing a style." Style happens on its own while you're busy doing other things.
emmagrant01 From: emmagrant01 Date: January 26th, 2007 01:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, absolutely. The thing that strikes me about my own life is that at any point, I thought I knew exactly what I would be doing in a few years' time. And every time, I was wrong. I've done things in my life (so far) that I could never have imagined -- and if I had imagined and tried to go straight to them, I would not have been prepared in the same way I was by meandering my way towards it.

I think that's true for everyone, and maybe it's jusy true by default, because how else could it be, really? Of course, there are people (like Steven Spielberg, for example) who know from the time they are ten years old what they want to do with their lives. Maybe the ones who are successful recognize the need to broaden their horizons very early, rather than doing it by accident like I did. :-P
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 26th, 2007 02:44 am (UTC) (Link)
On the other hand, quite a lot of the greatest works of art in history were done on commission, presumably with quite a lot of direction from the patron. The patron system was behind most of the Renaissance, after all. One could even say that it was the rules imposed that shaped the artistic muscles, much like patterns of lifting weights do.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 26th, 2007 07:20 am (UTC) (Link)
The adaptation, I wouldn't do. Essays generally weren't done on patronage. The H/Hr... shit, if I was getting paid sincere money, I don't see a reason why not. Artists do commissions on things they don't like all the time. I don't think I'd be the right person for a patron to approach on that, though.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 29th, 2007 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
So you're punting on the essay questions... :)

No--they just aren't an applicable example. We're talking about art here.

And on that, the whole topic of drawing the line about what kind of pairing to write, or even whether to write an adaptation, isn't relevant to what we're talking about here. It's not about drawing a line anywhere, it's about refusing to learn anything. No one is telling a singer, "You must sing about X." They're saying, "Learn this-or-that style." It's a technical thing. The only writing equivalent would be saying, "I refuse to learn how to write a sonnet, because I don't believe in making poetry structured." It would have nothing to do with what the hypothetical sonnet is about in the first place--it's just refusing to learn something because it doesn't fit with one's lofty self-image, so you never get that into your head. Gravelly-voiced kid was willing to sing "Dancing Queen," but he was unwilling to learn to control his voice.

The point where I'd bring up patronage is simply that the current obsession with art as nothing but "self-expression" doesn't seem to be producing especially good art, honestly. Would Michelangelo really have been better if he'd just said, "Ah, screw the Sistine chapel, I'd rather do something else"? Would the Mona Lisa have been superior art if Leonardo had decided that he didn't really like this rich society snob and didn't have to do anything special? The trick with patronage is figuring out how to do the subject you're hired to do while making it your own. Presumably, you wouldn't have been taken on by the patron if he or she didn't care for your art. But that's on an entirely different question than my gravelly voiced friend, who's somehow or other managed to conflate artistic integrity with refusal to learn his art.
gabrielladusult From: gabrielladusult Date: January 26th, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Second try on this comment...For some reason this post reminded me of the scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner tells Tim Robbins: Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.

And while I was looking that quote up I also found this one: Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.

I think this is the same theme you are talking about. Costner's character is trying to teach the rookie to respect the game and how it is played so that he (Tim Robbins) can become a Major Leaguer.

Interesting connection.
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: January 26th, 2007 05:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm putting that book on my reading list. Thanks.
buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: January 27th, 2007 05:51 am (UTC) (Link)
I just wanted to say I adore your American Idol posts.
aeterna13 From: aeterna13 Date: January 28th, 2007 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
As a composer, I'm totally connected to what you're saying. Right now, being a mere 21 years old and still an undergrad, I'm still finding my voice. Up until about a year ago, I was writing pretty exclusively in a quasi-romantic style that treaded the gray area between tonality and atonality, but recently I've been expanding and doing all different kinds of things. I've done some work with aleatory (or music with elements of chance) as well as some minimalism, and even all-out atonality. Honestly, I have no idea what my style is, but that doesn't worry me at all, especially since I want to go to grad school, and from what I hear, the admissions people are pretty big on variety and flexibility.

I remember following a link on TLC to an interview of Mary GrandPre, and she said that she didn't settle on her very distinctive style of illustration until well after she was out of school. Personally, I think her cover- and chapter-art for the Harry Potter books is simply gorgeous, and I doubt that there's any way she could have arrived at that without a whole lot of experience in other styles to back it up.
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