Monday, May 05, 2008

Music died for your sins

Great article on Slate today reviewing a book about the parallel Christian pop culture that has exploded in the past 15-20 years.

The whole article is fascinating, but the part about the stresses that Christian rock bands face was most interesting:
The Christian rockers Radosh interviews are always torn between the pressure not to lead their young audience astray and the drive to make good music...

They want to make good, authentic music. But they are also enlisted in a specific mission which confines their art.

Here's where I have to disagree. When I'm wearing my graphic and information design hats, I always have to be aware of constraints. Whether it's audience or media or choice of colors or word counts or legal requirements or whatever, constraints define my work. And here's the thing: limitations make it better.

How? Constraints force you to focus your work. If a few aspects of your project have already been decided ahead of time, you have to work around them. You have more time to be creative with other aspects of the project. You find clever ways to turn those limitations into advantages. You aren't paralyzed by limitless choice. You have to think. You have to work harder! And your work will overall be better for it.

As this article from Wired points out, Hemingway thought his greatest story was only six words long: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

This music blogger did a similar trick by reviewing almost 800 MP3s but limiting his thoughts to six words for each. Most of them are pretty clever.

This cartoonist forced himself to write 200 comics in under 12 hours, and I don't think he would improve on the tight, clever, stream of consciousness humor if he took 12 months.

Back to design, these guys made a fairly beautiful webpage/flyer for a conference with only Times New Roman, the much-maligned default font. Hell, some of the greatest typographers who ever lived only had one typeface available to them. They worked with what they had.

This applies, of course, to music as well.

Only a few truly, absurdly gifted musicians can get away with doing whatever they want. Radiohead comes to mind. Beck can almost pull it off.

Remember OutKast's split double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below? Andre, set loose to fulfill his every wacky fantasy on his half, created "Hey Ya!," which was undeniably perfect but was sadly surrounded with 9 relatively crappy, aimless songs.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have made an entire career out of their self-imposed restraint: they only do punk covers of popular songs from other genres. And they're awesome at it.

I always wondered how good the Smashing Pumpkins could be if Billy Corgan would have just lived with, say, 2 guitar tracks per song instead of arguably wasting his time laying 64 guitar overdubs in pursuit of perfection. Such excesses worked for a while:

I always thought they did their best when they briefly lost their drummer and Corgan had to write better songs to make up for it:

Ryan Adams is another great example: he's clearly absurdly talented, but his genre hopping dilutes what he's capable of. He's pretty good at rock and roll:

He's even better when he sticks to alt country (whatever that means) and focuses on the songcraft a little more (not that he has to that much; like I said, he's ridiculously good):

The Magnetic Fields' stock in trade has always been arbitrary limitations, like their triple album 69 Love Songs, which hops genres constantly but the songs are all love songs (albeit with a variety of definitions of 'love song'). Here's one example:

Or their latest album "Distortion" where all instruments and vocals were arbitrarily drenched in, you guessed it, distortion. All the better to focus on the delightful lyrics:

They also had an album ("i") where every song started with "i". Why? Why not? Now you don't have to decide what letter your songs will start with. Get cracking on making every other aspect of the album better.

So what's the point? If Christian pop music groups can't work within their arbitrary constraint (ie, every song is about loving Jesus instead of a lady), they're doing something wrong. This limitation should force you to be more creative in every other aspect of your songcraft. It should make you better.

The expectations of your Christian audience aren't holding you back.

You just suck.

1 comment:

Jake Reamsnyder said...

check out for more zaniness within limitations. can you imagine writing a new comic strip every single day with the EXACT SAME template? plus, the absurdly deep topics the comic goes in to at times just makes the idea of an intellectual T-Rex even better!