Thursday, October 1, 2015

Steal This Post! Personal Thoughts on Originality, And Hero Worship.

I learned to play the piano at a young age.

Not that I was a prodigy or showed any sort aptitude for composition whatsoever. I wasn't born with chops. What I did have, was an ability to find a tone and mimic it, which is normal development for children. Most parents drill words into their children's brain through repetition. Mine played music. I remember sitting in the middle of the living room while my mother would tidy up with the noisiest canister vacuum on the planet. While it ran at decibels that are comparable to an average, modern day shop-vac, or leaf blower, or jet liner takeoff, it did run at a specific note. Which I would hum. Loudly. Which confused my mother at times. You know that moment when you tune an instrument, and the sonic wavelengths from the tune-e and the tuner match perfectly? Kind of like that.

Again, it's not because I wasn't that musically inclined. At first, I just thought it was kind of neat that I could sound like a vacuum cleaner, because I was toddler, and I was easily amused.

It was at that moment where it was noticed by the folks that I have this ability, and was quickly shown sheet music and my grandmother's upright piano, and given a brief lesson on finding notes on the keyboard, and how it correlated with the black dots on a page. My childhood was mostly taken up with learning the notes on the bass and treble clef, time signatures, and making sure that my left hand keeps moving.

In high school, I moved to brass instruments, and flirted with the bass guitar for a while. Childhood piano lessons took a back seat to other activities like sports, marching band, finding a part time job, girls. The interests of a teenaged me had me going in different directions, but I would never stray too far from a keyboard. Which is to say, I've gone through my "chopsticks" phase, and was quickly bored with trying to come up with something new. It wasn't that I fell out of favor with it and refused to touch one ever again, it was more like I reached a plateau, and was satisfied where I was with it. Had I the head for composition and structure, the piano and I would be bosom buddies to this day. I'd be neck-deep in librettos for Off-Broadway productions. I'd have a successful "Jingle" factory where I would teach the world to sing in perfect harmony (perfect're singing it now, aren't you? Don't deny it.) I would have collaborated with the greats. Gone Platinum. Dominated the Billboard charts. Hear Casey Kasem say my name on a weekly basis. Sadly, none of that ever happened. Unfortunately, my teenage self could never see that far, and only concerned himself with playing what was in front of him. He was more concerned with getting it right, rather than try and experiment, and play with the knowledge he accumulated.

Still though, like most habits that are ingrained into children, the need to play, or write, or sing, or express something was always there. When it came to music, I had this thing, this habit, this need to mimic something I heard; A small nugget of my toddler years that never left. It wasn't for any competition, like any sort of one-upsmanship because I had this need to be known as "That Guy Who Could Play ______" (okay... maybe it had a little to do with competition), I heard a melody, it flipped a switch in my head or something, and I had to see if I could play it. Play it, not interpret it. I understood that music was a language, and since it's important to communicate, I thought it important to at least know what I was talking about. I was a competent fake, and for a while, it was good.

To be sure, my musical knowledge wasn't completely about reading notes on a page. I did in fact branch out once and write my own song in high school (and again in college...different story). It was well received when I performed it at a school assembly, thereby forever cementing my legacy as the Nerdy Weirdo Who No One Expected Anything But Uncomfortable Weirdness From, But Surprised Everyone With A Song In The Third Act That Was So Touching That We Forgot How Nerdy He Was. You know, that old chestnut. It was a stock character used by John Hughes, I think. He used it in his movie, "Somethingsomething Teenage Embarrassment Something." Remember that one? It had Whatshisname McHasbeen in it? It had to have been from a movie, because (full disclosure) The song I wrote was based on something I heard in passing from some After-School Special soundtrack. I heard it once, caught my ear, cranked out something resembling a composition in a half an hour, and ran with it.

I hate myself sometimes...

Do they even make After-School Specials any more?

I just dated myself, didn't I?

Gahd, I'm old.

I wrote a piece of music. It wasn't groundbreaking, or unique. Its chord structure was familiar enough that it was appealing to listen to. Was it "Original"? Hardly. What is "Original" anyway? Is there such a thing anymore?

It doesn't matter if you're a novelist, journalist, musician, actor, chef, if you create, your top priority is to be "Original". Don't copy. Don't Plagiarize. Pick up the mantle that has been dropped by the ones who came before you, and take it somewhere else. Produce something that no one has witnessed before, which is understandable and fair.

But, suppose for a moment that we as a society, at this moment in time, have witnessed, well, everything? We've heard it all before, seen it all before, tasted it all before. We are all constantly searching for something new, while at the same time, not willing to give up on the familiar. There are those of us who find comfort in the old by unearthing a memory from our past, dusting it off, giving it a new coat of paint and presenting it as new. Which it technically isn't: it's an old idea made new again through the eyes of someone else. Is that original? Do we care? Is there really nothing left under the sun? Even as I write this post, I am well aware of the irony that the topic of questioning originality is itself a subject that has been pondered and postulated to death.

Go ahead and Google, "Is anything original anymore?" I'll wait...

While I'm on the subject, why do we love cover tunes...I mean...those of us who know what a cover tune is?
Oldest Daughter: (humming along to music in a commercial) I like this song!
Me: Yes, that's an old Beatles tune.
Oldest Daughter: Who are The Beatles?
This Meme Is Not Original
You have your favorite band. They play your favorite songs. You might even have a record (what's a record? Quiet, you!) of theirs that you play religiously. You see them in concert, they do their thing and all of a sudden, they play an unexpected yet familiar cover of another popular tune, and the crowd goes crazy. Why? We expect originality. We expect to hear the songs they wrote. Why do we get excited when they perform something they didn't write? Are they plagiarizing? Are we encouraging it? I performed a tune that I composed that was based on a few bars of someone else's music. Am I plagiarizing? Am I original? Do we persecute our favorite artists for performing a cover tune? Are they copying for one-upsmanship or monetary gain, or are they paying homage to their heroes?

I would prefer to think the latter.

There is outright thievery, and just to be clear, I am not one to condone such actions. There is also going through the proper channels in order to use copyrighted material. There is also Fair Use. All of which are decent subjects for different times.

Covering a tune is fine. Taking the tune, erasing the songwriter's name and adding your own is obviously poor form.

This applies to all types of writing.


Who was your hero when you were a kid? Spider-Man? Martina Navratilova? Kurt Cobain? Ralph Nader? Who was it? Why were they your heroes? There was obviously some quality about them that made you look up to them in the first place. They saved the day. They stood up for the little guy, They turned the world in its ear. They stood by an ideal. What did we say when we were children whenever we looked up to our heroes?

"I'm gonna be just like her,"

And we would go and do that thing that our heroes would do: Study, practice, jump off the roof of the garage using towels as capes, try to get bit by a mutated spider. Whatever it took, we would try so hard to be like them. Until that day finally comes where we see that we are never going to be that person. That's fact dictating that to you like some boarding school crone. However, the truth is that there is nothing in the world that stops you from being like that person. I mean, not in like wearing your roommate's clothes, styling your hair like hers, and then killing her boyfriend type of thing. It's more like taking your hero's values and incorporating them into your own life. To review: Less Stabby, More Thinky.

I'm no different.When it comes to music, I want to play guitar like David Gilmour, and wail like Bono. When it comes to writing, I want to write like Vonnegut, Bradbury, Palahniuk. I want to write dialog like Sorkin. I want to expand the boundaries of imagination like Gaiman, and Robbins. I want to write like these guys, but that day of realization came for me a long time ago. I could never be like them. Even if I could, it would be crass, rude, self-indulgent and wrong. I would achieve the exact opposite of why I started something to begin with. I will never be my heroes, and I'm okay with that. However, that doesn't preclude me from emulating them. It doesn't stop me from being like my heroes.

If there's one thing I've learned from playing cover tunes, is that it's not enough just to play note for note. You have to put your own spin on it. You have to take it further than where you found it.You have to make it your own. And by that, I mean expressing what this song means to you, which in turn will give a different interpretation. Which will in turn, make it your own. And making it your own, you've unconsciously broken your relationship to your hero. And in doing so, you have found your own style. If you are very lucky, you can become someone else's hero.

I'd like to think the same way of thinking is involved in how I write. I'd like to think I'm paying homage to my literary heroes, and not copying and pasting. It is, after all, influence; the by-product of being a hero. I'd like to think that with every story or blog post I write, there is at least a shade of Vonnegut, a hint of Bogosian, a healthy dose of Robbins; allusions to familiar melodies that I remember in passing, and making it my own. I want to write like them. It doesn't mean I want to copy them. There is a difference.

My heroes have brought me to this point.

It's up to me to carry it further.

That's the way the song goes...