Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Sop of Originality

Quick, which band is the originator of grunge music?

I bet most of you—something on the order of 97 to 99% of you, in fact—replied “Nirvana.”  Which is a lovely answer: their radio anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is what introduced grunge music to the world.  I can remember the first time I heard it: it was Industrial Night at the Roxy, in downtown DC, in 1991.  I won’t go so far as to say it changed my life—I was already very much into alternative music, otherwise why would I have been attending Industrial Night?—but it certainly jolted my system.  I had no idea it was about to take the airwaves (and, shortly thereafter, the nation) by storm, but I knew this was something ... special.  Something profound.  It’s 22 years later now and I’m still listening to new songs from the Foo Fighters coming on the radio: that’s a decent run for any modern band and its descendants.  It doesn’t rival the Beatles or the Stones, but it’s a damn fine run, and it ain’t over yet.

But of course Nirvana didn’t invent grunge music.  The first incarnation of Nirvana came together in 1985 or ‘86.  Soundgarden had already been around for at least a year, as had Green River, who begat Mother Love Bone, who begat Perl Jam.  Green River’s roots, in fact, go back as far as 1980, and the roots of the Melvins go back to 1983, at least, and they together spawned Mudhoney, who is certainly the best Seattle grunge band you’ve never heard of, hands down.

And Seattle is the birthplace of grunge, right?  Here’s what Kurt Cobain said about writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Rolling Stone:

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song.  I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.  I have to admit it.  When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.  We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.

And the Pixies, you see, were from Boston, whose grunge scene is underrated nearly to the point of being unknown, even though it included great (but little-known) bands like the Pixies, Buffalo Tom, and of course Dinosaur Jr., who formed in 1983 and not only wrote what is arguably the best grunge quatrain ever:

I know I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me fuck up, will you
‘Cause when I need a friend it’s still you

but also what is surely the greatest remake ever.

But what is the point here?  (Other than to re-educate you on the finer points of grunge music, naturally.)  I think the point is that some Nirvana fans may be offended by my pointing out they didn’t invent grunge, they merely popularized it. As if that somehow takes away from their genius.  Am I saying that Nirvana is just a rip-off of the Pixies?  No, Kurt Cobain said that.  I think I’m saying that originality is overrated.  It’s held up as some sort of sacred cow, and, if a thing isn’t original, it’s therefore inferior.  But Nirvana is not inferior to the Pixies ... I’m not saying they’re better, merely that they’re not any worse.  Coming in second or third or fifth or tenth in the chronological list of grunge bands doesn’t make them any less insanely good than they truly are.  Everyone had done what they did before, but no one ever did it like they did, before or after.  Why do we care if they were first or not?

We can move into the wider world of music.  Can there be a Lady Gaga without Madonna?  No, not really.  Does that make Lady Gaga a “Madonna rip-off”?  Certainly not in the pejoritive way that the phrase is generally used.

We’ll expand to movies.  Can Dark City exist without Metropolis?  No, certainly not.  Hell, I’m not sure Dark City could exist without The City of Lost Children, but that doesn’t make Dark City any less brilliant.  Hell, I’ve heard it argued that The Matrix doesn’t exist without Dark City (although their releases are close enough together that it’s more likely a pair than a rip-off), but that doesn’t take anything away from The Matrix either.

Comic books: I’ve always loved Moon Knight.  Moon Knight is a rich guy who fights at night with a mysterious, scary costume and uses a lot of gadgets ... sound familiar?  Yeah, Moon Knight is pretty much a Batman rip-off.  So what?  How does that make him any less cool?

Literature: I’ve already talked about how I feel about the Wheel of Time series being accused of being a Lord of the Rings rip-off.  I’ve also heard it accused of being a Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) rip-off, which is amusing, since the first book of Wheel of Time was published before George R. R. Martin even started writing the first book of Song of Ice and Fire.  But let’s say you’re willing to flip it around and accuse Martin of ripping off Jordan instead: I still say, so what?  If it were true that Martin deliberately and consciously sat down and said “I’m going to rewrite Wheel of Time, only better” (and I truly don’t believe he did), who cares?  What Martin produced is still awesome.  You could argue whether it’s better than Jordan or not, but, in the end, it’s different, and they’re both very good.  They could have been ripping each other constantly throughout the respective series (which, although it’s true that Jordan started first, were being published simultaneously), and I would only be grateful for the cross-pollination.  It’s not like whoever got there first gets more points or something.

In my discussion about the Wheel of Time question, I made another analogy: Harry Potter being described as a rip-off of James and the Giant Peach.  I chose it for a number of deliberate reasons.  The most obvious being that James and the Giant Peach was published 4 years before J. K. Rowling was even born, so it completely eliminates any question of whose idea came first.  Also because I don’t think it’s a criticism that’s ever actually been made; rather it seems to be the case that any series which is even remotely like Harry Potter is proclaimed to be a rip-off of it: A Series of Unfortuante Events, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Artemis Fowl, the Bartimaeus trilogy, the Septimus Heap series, Children of the Red King, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, The Wednesday Tales, etc etc ad infinitum.  But of course the one that concerns me is the one that I’m currently engaged in writing (assuming I ever get back to it), Johnny Hellebore.

So this question of originality hits home for me, and I must admit I have an ulterior motive.  It only occurred to me after Johnny Hellebore was completely fleshed out as a character that he shares a lot of similarites to Harry Potter, especially physically.  He’s a white, English-speaking, male, teenaged boy, thin, with black hair and eyes that are some shade of green.  The differences, particularly at this level are so slight as to be laughable: American instead of British, a bit older, eyes more blue-green than Harry’s piercing green.  They’re both parentless, although Johnny isn’t an orphan, and one might even go so far as to make a comparison between Larissa and Hermione (although I feel that’s unflattering to Hermione, really).  The farther along you go, of course, the more you have to struggle for the similarites against the profound differences instead of the other way around, but by that point you’ve established your foundation, and your audience is more likely to grant you the benefit of the doubt.  And, while I’m telling you that all of this only occurred to me after the fact, you only have my word for that, no?

For that matter, while I can assure you that I was not consciously trying to “rip off” Harry Potter, how can I make any definitive statements about what my subconscious may or may not have been up to?  I certainly had read the Harry Potter books—several times—as well as listened to the audiobooks and watched all the movies.  And I respect the hell of out J. K. Rowling: she’s a dead brilliant author with an envy-inpsiring talent for both characterization and plotting that I certainly could do worse than to emulate.  So was Harry kicking around in the back of my brain, casting an influence on this idea?  I’m sure he must have been.

Still, Johnny Hellebore is an entirely different story than Harry Potter.  One is aimed at younger readers, though it’s good enough that older readers will appreciate it as well; the other is aimed at older readers, and, though younger readers may certainly appreciate it, it requires a much higher maturity level.  One focuses on a sense of wonder and a fierce joy that only slowly becomes eclipsed by the darker themes of the series; the other is dark from the very first page, and it’s the joy and wonder that serve as the counterpoint.  One is a story of a boy growing into a man; the other is a story of a boy who is in many ways a man already, but who exists in a state of being “stuck”—not necessarily stuck in childhood, but just in a deep a rut in his life, which is a state that all of us experience, at many different points in our lives.  One was very likely influenced by Roald Dahl; the other is more likely influenced by Stephen King.

Still, the comparisons will inevitably be made, and, on one level, I find it flattering.  As I say, Rowling is a brilliant author and even to be mentioned in the same sentence as her is quite nice.  Still, one doesn’t want to be thought of as a rip-off, right?  But then that got me wondering ... why not?

It seems to me that we’ve somehow elevated originality into some Holy Grail.  Everything has to be original.  Except ... nothing is original.  At this point in human history, everything can be said to be derived from, descended from, influenced by, or in the vein of, something else that we’ve seen or heard or read before.  There’s just so much out there ... how could you not sound familiar, even if only by accident?

So, I say, let’s set aside originality.  Can we not rather ask—should we not rather ask—it is good?  Who cares whether it’s original or not, as long as it’s valuable, inspirational, emotionally involving, socially relevant, philosophically touching, mentally engaging ... does it speak to you?  If it does, then doesn’t it deserve to be evaluated on its own merits?  I think it does.  I’ll take my Nevermind and my Doolittle, thank you very much.  They’re both pretty damn rockin’.

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