On Allergy to Originality, Embrace the Remix and the Ecstasy of Influence
“Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” — Omar Little
“Lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did” — Barenaked Ladies
Like how Omar describes money, it is true that inspiration, the urge to create, is never truly personal or “owned” by one self. One does not think one’s greatest thoughts, but rather these thoughts occur to someone. In Roman religion, “genius” refers to a general divine nature that is present in every individual person. It is this connection to what is eternal that is someone the source of inspiration and creativity. This view is supported by the numerous world cultural mythologies, philosophy of aesthetics as well as certain branches of psychology.
Despite this ephemeral truth, from personal experience I know how it’s like to need to protect some idea or concept that I developed. Like Louie CK, I wouldn’t want another comedian to steal my joke that I took time to develop and refine. Art takes time, and even genius ideas take lots of development. And the theft of that development is unjust.
A friend told me a story about the meaning of the Barenaked Ladies song lyric quoted above. After Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson of the beach boys searched for the new sound. He was close. It was on the tip of his tongue but he could not articulate it fully. Apparently a demo tape was made that somehow made it into the hands of the Beatles who heard it in its raw form. Soon after, they released Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Upon hearing this on the radio, Brian Wilson knew that his work had not only been stolen — but that it had been perfected, leaving him out in the cold. It was after this that he was “lying in bed”, bedridden for a long time, unable to go out in public, ruined.
I think everyone can agree with Brian Wilson probably could have protected his work better.
Taking both these ideas as true conditions (i.e. the re-birth of ideas in human history and the need to protect artists), I reflect on my feeling that in art, unlike science, hard definitions are not necessarily productive.
Thus the debate is not between originality and plagiarism, but rather plagiarism and hommage. It is plagiarism or hommage that the story of Jesus, Death and Resurrection bears striking resemblance to the story of Horus, Orisus and Seth? I would say the line between the two is the spirit in which they are done. Respect to the source is hommage, whereas concern for one’s self is plagiarism.
So as in the Muddy Waters example given in the Lethem piece, Country Blues may have been sung by Son House and Robert Johnson before him, but beyond that was the eternal acknowledgement that song original came from the cotton field anyways. As long as he acknowledged that it also did not come from him.
Songs ain’t got no owners, only spenders.
“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hands upon what needs no defence.”
Really enjoyed this quote, and yes it is conceivable that our whole culture of copyright is in itself unique to the American experiment.
Review of Her Long Black Hair
I did the sound walk with other member of my group at night in Central Park. We did it at night. It was a beautiful time to do it, although it was sort of out of synch with the daytime feel of the talk.
The audio recording was incredible. The sounds blended seamlessly with the environment and I could not tell what was happening in the soundwalk and what was happening in reality. Janet Cardiff also did an amazing job in capturing what real New York City sounds like; the conversations she captures were timeless, archetypal New Yorker conversations.
The narrative was hard to coherently follow, but that could also be that our group was dislocated from the narrative due to a part of the park being closed at night (we were unable to follow a portion of her walk — the part at the zoo). So our experience was somewhat disrupted and overshadowed by having to re-establish our location vis-a-vis the soundwalk geographical points, the awkwardness that we were all getting to know each other but needing to make group decisions, as well as the fact that we were in a sparsely populated park of Central Park at night, as well as slowness in wifi (which led us all to need to wait, all looking at our phones, in the middle of the night — LOL).
That said, we did finish the walk and the narrative overall was quite beautiful. It took me to some amazing sites in Central Park, however I was not left with much emotional resonance due to the specific experiential circumstances. I will do the walk again when I go to Central Park again.
My most important take aways were: (1) The possibilities of seamless blending of audio fantasy and reality, and (2) Great date spots in night-time Central Park.