In 2015, the heavy metal group Disturbed recorded a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. It became their most-popular recording by far, with 420,718,057 views on YouTube as of this moment.
I think this cover is sublime. I want to point out something specific about how they defied contemporary artistic theory when making it, which I think was essential in producing an outstanding work of art rather than just another cover.
Make it New
In 1928, Ezra Pound wrote, “Make it New.” This slogan is now often called the catchphrase of Modernism, the best succinct summary of its goals. Modernism, being dubious about the existence of objective quality in anything, said that making art good wasn’t a meaningful goal. The emphasis in modern art shifted from the content of the art to its style, from the gestalt to a context-free focus on individual techniques. Like Monet’s brush-strokes:
Georges Seurat’s pointillism:
or Rothko’s color contrasts:
Some art studios actually sell prints now that are blow-ups of tiny parts of a Monet painting, throwing out the composition entirely as being unimportant.
In literature, this turned into the contemporary obsession with having a recognizable, individual style, like Hemingway, Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy.
In music, as in all the arts, the doctrine now is that artists are expected to put their own personal mark on everything they do. When doing a cover, a band is supposed to change it to “make it theirs”. As an anonymous VH1 author wrote recently, “Make the song your own. If you are going to cover a famous song, make sure you do it in your style. … Your band needs to have a definitive style to begin with.”
Make it Good
Disturbed chose not to do that. Singer David Draiman spoke about how they approached the song starting at 1m 44s in this interview:
“Initially I thought we were going to approach it in the manner that we approach most of our covers: to make it more upbeat, more staccato, more rhythmic, more aggressive, and it was actually Danny Strong’s suggestion to not do that, and to keep it ambient and ethereal and acoustic and orchestral. And I was very hesitant with that direction, but inspired by it at the same time… [An] incredibly huge challenge, to try and pay homage to a song and do a version of it that is in the same world as the original.”
I take issue with the claim that an artist should even have a definitive style. I elaborated on this back in 2014, in Writing: Bjarke Ingels on style. The architect Bjarke Ingels said that a person’s style is the sum of their inhibitions. Bruce Lee put it even better explaining why he doesn’t believe in having a style of martial arts:
“Actually, I do not teach karate, because I do not believe in styles anymore. I do not believe there is such thing as, like, a Chinese way of fighting, the Japanese way of fighting… Styles tend to not only separate man, because they have their own doctrines, and then the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change, you know, but if you don’t have style, you just say “Here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?” That way, you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallization. That way, it’s a process of continuing growth.”
Or consider the Beatles. They released all of these songs in the same year:
Twist and Shout
I Just Don’t Understand (on vimeo)
The way each one came out was of course affected by who the Beatles were. But there’s no getting around that they used very different styles for these songs. They were not “finding their voice” in the trivial sense of surface elements, like the guitar distortion effects to use, the tempo, the rhythm, the volume, the energy level. Their voice comes in on a deeper level: what songs they chose to cover or write, what they found interesting, compelling, or fun. But that’s not style. That’s content.
I don’t want to fall into the usual trap of art critics, that of claiming that there’s one right way to make art. There’s room for distinctive individual styles and self-expression. But I’d like to point out some trade-offs being made.
Having a distinctive style makes an artist’s works all be unlike anyone else’s, but it also makes them all very similar to each other. If we suppose that, rather than being pure self-expression, art communicates something like a theme or opinion, then the theme or opinion of a work of art determines what styles are likely to work. An artist restricting herself to one style can thus develop a specialized style that deals with a few subjects well, but limits what ideas that artist can tackle. You can see this in artists like Monet and Salvador Dali, and in authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy.
Make it Common
I want to qualify even Bruce Lee’s statement that art is inherently about self-expression. The term “self-expression” has been so diluted now that, unless you think about it carefully, it appears to mean nothing more than saying something. We don’t want to mean this if we say we make art to express ourselves, or art would be self-expression on the same level as telling the kid at McDonald’s that you want fries with that.
Express is the counterpart of impress. One expresses something only in order to impress it on someone else. If you’re trying to express yourself, that means your purpose is to impress someone else.
I was paid to write a computer program that locates the genes in a DNA sequence. The way I formulated the problem, the flow-of-control model I used (sequential, hierarchical, logical, distributed, agent-based?), the manner and degree of organization and structure, the thoroughness of error-trapping… all these things would tell you something about me.
I had many purposes in writing that program: to identify genes in newly-sequenced bacteria, to help develop new cures, to get a scientific publication, to pay my bills, to show my boss how smart I am. This last one falls under the category of self-expression: I wanted, by expressing my smartness, to impress my boss.
But only one of these purposes tells you how to decide whether my gene-finder was a good one or a bad one: the purpose to identify genes in newly-sequenced bacteria. No one seriously critiquing my code would say it was good or bad depending on whether I got a publication out of it or got paid for it.
Art is no different. It’s an activity people do for different reasons, sometimes (but not always) including to impress others. But to say that is the purpose of art is like saying that my purpose in writing a gene-finder was self-expression. Saying that self-expression is the purpose of art consigns you to ignoring the true reasons people have for making art. It’s then impossible to say art is good or bad, or to understand what it does, or how it does it.
I don’t believe that expressing myself is an important purpose of my art. Just the opposite: The more-important purpose to me is to express something I have in common with my audience. Doing that tells them things about me (maybe), but that’s a side-effect, not a purpose.
David Koresh’s claim that he was the Messiah was a pure example of self-expression–a complete revelation of his image of himself–but that didn’t make it art. When someone does something that expresses only ideas that only they have, and fails to connect these ideas with things other people believe, that’s not art, it’s insanity.
My stories aren’t about myself, even the autobiographical ones. There are lots of weird things about me that could make stories if I wanted to write about myself. When I write about my own experiences, it’s because I think other people have had similar experiences. The ideas in the story may be new, but they’re not worth writing about unless they’ll mean something to someone else.
Of course my experiences affect what I write, and may make me specially able to communicate one particular thing, but that doesn’t mean my purpose is self-expression. It’s just a side-effect. I do it in a way that’s unique to me, but that isn’t what makes it good or bad. I’ve written good stories, and lousy stories, and they were all unique to me. The unique-to-me-ness isn’t what counts; it’s whether that unique thing is good or bad, according to some other purpose of the art that has to do not with me, but with its effect on other people.
Make it Fearless
If I had to summarize Disturbed’s cover of “The Sounds of Silence” in one word, I would say “sincere”; but if I got two words, the second would be “fearless”. There isn’t a single ironic note. No posing as just a gimmick, no reliance on meta-musical comparisons of styles that distract from the music itself, no hiding behind “well, this music wasn’t really meant to be heavy metal anyway”.
I think this was possible because Disturbed wasn’t trying to make it theirs; they were trying to make it good. They listened to the music, and used the style that best communicated what they thought it was trying to say. They did make it theirs in some ways, but not by making it sound like a Disturbed song.
There is another, worse trade-off being made by emphasizing self-expression: It makes failure terrifying. If the only thing that makes your art worthwhile is the you in it, then all art really consists of is stripping naked in public. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing–though it may be for some of us–but most people find it frightening. If you bare your soul in public and people boo–or don’t even look–that’s a brutal critique.
Art since ~1800 has emphasized individual expression so much that many artists become paralyzed with fear, because their art was expected to be about them, to contain nothing but the essence of their individuality. Unless you’re Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Ezra Pound, or Hunter S Thompson, you probably don’t have enough “essence of individuality” to make much from just that.
This is why so many modernists, from Mondrian to Rothko to Robert Ryman, simply make variations of one artwork for their entire careers. This is also why post-modernists adopt an ironic pose–a lack of commitment to any goal, a wink hinting that they’re not serious about this art stuff. Modern art was at least bold, but post-modern art is deliberately cowardly, “pre-committed to failure” as one poet put it. The ironic style, the references to other works, the use of mash-ups, “found art”, and conceptual art , are all ways to excuse the artist from failing to create art, by making references to things other people did bear all of the weight.
So post-modern art ends up not being very individualistic at all. That is the irony behind the irony.
If instead of seeing your work as representing yourself, you see it as its own thing–perhaps more like a child than a reflection, or, in the Catholic view, not as art that you created, but as a sign you made pointing to something bigger than yourself–then you won’t be focusing on yourself and on how this work makes you look, and you can have the courage to do something great.
(Ullyot 2016) is a recent book which says these same things I’ve been saying since 2015 about modernism being a pre-commitment to failure. A review (Matthews 2017) puts it like this:
Ullyot’s central thesis is that literary modernity is “committed to failure” (1) in a way that involves the critique of prior literary models that assume the desirability of narrative “success.” Via Adorno and Benjamin, Ullyot formulates an aesthetics of literary failure, suggesting that in order to understand this we should be focusing on how “the modernist text . . . immerses itself in the very failure it depicts, and how it carries the reader along in confusion”.
Ullyot’s own book summarizes itself like this on its first page:
Ullyot argues that these texts serve as a continuation of the Grail legend inspired by medieval scholarship of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Rather than adapt the story of the Grail, modernist writers intentionally fail to make the Grail myth
cohere, thus critiquing the way a literary work establishes its authority by alluding to previous traditions. The quest to fail is a modernist ethics often misconceived as a pessimistic response to the collapse of traditional humanism. The writings of James, Eliot, Kafka, Céline, and Beckett posit that the possibility of redemption presents itself only when hope has finally been abandoned.
As I touched on in “Modernist Manifestos & WW1: We Didn’t Start the Fire—Oh, Wait, we Totally Did“, and will address more in future posts, the original Modernist theorists wanted to make people abandon hope, to inspire them to revolution and the destruction of Western civilization, in the blind hope that something perfect would be born from its ashes.
So paralyzing artists with fear by telling them that art means stripping naked in public isn’t a bug of Modernism, it’s a feature.
What should be abandoned is not hope, but the search for “redemption”. I don’t even know what that word could possibly mean in this imperfect, material world, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. I would say, rather: The possibility of improvement presents itself only when the quest for perfection has finally been abandoned.
There is room for all kinds of art. But the kind most likely to do us good is art that aspires sincerely to be great, not art that despairs of perfection.
 I very much like some instances of these things, but they’re still examples of this impulse to avoid accountability.
David Matthews, 2017. Review of (Ullyot 2016). Speculum 92(2): 595-6.
Jonathan Ullyot, 2016. The Medieval Presence in Modernist Literature: The Quest to Fail. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-1-107-13148-4. doi:10.1086/690493