Music that lasts

I was recently having a discussion about Zeitgeist. No, not the concept of a spirit of the age or spirit of the time, I mean the 2007 album from the (not) Smashing Pumpkins. I’ve been a massive fan of the Smashing Pumpkins’ music since about 1994 (wow, 20 years!) but have to say that Zeitgeist was the last of their albums I bought and I don’t listen to it, Ava Adore (1998), nor Machina (2000). Essentially, I’m no longer a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, I’m a fan of their early work only.

What amazes me is you can listen to Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), Mellon Collie (1995), even their b-sides album Pieces Iscariot (1994), and they still hold up really well. With the exception of the song Untitled (from their retrospective Rotten Apples, 2001) and maybe Tarantula (from Zeitgeist), the Smashing Pumpkins haven’t released a song or album that compares to any of the material on those early albums. With the more recent material the songs sound unfinished. When old b-sides sound better than your new a-sides, you really have to question what you’re doing.

But this isn’t just about the Smashing Pumpkins, name a Rolling Stones song released in the last 30 years (i.e. everything post Dirty Work from 1983). Can’t, can you!? They’ve released 5 studio albums and countless – well you can count them, but who cares to – live and collection albums in that time. Fans everywhere dread this announcement at a Rolling Stones concert, “And here’s a song from our new album.”

There are a few factors at play here: the idea of talent and inspiration meeting, the idea that even great artists can’t continue at that elite level indefinitely, and the idea that some art is transitory whilst some is timeless. I’ll leave the first two points for another day, the latter point gives me an opportunity to insult pop music.

Some art, music, TV, movies, books, etc, rise through the charts, become hugely popular, and dominate the media. Then a few years later everyone is embarrassed to talk about those artists and art, digging a deep pit of denial to throw those pieces of crap where they will never be found again. I’ve discussed this before in my article on Good versus Popular, suggesting that popular music/art/things aren’t necessarily good and that time and perspective sort the wheat out from the chaff. Some of the music we enjoy is just because it is played everywhere we go. Some music just filled a hole in the age bracket or life journey, such as Limp Bizkit for all the angry teens, or Placebo with their dark depressing (teen) angst music. A decade on and you’d battle to find anyone who would admit to having bought a Limp Bizkit album, and when I recently relistened to those albums I wondered how I ever listened to that junk.

So what music (or art) lasts? Is it immediately obvious? What lasts isn’t easy to define, because I would never have picked Yellow Submarine to last in the same way that Get Back has. A kid’s song versus a satire of attitudes to immigration in the UK. Would we even listen to Yellow Submarine now if it hadn’t been a Beatles song or bland and inoffensive enough be played to us as kids in primary school? I digress. I think the answer to what will last is often, but not always, immediately obvious. And what lasts is rarely categorised by the prefix* pop.

Take for example everyone’s current objects of pop music derision: Justin Bieber (or Miley Cyrus, whichever you prefer to hate more). Bieber’s music is popular, he’s famous as a result, and I don’t think anyone would argue that his music will be forgotten in 5 years time and laughed at in 10, much like The Spice Girls. Remember them? Me neither. We** already know his music won’t last. And how about an example of something that will stand the test of time…. Wow, this is the part where I admit I’m a metal fan and haven’t listened to ‘commercial’ music in over a decade. I’d say Daft Punk’s most recent work will last, but they have been around for over a decade now, so hard to call them a new artist.

But I will give you another prediction, Pearl Jam will be my generation’s Rolling Stones. They will be still touring long after anyone has realised they still record new albums. And people will go to see them live because of those first few albums that everyone loved and still loves.

Essentially I think that lasting comes down to quality. I’m not talking about the recording studio, production values, or hair gel and dance routines. I’m talking about the quality that arises from talent and inspiration meeting. Bob Dylan’s songs had terrible production and his voice sounds like someone gargling gravel, whilst strangling a cat as their foot is fed into a wood chipper. Yet he had talent and inspiration, subsequently capturing the zeitgeist and lasting (see what I did there). But that music/art has to find a fanbase, whether immediately, or growing it over time as Led Zeppelin did. Now the only question remains: which is better, to last or to grab the headlines for 15 minutes?***

* Yeah, I know, not actually a prefix, more of a noun or adjective dependant upon the context.
** Having not ever heard any of Justin Bieber’s music and only accidentally heard part of a Miley Cyrus song at the gym, I can’t actually judge how good or bad their music is and how long it will last. I’m basing my judgement upon what has happened with previous pop stars.
*** The answer is easy: to last. If everyone forgets your 15 minutes did you even have those 15 minutes?

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Inspiration

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At one of the places I worked there used to be motivational posters on the wall. I know that most of the quotes and pictures are meant to inspire but I’d really question who gets inspired by a pretty picture with a cheap phrase underneath. If that is the sort of stuff that inspires you then you really have to question how long your job will be around before a robot takes your place. Inspiration can come from many places and I’m sure that somewhere, someone, might have been inspired by a pithy quote or cool picture. They may have even created an ad campaign to sell toilet paper so that people can wipe their backsides with the glee of the pithy quote.

I think that inspiration is actually more like a playful kitten stalking a fly. The fly is just sitting around, minding its own fly-y business, taking a break between eating garbage and flying up people’s noses. The kitten is creeping up on the fly, thinking it is a lion about to pounce on an unsuspecting prey, that the kitten can’t be seen, despite the vigorous tail twitching in the air. As the kitten pounces, the fly, calmly, buzzes off to see if it can annoy someone, the kitten comes crashing down, bringing the urn with your dad’s ashes in it, smashing onto the floor. On the rare occasion that the kitten catches the fly and doesn’t destroy valuable items around the house, that is inspiration. The one off moment when your brain comes up with the most amazing idea that has ever occurred. An idea that will reshape humanity. An idea that will see you showered in champagne, chocolate and high priced hookers.

An idea that will have to wait until morning, because you were just about to fall asleep.

See also: John Cleese on Creativity

The surprising decline in violence

Damn. How can a thriller or crime writer make a crust if violence is declining?

I know that we writers are generally known for writing fiction, but we readers – yes, I’m both – are also a fickle bunch who like things to have a level of realism to them. We need there to be a basis for our stories so that you can become more emotionally involved with the protagonists. If violence keeps declining then thriller and crime authors are going to have to look to the sensationalism of media reporting for story ideas. I think we can all agree that you can’t base fiction upon fiction.

Intelligent life

You may all think that I’m primarily a crime thriller kinda guy, a lot of the book reviews I post here are for crime, crime thrillers and thrillers. My current work in progress is also a crime thriller. So I clearly fit into a very neat little box created out of stacks of James Patterson releases for the month. But I like a lot of genres, I think most readers do, in fact I’d go as far as to say that all readers read more than one genre unless they are still battling with Where’s Waldo.

Needless to say, despite my current work – and several others in the pipeline – being crime thrillers, I have several outlines for stories in other genres. One of my first big ideas – quite literally, as I have a 50 page synopsis and several instalments plotted – was for a sci-fi story. Think Jack Reacher crossed with Jet Li (Did you know Jet Li is a real life hero?) inspired by Heinlein. Anyway, the main character, Caleb, is the last of his kind and is trying to save humans from themselves, whether that be leading a civil war, or deposing dictators at the various human colonies. Of course there have to be aliens in space.

The problem I’ve always had with aliens in books and movies is that they are too much like us. On Star Trek they could even pass for us, as long as they wore a headband.
But it isn’t just that they look so much like us, why would aliens even think of us as awesome? Would humans be actually interesting to aliens? If aliens are watching our broadcasts you could just about guarantee that they don’t consider any of the life on this planet intelligent.

Alien: So you consider your race intelligent?
Human: Why yes.
Alien: Explain Glenn Beck.
Human: Okay, some of us aren’t as…
Alien: And you dig up stored gases to change your atmosphere so that it wrecks your climate.
Human: But we needed fuel for power. We’ve got solutions to that now.
Alien: One word: Politicians.
Human: Please don’t wipe out our planet!

So in my alien research for my novel/s I finally found inspiration. Who better to inspire me than Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins?*

See the rest of the discussion between Dawkins and DeGrasse here.

*Yes Carl Sagan would be inspirational too, but he isn’t in the video.

Inspiration – TV that is actually worth watching

Amazingly enough, I think that books and TV are compatible. If you were to ask my wife she would nod and agree as well, as she reads through most TV and enjoys the ambience. There are some fantastic TV shows out there that not only inspire, but they are also written not unlike a novel.

Generally a movie has to take a book and cut out every second page, in anything longer than a short story they often just take the title page. In this manner, they can squeeze all the wonder and joy of a novel into 90 minutes of unrelated drivel. TV doesn’t run for 90 minutes, it has much longer to develop characters, story arcs, plot, and in-jokes that you wonder about enough to read the director’s blog to understand what the hell is going on. As a result TV and the novel can have a lot in common.

I say that TV can have a lot in common with a novel, not that it always does, as that would be assuming that a novel writer could get away with a procedural crime drama that is always solved by identifying semen left at the crime scene. So the shows that do actually rise to great heights tend to be few and far between, or they get cancelled by a network executive who realises that the show may actually be interesting – yes Fox, I’m still pissed about Firefly!

So what are the good TV shows I’m talking about? Well, let’s go with a list, shall we?

Oz:

Justified:

Read the short story that Justified is based upon here.

Deadwood:

The Wire:

Now I could go on and add other shows I like (Leverage, Firefly, Daria, Family Guy, The Simpsons before they sucked) but this really is enough to illustrate my point. Oz was an amazing show with such a diverse range of characters. Justified is so good that Elmore Leonard not only approved it but came on board to write some episodes. Deadwood was so good the censors felt obliged to leave in the occasional curse word used. The Wire attracted some of the best crime writers to the production team because they saw the depth and intricacy this show had.

So the entire point of this blog post may have been an excuse for me to write something other than my novel while I grab the next episode of Justified, but that doesn’t mean that quality TV and quality novels don’t have a lot in common – bloody good writers who don’t get paid nearly enough. I’ll leave you with two links to an interview with David Simon, the creator of The Wire. Fascinating stuff!
Part 1
Part 2