Karaoke Nation

While driving to work, I heard on the radio a band that was obviously trying to be Radiohead. I’m not sure who they were, but they had all the signs of an imitator band: a similar sound, similar chord progressions, me-too vocal technique. It started me off thinking about something that has been bugging the back of my brain a lot about art, and influence.

Some great artists are bad influences. By this I mean that their work is original and very good, and should be celebrated, but the other artists who take them as an influence end up as imitators or have their style irreparably damaged. Some examples in a variety of arts are:

  • The aforementioned Radiohead
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Monet
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Tom Robbins
  • U2
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Salvador Dalí
  • James Joyce

There’s another list, of artists that people can lift things from or even imitate, and it doesn’t look so bad. In fact, noting the comparison can be a compliment:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • George Orwell
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Bob Dylan
  • Proust
  • James Brown
  • Sister Corita
  • The Beatles
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Raymond Carver
  • Agatha Christie

If your band sounds “stonesy” or “dylanesque” or your fiction is said to recall Borges, you’re stylin’. People like you. You echo the Greats.

So what’s the difference? The “don’t imitate” list people certainly all have definite styles. Easily parodied, even. Like an actor with a big nose, the artists in the first list excel but also are known for quirks. The imitators end up with the quirks and not the genius. Perhaps the quirks and the real quality that made them famous are more intertwined.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Karaoke Nation

  1. Hrm. When I look at my own personality, I sometimes wonder if I would be the same person if you took out the crazy bits. I mean, of course I wouldn’t, but you know… if you could untwist the big ball of yarn and take out the worst bits and leave in the good bits… who would you be? Would I be able to knit as well if I weren’t somewhat obsessive compulsive, would I be as empathetic if I hadn’t had a life that required empathy?
    I think it’s a lot easier for humans to look at the big picture and say “woo hoo, that guy drank every day! If I do that, I can be angsty and brilliant too!”. Well sure, one drinks, but why? And one still must sit in front of the typewriter for 8 hours a day cranking shit out — maybe that’s why the guy is angsty? Anyway, what I guess I mean is that it’s a lot easier for people to absorb quirks than to either do the perspiration aspect of brilliance or to admit that one really doesn’t have the true inspiration aspect of it. It’s easier to say “I just haven’t been able to get one of my nuts shot off yet, but once I do, I’ll be really great!” than to say “I am just not as good of a writer as X.” Our society places so much importance on what we do that it becomes who we are — and admitting that we have not become what we thought we could makes us losers or something. Patently untrue, but I guess we can’t shrug off Puritanism overnight.

  2. one of my all time favortie rocks bands was – and still is- Spirit; I think their first 3 albums are as good as anything that came out of the late 60’s . When I saw them in the 70’s, guitarist Randy California had taken to doing a Hendrix tribute, complete with headband and lousy version of “Like a Rolling Stone” and I always thought of California as a huge bozo after that; ditto Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughn not to mention Randy Hansen. There is no such thing as a good imitation of Jimi Hendrix. It is impossible

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