Sunday, March 04, 2012
Ode to the One-Hit Wonder
Tonight I discovered a song used as the background music on a YouTube video, and I liked it so much, I purchased it on iTunes (the song, not the video). This got me thinking about one-hit wonders. I haven’t listened to the rest of this artist’s catalog. I may end up loving more of it. But this song is sufficient. That fact should make us stop and reexamine our relationship to art.
Pundits, recording artists, and cultural critics have weighed-in to lament the decline of the concept album, and I’m not going to argue that. If the album is the complete work, it is a shame that iTunes may kill that form. But if the album is only a collection of isolated works, what’s wrong with buying songs individually? If someone asked me if I were a “fan” of an artist on my MP3 player who only holds a single slot, I’d shrug and say, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I only own one of her songs.” Why am I compelled to distance myself from an artist because I don’t like the majority of her work? Even if I absolutely hated 99% of an artist’s work, if one single piece spoke to me in a profound way, isn’t that enough to create the kind of artist-audience connection every artist and audience seeks? And if the artist sustained that relationship for only three minutes of a single song, during those three minutes, am I not a fan?
Pragmatism dictates that the incalculable mixture of discipline and inborn talent which produce a single work capable of creating a strong artist-audience connection will generally prove repeatable, at least to some degree. Beethoven can write his fifth symphony, and those same skills and talent can also combine to produce the “Ode to Joy.” But I would scream it from the mountaintops: The “Ode to Joy” is enough. It is sufficient. If Beethoven were alive today and only wrote that one song, and you stumbled upon it in iTunes, even if you went through Beethoven’s other listings and found nothing but songs that sounded like amateur covers of songs by Slipknot, you’d be hard-pressed not to admit that, for a brief moment, this Ludwig guy must have been touched by the hand of God himself. The Slipknot fans would hate that weird outlier of a song, but you could listen to it and love it and, despite all the embarrassment caused by the association with his other horrible music, you would be a Beethoven fan.
I find this notion inspiring. I tell my creative writing students that they need to think of their work as art, and that they can compare the process by which they learn the craft to the hours of study that go into learning to compose music, the agony and excitement a painter feels when faced with a stubbornly blank canvas, and the grueling demands embraced eagerly by ballet dancers. Sure, we don’t put on toe-shoes and dance until our feet bleed. Our backache, eye strain, and carpal tunnel may not engender the same sympathy, but if you don’t think the analogy holds, I don’t think you’re writing enough. So this idea of the one-hit wonder should fill us with hope. We don’t have to write the 37 plays of Shakespeare. They weren’t all perfect, anyway. We don’t have to write (and edit) the 500 works of Isaac Asimov. Lots of those were absolute stinkers. We don’t have to write the 49 novels of Stephen King. I think he’d admit he’s not as talented as Shakespeare nor as prolific as Asimov. He’d also admit that not all of his novels are successful. But that’s okay. Because just one is enough. Harper Lee wrote a whopping ONE novel. So far, Arundhati Roy has only written one as well. If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird or The God of Small Things, consider them assigned reading and buy yourself copies immediately. They can each prove that one masterpiece is sufficient.
It doesn’t have to be a novel, of course. Write a short story as good as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Write a script as good as Zach Helm’s Stranger Than Fiction. Write a poem as inspiring and heartbreaking as Stephen Crane’s (36 word) “I saw a man pursuing the horizon.” Write lyrics as good as The Indelicates’ “Savages.” Those works were all good enough to make me an instant fan of the artists as soon as I read/watched/listened to their work.
So, whatever it is, just write it. If it’s not good enough, try again. It only takes one.