Why rules matters.
Over the weekend, I was reading Stephen Sondheim’s fantastic semi-autobiography – really, a commentary on his lyrics over the years – Finishing the Hat. Sondheim’s brilliant, of course, and his use of language is exact – the rhymes and rhythmic schemes in Sweeney Todd are simply spectacular. Sondheim asks the question, though, whether such linguistic playfulness is worthwhile. He does so by quoting an anonymous pop composer, X – some have suggested it’s Pete Townshend of The Who – dismissing rhyme as unimportant in lyrics: “I hate all true rhymes [i.e. red and bed, as opposed to false rhymes, like home and alone]. I think they only allow you a certain limited range …. I’m not a great believer in perfect rhymes. I’m just a believer in feelings that come across. If the craft gets in the way of the feelings then I’ll take the feelings any day.”
Sondheim caustically observes, “Claiming that true rhyme is the enemy of substance is the sustaining excuse of lyricists who are unable to rhyme well with any consistency … The point which X overlooks is that the craft is supposed to serve the feeling. A good lyric should not only have something to say but a way of saying it as clearly and forcefully as possible – and that involves rhyming cleanly. A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line bright and a good one brilliant. A near rhyme only dampens the impact.”
And yet it is X’s view that has won out in today’s culture. Turn on a pop station, and listen to the non-rhymes and false rhymes that predominate. The supposed genius of Eminem is no more than false genius – his most celebrated lyric, “Lose It,” is a fragmentary agglomeration of false rhymes and forced rhymes, or the simplest of rhymes. His chorus rhymes “go,” “blow,” and most strained, “yo.” He also rhymes “heavy” with “spaghetti” and “ready” – none of which actually rhyme. This is typical in rap, where the emotion of the beat and the syllabic rhythm are supposed to overcome the loose use of language. Ideally, you’d expect rap to be the most exacting in its adherence to the rules of rhyme – after all, there’s generally no melody or harmony to the “music.” But to expect rappers to abide by rules is to hamstring them, supposedly.
Unfortunately, art as a general matter seems to have followed X’s path. Breaking rules has become more important than using them in service to better art. Breaking the rules on occasion can be necessary and even scintillatingly fresh, but you have to know the rules in order to break them at the right time. As a friend once pointed out, “There’s a difference between Miles Davis and the guy on the street corner. Miles knew the rules, and he knew when to break them.”
While in London, my wife and I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum (one of the most underrated museums in the world). At my wife’s behest, we made straight for an exhibit displaying the history of world jewelry. The earliest jewelry had been crafted in 1500 BCE. As we moved down the timeline, the jewelry became more and more sophisticated, following newly-developed rules – until we reached the 1960s. At that point, the jewelry began to regress in complexity and craftsmanship, to the point that when we reached modern jewelry, it looked substantially like the jewelry from 1500 BCE.
The same has held true in painting. Take a look at the difference between Da Vinci and Caravaggio and it’s easy to see the progression. Follow the line forward and the art becomes more and more realistic. With the invention of the camera, realism in art became secondary to emotion; artists responded by embracing the passionate imagism of Renoir and Monet. But with the rules beginning to come apart at the seams, it was a short road from Monet to Jackson Pollock, and from Pollock to the nonsense you see on museum walls that look identical to finger-painting on your fridge.
Craftsmanship is no longer a mark of value. It’s the “sense of the thing” that matters these days. How difficult would it be for Hollywood to hire a few grammar-checkers on its scripts? Yet how many movies have you seen where someone screws up third-grade rules like when to use “me” and “I”? Why are teenagers and forty-year-olds reading the same books? Because literature has bifurcated into rule-breaking impressionism like Dom DeLillo or Salman Rushdie and clear storytelling with cliché-ridden language like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King (literary critic Harold Bloom rightly slammed King as “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis”). And the temptation for adults is to treat Rowling or King like real literature, since they’re spending so much time reading it. Do adults really want to admit browsing through the bookshelf right next to Encyclopedia Brown or Danielle Steele?
The evocative and the provocative have replaced the polished and the skillful. And eventually, evocative and provocative are no longer interesting. In a world with no rules, there are no rules to break. Everything becomes “art.” And when everything is art, nothing is art. It’s drek.
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