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Aug
29th
2018

Disturbing the Sound of Silence · 7:53pm August 29th

Disturbing the Sound of Silence

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

Yesterday

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 rhythym, 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.  As Soge pointed out in the comments here, 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 [1], 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.

Have Hope

(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.


[1] I very much like some instances of these things, but they're still examples of this impulse to avoid accountability.


References

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

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Comments ( 29 )

One thing to keep in mind when speaking of Modernist artists and writers, something that many of their critics fail to understand, is that they were in many ways a reaction to a very repressive and creatively stultifying art culture based around the académie system, rigidly defined rules of art and artistic expression. The rebellion was started by the Impressionists, and continued by the Expressionists and others who followed them; much as the same way the Realist/Naturalist movement was a rejection of the allegory/symbolism-heavy Romanticism that dominated French art of the preceding period. Some, obviously, took the rebellion to extremes, but exploring extremes is not necessarily a bad thing, it helps to expand the "vocabulary" of art.

A shame I can't listen to the cover at work. Still, thank you for a strangely inspirational blog post.

4927978
It's all kinds of good. Trust me.

You raise a lot of good points, here, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It's why I write what I do and how I do: I don't want to be trapped in a niche, or thought of for only one type of story.

This reminds me of Lifeforce's cover of VNV Nation's "Further":

Lifeforce's cover became internet-famous after an edited version was used as the credits music for the indie game Iji. It's very different from Lifeforce's usual style, and instead highlighted their emotional interpretation of the original (which perfectly matched the ending of the game):

Fascinating take on it all, though I take a different interpretation of what Bruce Lee means there. I parse what he is saying as 'I do not believe in adopting a 'style', because the instant you accept a style you are boxing yourself in. To not have a style means to grow, and change' - and so in his case, for example, that would mean how he fought would evolve and change over time; that the self-expression he means relates to you being authentic to yourself, to doing things to the best of your ability at that moment, and what form that may take will shift and change.

I also would contend that your art is expressing yourself. It may not be about baring your soul to the world, but whenever you create art you are sharing something. That sharing may be something simple like 'I think it would be fun to have another story where Sunset & Twilight kiss and I have a fun idea for that', or something more complex like Get Out being commentary on contemporary American racism, or something intensely personal like stories or music that is drawn from one's demons and past traumas.

In all of the above, though, you are expressing yourself, even if that expression is limited to your take on how you think Sunset & Twilight should totally kiss.

Disturbed is trying to make it good, yes, but they're doing it in a way that's unique to them. If you had 500 musicians all cover Sound of Silence and try to make it as good as possible, you would still get 500 different performances, because they would have 500 different ways of chasing that good, and their own experiences & thoughts & beliefs would shape that, even if their ultimate goal was 'Create as good a cover as possible'.

So yea - I feel there's a confabulation going on here, between 'Self-expression means the story is about you as a person' when at least Bruce Lee means 'Self-expression means that when doing something to the best of your ability it must inherently be self-expressive, because that ability is part of who you are and differs from person to person.'

4928029

I also would contend that your art is expressing yourself. It may not be about baring your soul to the world, but whenever you create art you are sharing something.

Indeed, finding one's "voice" is an important part of creating art. To reference the OP, I'd challenge the assertion in the Make It Common section. Making something intentionally universal is a recipe for making something bland and uninteresting. At that point, it is nothing more than a trope played straight, and will be less likely that anyone will be able to identify with it. Make it personal, idiosyncratic, and the parts that are universal will resonate, and it will be easier to identify with.

David Koresh was a ridiculous example, because it wasn't art, it was never intended to be art, it was nothing more than his attempt to control other people for his own benefit. People didn't think he was nuts because he was "distinctive and unique", they thought he was nuts because he was trying to create a religion that was aggrandizing him while harming other people. Self-declared messiahs are neither "distinctive" nor "unique"; history abounds with them, secular as well as religious, and they're all depressingly similar.

this has a lot in common with the concept of Mushin. There's the idea of freeing oneself from anger/fear/ego, which I think to be common features of modernism you highlight here (tear down civilization, fear of failure, must have unique style). If the objective "perfect style" doesn't exist, the goal instead is total freedom and flexibility.

I disagree slightly on avoiding expressing yourself, more that the nuance is to avoid the preoccupation of self-expression, which is what builds inhibitions in the mind. Great artists who have the skill to express themselves aren't consciously trying to do so for their ego, it just comes out naturally. At least in my experience.

Bruce Lee was totally about finding things in common with his audience as well. The "audience" is the guy he's about to beat up, and the common ground is where his fist hits the face :trollestia:

4927978
I’m surprised you haven’t heard it yet.

I love that cover too. It's a shame so many people piss and moan about it.

I swear, though, there are a bunch of covers of Simon/Garfunkel songs that I like even better than their versions.

This is one of them. The Bangles' Hazy Shade of Winter is another.

4928029 "...If you had 500 musicians all cover Sound of Silence and try to make it as good as possible, you would still get 500 different performances..."

Um. Within reason. I collected Christmas music off UUNET for a while and have about 40 gig of it. *Everybody* made a Christmas album. Every German, Swiss, Italian, Jewish (yes, there's a lot of them), Japanese, etc... band and group from 1950-1990 cut a vinyl album full of the stuff.

Guess how many copies of Jingle Bells are in there? Answer: Don't make me count. Heck, I even have Jingle Dogs and Jingle Cats (two different albums). I seriously wanted to set up a MP3 player with nothing but that song on it and stick it in the walls somewhere on infinite repeat around November just to see how long it would take people to crack.

...is my response to this.

4928070
I mean, you might go mad listening to 500 different covers of Jingle Bells, but each would still be different even if perhaps the differences in some versions were super small

And once again I'm a touch too stupid for a Bad Horse blog.
4927978
It's very very good.

4928048
Not exactly my usual genre of choice.

4928136
It is. Holy crap.

4928142
As far as "good covers" go, it's on par with Johnny Cash's version of Hurt

4928077
I’m so glad this exists.

That deities damned "leaving" instead of "sleeping". Can't unhear it.

I don't really care much for the cover, I find the tempo is too slow compared to the original. And the original wasn't that fastest tempo around. But it is a very good cover beyond that.

I think the Nightcore remix hits that perfect sweet spot between the Disturbed cover and original Simon & Garfunkel though.
Linked here -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lcw1GyZa924

Still uses that :yay:ing "leaving" though.

Linking
4927988, 4928136 and 4928142 to share Nightcore.

I love Nightcore, they have a couple of "misses" but for the most part they really nail a remix.

The possibility of improvement presents itself only when the quest for perfection has finally been abandoned.

I like what Abathur from StarCraft II has to say about "perfection". -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw_GN3v-0Ls
Don't think you can "catch" perfection, but that does not mean that you should stop pursuing it.

4928204
"Nightcore" isn't music. It's just... take a song and kick the BPM up a touch.

4928029 4928032 4928042
After reading your comments, I rewrote the section "Make it Common" to clarify what I mean and why I believe it.

Make it personal, idiosyncratic, and the parts that are universal will resonate, and it will be easier to identify with.

I don't think there's any reason to believe that. The stories that have resonated most with people throughout history have been the stories told by the different religions, most of which were cobbled together over centuries by thousands of different people. Same with "Homer": There was no one Homer; we know that epic poems in ancient Greece were made gradually, by countless storytellers telling them and changing them in response to the audience reaction.

4928204

Don't think you can "catch" perfection, but that does not mean that you should stop pursuing it.

I'm going to write a bunch of future blog posts on this, but--I believe that, except for mathematics and for creations whose "goodness" is defined in terms of some equation that can be solved analytically, the very concept of "perfection" is inherently destructive. For the claim that something is "perfect" to make sense, you have to assume there is one true, correct way of making or doing that thing. The perfect car must be some color, and that implies that all other car colors are inferior.

So that assumption turns out to be responsible for many of the bloodiest episodes in Western history. It teaches people to believe that if they're doing something right, everyone else must be doing it wrong, and should be stopped.

Instead of perfection, seek improvement. "Improvement" is a simpler concept, that makes sense without any weird Platonic metaphysical assumptions.

4928218

But the characters and stories were not reduced to simple tropes, but merely adapted to each change in culture, and embellished along the way. The characters are still distinctive.

Plain tropes are easier to understand, especially across cultures, but they are a lot less interesting. Personality quirks, idiosyncracies, and eccentricities are what makes a character and a situation interesting.

Ultimately you want something that is similar enough to feel familiar, but different enough to be distinct and interesting and not more of the same. I don't want to read someone talking about my life, I want to read someone talking about their life, and enjoy the complex interplay. And I think most people feel the same.

4928239

Ultimately you want something that is similar enough to feel familiar, but different enough to be distinct and interesting and not more of the same.

I agree with that. But I don't see the connection between writing distinctive characters, and needing to have some unique aspect of my personality, or of wanting to express it. I'm not my characters. Creating a character is a cognitive process, not osmosis. And creating a distinctive character is not such a high bar that you need something unique to clear it.

Distinctiveness is important, but many different ways of being distinct are equivalent as far as story impact. The small variations due to my weirdness may succeed in making a character distinct, but many other types of weirdness would have served equally well, and so the uniqueness of my weirdness deserves no special attention.

I would actually argue that Disturbed did make the cover their own. They didn't stop at just emulating the song, or tried to mock it as something which would fall into their broader categorization. Instead, they took the original song, and covered it using their own musical sensibilities. This shifts the quiet, resolute melancholy of the original into a fierce, intense challenge against melancholy, all the while backed by a catchy, poppy tune. And that sits perfectly well with the band's Nu Metal, given how the genre intersects pop punk and bay-area thrash metal.

Superficially it isn't like something that sits perfectly alongside, say, "Down with the Sickness". However, just because it lacks harsh vocals or distorted guitars, it doesn't mean that this isn't trying to convey the type of thing the band typically conveys. As much as Metal purists would like to deny, it isn't the superficial style markers that make the music, but rather the intent behind it.

In recent years, I've come to really respect Disturbed as a cover artist specifically. Oddly enough, my favourite thing they've done is their cover of Genesis' 1986 hit Land of Confusion, in a way that has almost nothing to do with the cover itself and everything to do with context. Let me explain:

In 1986, lead singer Peter Gabriel was 36 years old, a full generation removed from his core audience. The song pretty much speaks for itself, decrying abuse of power and the lack of human compassion, pretty timeless themes for the young and angry. It's a good song, and also very much what you'd expect to eventually fall into Disturbed's wheelhouse by default. But the last verse is noteworthy, because it makes a slightly more dubious claim:

I won't be coming home tonight
My generation will put it right
We're not just making promises
That we know we'll never keep

And if that had been the last of it 40 years ago, it would have just been a funny retrospective "Oh well, nice work Peter, you definitely fixed everything" moment. But then Disturbed covered it in 2005 for a new generation.

David Draiman was 32 years old. It's hard to tell if the original line was said in an ironic context, but Draiman is a smart man and there's no way he wasn't aware that in covering a 19-year-old song, his version was definitely ironic. I'll concede that the cover isn't very unique in and of itself, excepting that the accompanying music video might be even more over-the-top and goofy than the original. Still, there is some kind of mad genius to this. It might be a sign of my morbid of sense of humor, but I think if we can just have somebody in their mid-thirties cover this song every two decades and pass the torch along, it'd be a beautiful thing. I just hope we have some talented rockers in 2024.

4928346 I think you're right about changing "the quiet, resolute melancholy of the original into a fierce, intense challenge against melancholy". So they did put their mark on it. I reworded my post a bit.

I still think, though, that they didn't impose a "distinctive" style on it, where "distinctive" means that someone listening to a snatch of it could say, "Oh, yeah, that's Disturbed."

The Beatles made a lot of music in a lot of different styles. All of it was affected by the sensibilities of the Beatles, but they still didn't have a distinctive style. Sensibility is not style; "style" in art is usually opposed to "content" or "representation". I added a paragraph about that under "Make it Good".

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.

Oof, yeah. Don't do the writeoff if you're in this rut, kids.

4928421
Yeah, distinct is not the right word here — and I am not familiar enough with disturbed to even identify it. It would be more correct to say that they put a personal mark, coming from their musical history..

4928346

I would actually argue that Disturbed did make the cover their own. They didn't stop at just emulating the song, or tried to mock it as something which would fall into their broader categorization. Instead, they took the original song, and covered it using their own musical sensibilities.

I just re-listened to the song (for completely unrelated reasons) and I strongly agree with this. The version they did is less a departure from the original than many other covers of it that I've heard, but it is still distinctly their style. I could listen to this and recognize the artist. The mark is not as dramatic as some, in fact it's pleasantly subtle compared to a lot of covers, but it's still there.

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