I love music that is new and fresh, music that finds a new space on what we might call the musical landscape. However, I also find it difficult to listen to music that does not have very obvious influences. I think influences ground me. They give me a lens through which to view the entire work.
I have recently been listening to How to Dress Well’s newest album Total Loss. It is an album that is thoroughly grounded in R&B. I don’t particularly enjoy R&B music but I do enjoy this album. I think it is because while it is grounded in R&B it is defined by the space in between the music, the places where it is quiet and allowed to breathe, making music that is entirely defined by the artist’s vision.
Art is a very strange thing. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that all art is some combination of influence and originality. It is also strange because we chide some art for being too influenced, too like something that came before it, and we praise other art for being a perfect homage to a particular form or genre.
I also find it interesting that sometimes we praise influenced art for being original and original art for how well it uses their influences. Take Weird Al for example: I would bet that if you searched for reviews of his music you would find a lot more comments about his originality than his influences. Or perhaps the film Dark City: a quick search at rottentomatoes.com reveals that reviews of the film talk much more about its obvious film noir and sci-fi influence than its stunning originality. Is this because Weird Al’s parodies are so obviously influenced by the songs they parody that the influence does not even need to be mentioned? Do we talk about Dark City’s influences because it is so stunningly original that we do not know how to review it without first putting it in some context?
Would Total Loss be good if it was another run if the mill R&B record, recycling the same beats and melody lines that have been done many times before. Probably not. But it also would not be very effective if it tried to blaze its own course without looking at other musical landscapes to guide it. The best conclusion that I can come to is this; because it is original the artist takes me to the place they want me to go but because of its influences I know where to start.