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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

On Voice and Style, and other things

So as I was driving into the dayjob this afternoon, I was amused by the station ID on the somewhat lame local hard rock station that informed me that I wouldn't hear any of that four-decade old crap here! Followed by the opening strains of Aerosmith's "Dream On." The thirty year old crap, apparently, still gets airplay...

Anyway, indulging in a little channel surfing, I was rewarded with Squeeze (Tempted) on the crappy 80's station, Led Zeppelin (Rock And Roll) on Jack FM, and Led Zeppelin (Black Dog) on the "Classic Rock" station. One more button to press, and there I heard a guitar riff I didn't recognize. Half a bar, and I thought, "This is a new ZZ Top song."

It was "Pincushion," (which isn't a new song, by any means, but I'd never heard it before) and as soon as I heard the vocals I knew my guess had been correct. And it struck me, you know, I recognized the style from a couple of bends on an electric guitar.

Now, I'm not a musician. I don't even play one on TV. But it struck me, suddenly, how cool it was that not only could I immediately identify the style of a band I don't particularly follow, but that I relaxed a little when I heard it, because I was reasonably sure I was in competent hands, and I was going to hear something that suited my mood just then.

Which got me thinking about how that applies to my own art. And how much of that legendary million words of shit is the process of developing that voice, that style, that confidence and command of one's instrument.

Anybody who's ever listened to a friend's garage band or a Cinderella album knows exactly what I mean by this, and so too does anybody who's ever real slush. Those songs and those stories have a tendency to blend together, kind of anonymously, without giving the sense of a clear voice rising out of the noise. They're perfectly competent, but they're not realized. In other words, they don't stand out.

On the other hand, better-than-competent musicianship or writing is indelible. One may not care for it (witness my flipping past the two Led Zeppelin songs before settling on the ZZ Top--I don't think I'm going to get a lot of argument when I say that Jimmy Page is probably a better guitarist than Billy Gibbons, but I just wasn't in the mood for Led Zeppelin at the time) but it's identifiable. Vocalists call this finding your voice.

And one can put on masks over that, once it's found--one can pull stylistic tricks and show off and pastiche other artists (Jimmy Buffett does a deadly Elvis Presley)--but it's that basic emergent command of one's instrument that causes the listener or the reader to stop and go "Oh."

Which is why, oddly enough, the flaws of a writer's style are as important to his success as the triumphs. BBecause limitations are part of that identifiable identity, too.

And it's also why "good enough" isn't good enough for a professional artist, and the goal is excellence.

It's not enough not to do anything wrong. You have to own your art.


Taking the music as metaphor a step further, where you use your voice can make it recognizable or absolutely invisible. Years ago, there was a guitarist in the punk rock scene in DC who was not only one of the rising stars, but unbelievably identifiable. Not just competent, and not just someone with all flair, but simply a style of playing that it'd only take a chord or two before the listener would say, "wait a minute, is that Brian?" He started out playing, at the tender age of fifteen or sixteen, for Marginal Man, and then went on to playing with Dag Nasty (still one of my favorite when-I-want-to-remember-being-young bands to listen to).

When Dag Nasty moved out to California with hopes of making it big with a "real" record label, they had the misfortune of signing up with someone who spends on the flash of a "first" record and then ignores any additional output if the first wasn't an all-time best seller. Dag Nasty broke up under the pressure, and Brian disappeared along with the rest of them.

About four years later, I was at home for the weekend and watching Heavy Metal Ball on MTV with my sister, because we'd both gotten home early from dates and there was nothing better on. The veejay announces he's got a great new video from some band--Junkyard Dog, I think it was called--and the guitarist was introduced as only "a kid with a long history in punk". Uh, that could be a lot of people, but when the video started playing, I immediately recognized Brian by looks, even with a lot more hair than he'd had five years earlier.

What I didn't recognize was his guitar. I listened, I waited, I was excited to hear his familiar riffs and flair, and...then I realized. All along the reason he'd stood out in punk music was because he was playing the standard punk songs in a heavy metal style. It wasn't that he'd necessarily had a personal style so much as he'd found a way, apparently, to merge seamlessly a rather rough, choppy punk style with the more fluid metal style. And thus, in the world of punk rock, he shined. In the world of heavy metal...he sounded just like everyone else.

That's always stuck with me. You can use a genre's stylistic elements effectively within that genre, or you can find a voice that's a decent representation of a different genre, but by changing its environment, you flip everything on its head and suddenly you're quite distinctive. Mieville makes me think of that, with his beat-poetry kind of writing but in urban fantasy; in straight literature, he'd be one of a huge crowd, I think. Pullman also uses an intensely literary voice, but it stands out because it's wrapped in young-adult fantasy. I'm sure there are other examples of planting ex-genre voices into genre, but I can't think of more at this moment.

Yeah, there was a time when I was being followed around several loops by someone and I got so's I could peg her using fairly basic word-content analysis.

We oughta have a board game: Name that author...or, maybe you'll allow us to take your photo for the EBear rookie card?
Does it work? *g*
Hah! Whereas what I'd question in that sentence is the verb, because neither smugness nor smirking are wavery kind of expressions. And I'd probably suggest italicizing *smug* and *smirk.*

Ask three writers, get ten opinions....
lj is finally clearing out the comments it didn't send over the past month. :-P
It's not like the reverse is out of the question. I hear anyone say, "It's the shiny," or "there's just no happy anymore," and I immediately think, ah, another person influenced by Joss Whedon.
He wrote the screenplay for the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer (movie), and in frustration at what the studio did to the movie, he worked to get a series, and got it. Wrote/directed the majority, and produced, then did a spin-off called Angel. About season 6 of Buffy and season 2 of Angel, he started another series, Firefly, which was cancelled after 11 shows (related to a whole bunch of Fox BS that was mostly the studio's gripe and little to do with audience response). So when Buffy ended, and then Angel, he did a movie based on Firefly, which came out recently, called Serenity.

He's mostly renowned for mixing mythology and reusing it as a metaphor -- I mean, the idea of high school as hell...literally (Buffy's high school sits on a hellmouth) -- as well as turning tropes on their head. His entire inspiration for Buffy was the disgust with so many monster movies where the blonde girl walks into a dark alley investigating a sound and gets chomped; he wanted a movie where the blonde girl walks into the dark alley and kicks ass. He does the same kind of flip in Serenity, where the bad guy tells our hero, "we're men of honor...and I come unarmed," at which point our hero pulls out his gun and shoots the bad guy. (The audience cheered.)

Joss is also worth mentioning because he's one of the most adept at dialogue that I've ever seen. He has a keen ear for how people talk, and distilling that into specific, but subtle, patterns, such that after only watching five or six episodes of Buffy, you could pretty much hear any quote out of context and know exactly which character said it. And he's got a knack for playing with words the way we do in everyday speech, like the aforementioned "not down with the happy" (Buffy) or "I just like the shiny" (Firefly).

Sorry, didn't mean to go on too long; I used to be a webmaster for a fansite for Buffy, where the denizens would philosophically deconstruct and reconstruct Whedon's weekly metaphors.
I've been to classical concerts with a composer friend of mine and it's amazing really. He seems to listen in a totally different way, he can tell, without even looking, what instrument is doing what, how it's being played and how they're all mixing together.

Makes me wish I could understand music a lot more.

Finding your voice, yes. And a big part of that, of course, is getting old enough or confident enough or cranky enough or something enough to stop trying to use someone else's.

It's funny, having you write about that unfinished quality common in young writing today, when I've run out of other things to read and so picked up Christopher Paolini's Eragon.

What's even more intereting to me are the very few writers who, at a young age, find an authentic voice to write from/with/through/in. I'm thinking, of course, of S.E. Hinton (who pissed me off when I was a teenager and didn't understand how come the things I wrote weren't that good) but there are, I'm sure, many others.

style and identity

actually ZZ top is very distinctive, and a lot more subtle than one might think..I am not sure Jimmie page is the better guitar player, but i wont argue the point....You could check out the billy gibbons book, newly out... but you are right. It is amazing to me that in such sylized musics as Old Timey, Bluegrass, and Country, you can distinguish a song and the artist in a bar or less... Music is a very dense medium.

Re: style and identity

You can argue the point; I'd enjoy it. *g* And frankly, I'm not enough of a musician to tell--I'd rather (generally) listen to ZZ Top anyway....

And yes, music is a tremendously dense medium.
Samuel R. Delany's "The Fall of the Towers" trilogy had a distinctive voice. But when I read it (original version; I haven't tried the revised one), I kept noticing that this bit of low-culture slang was heavily influenced by Bester's The Stars My Destination, this scene was very much like one in Sturgeon's To Marry Medusa....
My mother often naps at movies. She says she waits until she knows the director and writer will get the characters to where they ought to be and then goes to sleep, confident that everything will be all right.
So, have you ever set out to find or create an individual voice, or did it just happen? Is it the sort of thing that can be worked out in cold blood, so to speak, or is it something that just happens as a function of personality gathering influences and experience?

One of the things I really like about LJ is the sudden windows onto how people do things that I can't do.
I think all that damned trunked writing and the various failed experiments lead inexorably to developing a style. It's hard to stay bad at something when you do it over and over and over again.