Recently, upon being introduced to a “friend of a friend,” I was asked in reference to my sunglasses: “Elvis or Johnny Knoxville?” “Uh...the King,” I responded hesitantly. Truth be told, I didn’t have any particular person in mind when I bought the shades. What was likely going through my mind: Do they fit? Are they comfortable? Do they look good? Are the lenses too dark? (I don’t like ‘em too dark.) Nevertheless, I suppose my purchase decision could have been influenced — albeit unconsciously — by an attempt to imitate Elvis or Mr. Knoxville.
But consider a scenario where I’m not familiar with a supposed influence. For example, when first playing an original tune for some friends, I’ve received the following feedback: “That sounds like [insert obscure artist] meets [insert other obscure artist].” “Who are they?” I’ll ask. (Sometimes I wish my friends didn’t have such an encyclopedic knowledge of music.)
In an age when information about nearly every genre of art is a mouse click away, the question arises: Is originality even possible any more, or has everything already been played out? Are we capable of bringing something new into the world, or are we doomed to continually recycle the work of those who’ve preceded us? Perhaps what parades in the name of originality is really only the successful concealing of one’s influences. If the latter is indeed the case, is the only hope of creating something original to limit one’s exposure to said influences?
When Nine Inch Nails released Pretty Hate Machine over a decade and a half ago, I’d never heard anything like it. Though I could hear some of Trent Reznor’s influences in it, he clearly created something original — but not by concealing his influences. Reznor embraced his influences while unashamedly exposing his own voice. And that made it original.
Lessons learned: 1. If you want to create something original, your best bet is to make sure your art reflects your individuality; 2. Diversify your taste — it can help you avoid being overly dominated by a particular influence; 3. If you just want to appear original, surround yourself with people who have limited exposure to your art form; 4. Be mindful when picking out your next pair of shades — we don’t need any more Elvis impersonators.