January 4th 2005 Pop Culture and the Meaning of Life

I have a thought that has been pestering me a lot lately. Actually, “pestering” might not be the best word—“driving me crazy” is probably a better term to use. You see, I started taking a very close look at music, and I realized something: a lot of today’s “pop” music is all the same. No one really does anything new.

If you think about it, that statement is not that far-fetched. In music, especially pop music, there are several fairly common chord progressions that are used, such as I-IV-V (in C, that would be C-F-G) or I-V-IV (C-G-F). Sure, those are but some examples. There are far more combinations. But my point is that many songs employ similar, or even identical, progressions. If you expand the observation to other styles of music, you see many more similarities between songs. For example, many punk bands employ the same technique of using power chords (a chord built on the first and fifth notes of a scale), and even go so far as to use palm muting in very similar spots in a song.

I could go on and on about similarities in modern music, but I’ll stop there, because after that, I started analyzing other forms of entertainment for similarities. Movies are a prime example. No matter what the story, many films are very formulaic, and end on a positive note. This is true both of films I despise and films I adore. Many films have the same theme, or similar plots, or deal with the same issues. I almost feel that nothing new can be done in film, even though I know that’s not true.

I think, though, that there are two key areas where my observations have faults. One is that, even though a movie might have a similar theme or plot formula, the filmmakers can do very different things with it. Why do I like a good action film such as S.W.A.T. or The Recruit, but can’t stand action films made by Jean-Claude Van Damme? Why did Lord of the Rings do so much better at the box office than Dungeons and Dragons, even though they are both fantasy movies? The idea is in the details of the film. Even though the overall concepts of films in similar genres might be the same, the details make the movie. S.W.A.T. might appeal to me, but certainly there are some who would take Jean-Claude Van Damme over Colin Farrell any day. Even though Return of the King and Return of the Jedi both deal with vanquishing evil, they are both very different movies. And although Mallrats and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid deal with the battle between those who are in positions of authority and those who are not, they are two very different films. (Why did I compare those two films? A hint: there is a connection between one of the characters in Mallrats and one in Butch Cassidy.)

Another important thing to note is that film is about entertainment. A film is more than the message it sends; it’s about the story, too, and each story is different and unique. Each story speaks to a person differently. Besides, it’s never fun to hear the same story (or watch the same movie) again and again. We all need a little variety in our lives.

Likewise, music may be built on the same building blocks, but the style, voice, and lyrics of the music lend it a unique quality that appeals to different people. Even though two songs might use the same chords, the rhythm and tempo might be completely different. The lyrics themselves might project a different message, emotion, or thought. The fact that I like different songs depending on my mood support this observation. (Having said that, I still maintain that there is a lack of creativity in the world of pop music!)

Examining music and movies might lead you to believe that nothing new can be created. But there are always new stories or new melodies to create. Even though, from a general perspective, they might seem to be alike, there is still plenty of room for creativity. Art, like life, is not about the ultimate conclusion, but rather, the journey; for we are all destined for the same fate, but the path that takes us there is unique and beautiful for each of us. We shall all meet the same end, but the point and the meaning of life is not to race to that inevitable conclusion, but instead to savor and enjoy the journey along the way.