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Influences

The War On Drugs (TWOD) is an evocative name for a band. For anyone currently 30 or older, it likely dredges up memories of Nancy Reagan, D.A.R.E, and McGruff The Crime Dog. By extension, it’s also a powerful conveyor of the white rock musical ambience of the 1980s: Springsteen, Dire Straits, Tom Petty, and any band that liked booming drums and liberally sprinkled synths.

For music critics, TWOD is almost always assessed relative to their seemingly obvious influences. But despite the clear debts they owe to the commercial FM rock of 30+ years ago, TWOD is critically acclaimed; 2014’s “Lost In The Dream” was the most widely awarded of that year, and its followup – this year’s “A Deeper Understanding” – is off to a good start, according to Metacritic.

Music critics weren’t always so sanguine about such acts. NYC rockers Interpol were so frequently compared to Joy Division in the early 2000s that John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats made a list of 101 things to compare Interpol to instead of Joy Division. The rock music of the era was definitely characterized by references to the 1960s and 1970s, with The Strokes sounding a lot like The Velvet Underground (more so than Interpol sounded like Joy Division, which they really didn’t, despite the endless comparisons) and The Killers sounding like a melange of New Wave bands.

Re: The Killers, someone at the LA Times even wrote this about them after David Bowie died last year: “Good-looking guys doing disco-fied rock about outer space? Bowie basically invented that.” Moreover, The Killers were listed as one of 5 bands that “wouldn’t exist” without Bowie. I don’t know; I struggle with such. What if, instead, they would not have existed if they had actually given into their influences?  That’s basically Oscar Wilde’s stance, in “Dorian Gray”:

“There is no such thing as a good influence. Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtures are not real to him. His sins, if there are such thing as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”

I always enjoyed TWOD more than Dire Straits, Interpol more than Joy Division, and Side A of The Killers’s “Hot Fuss” album more than Bowie’s work in the 1970s and later; “Mr. Brightside” seems to hold up better than any song from Bowie’s endless catalogue (which didn’t invent either space rock – a 1960s phenomenon originating with Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, among others – or disco, a highly American phenomenon that emerged while Bowie was in Berlin twiddling with “atmospheric” knobs with Brian Eno).

Were any of these latter-day acts “influenced” by their predecessors, at least in the Wildean sense? TWOD was much more obsessive about production, Interpol a superior command of lead-rhythm guitar interplay, and The Killers a better ear for melody and harmony.

The difficult part of Wilde’s quote is the “natural passions” bit. What are these feelings? Or are they feelings at all, or something even more primal, like the cries of a baby or the freedoms conferred by athletic ability or physical appearance? Or maybe they come through it what distinguishes any artist from earlier ones. Otherwise, we would truly be in a “no new thing under the sun” situation.

Ironically, Wilde’s sentiment seems to lessen the importance placed on originality. So many writers, musicians, and painters are acclaimed for the fact that they were first and influenced many others – i.e., original.  But what if their influence wasn’t actually positive, or if it led to subsequent artists actually outdoing – and in a sense, becoming independent of – the ones they were imitating?

I mean, I’ve always found the cult of praise around James Joyce unbearable since it feels like writers such as Salman Rushdie and William Faulkner took Joyce’s innovations in directions that were more readable (and re-readable) than Joyce’s endless references and word salads. Who cares that Joyce was first?

On the other hand, there are some artists, such as Jimi Hendrix, or William Shakespeare, whose pioneering works have proven remarkably resistent to any exact imitation, perhaps due to historical circumstances that cannot be reproduced. No one writes 5-act dramas in perfect blank verse for mass audiences anymore; likewise, no one can pick up an electric guitar today and have the same opportunity to “reinvent” it the way Hendrix did in 1966 and 1967.

Of course, Shakespeare himself has obvious influences, and even lifted entire plots from previous works. Obviously, he’s not remembered today as a copycat. I don’t have any lightbulb epiphany to end on here; the influence question seems hard to answer. Maybe we realize that a lot of what influences us is subconscious – unintentional, really – and the product of strange confluences of history, taste, and environment.

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