The current vogue for reworking and re-releasing old movies, television shows and songs seems to be based less on appreciation and nostalgia and more on an alarming rationale: original songs and stories are drying-up. It seems that we must ask ourselves whether all the great songs and stories have been written?
We all know that there are an infinite number of ways in which notes on a piano, for example, can be put together to create music, and there are an endless number of words, sentences and paragraphs available for the writer to construct stories. However, these limitless possibilities are drastically constrained when we consider what people prefer listening to and reading about. Regarding western audiences, it seems that there are only a limited number of fictional and musical patterns that appeal. And it seems that the majority of them, in their most basic form, have already been written.
With music, for example, whether listening to contemporary pop, classical, jazz, folk, reggae, or any other genre, every song now seems familiar and tends to have an obvious antecedent. How many lyrics are there left to write about love, loss, or urban life, to name but three common themes? Yes, every individual’s experience and interpretation is different and unique, but they are rarely that different and unique. Furthermore, the passages, melodies and harmonies of modern tunes are invariably reminiscent of, or simply identical to, other work.
Certainly, in popular music, the prolific creativity of the forty-year period from 1950 to 1990 has seemingly exhausted the musical possibilities for more recent compositions. One must ask whether any songs written in the past ten to fifteen years will match ‘My Way’, ‘We Are the Champions’, or ‘Yesterday’ for their longevity and place in the pantheon of great songs. Where are the contemporary anthems and landmark compositions that will be around in fifty years’ time? I suspect there won’t be many. Admittedly, there are contemporary songs that have sold in the millions, but we must not mistake popularity for originality, particularly when so much modern music relies on global audiences, gimmicks, fad and fandom for sales.
In literature, film and television, every contemporary story is also readily recognizable and often evident in older work. The same plots, storylines and narratives are rehashed and reformulated merely in different contexts and with different characters. The extent to which the theories of William Foster-Harris and Christopher Booker on the limited number of basic stories (three and seven respectively) are true is important, but not as important as the inability of modern writers to overcome these limitations and create narratives with more nuance, surprise and originality. All we get is the same road trip; the same rags to riches (or riches to rags); the same forced cross-cultural interaction; the same duck out of water; the same maverick anti-hero; the same courageous but doomed protagonist; the same victory against the odds; the same everyman; the same quest; the same disparate group united; or the same romantic encounters. This is the case despite writers, directors and creators trying desperately to conceal the dearth of original storylines by upping the drama, increasing the shock value, and adding more style to mask the lack of substance. Yet, ultimately, none seem to have avoided the underlying cliché, worn storyline and character stereotype that expose the lack of originality and dwindling options available in fiction.
One may argue that all art, and indeed the history of creativity, is about using precedent and being inspired by older work to create the new. That is true; standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that. But what we are seeing nowadays is less about being inspired by, and paying homage to, others than it is about familiarity, repetition, imitation and the gradual depletion of ideas.
There will of course be plenty more music and stories written including, undoubtedly, some classics. Nevertheless, there will soon be nowhere remaining to go creatively. Perhaps we should see human creativity and originality as a pyramid being built over time. We begin with the wide base of immense creative possibilities, but the options slowly but inexorably shrink as we head towards the apex. Original ideas begin to decline until there are none left.
This problem of diminishing originality has been exacerbated by the internet and mind-boggling access to virtually every song and story ever composed. Having the full musical and fictional repertoire at our fingertips makes any contemporary work even more exposed to the criticism and suspicion of, at best, unoriginality and, at worst, plagiarism. Suddenly the potential for innovation and invention is circumscribed by the enormous weight of precedent and history. Crucially, the more songs and stories that are penned, the more we expend the creative sources and resources.
This is not a nostalgic lament for times past but an objective assessment of the songs and stories of contemporary culture. Quite simply, it appears that there are fewer and fewer melodies and tunes, subject matters and settings, plots and characters left to discover and explore. The creative worlds of music and fiction have become saturated and plagued by imitation and instant recognizability. Originality is dying and it is hard to see how or if it can be revived.