Musical Parallels in the Design vs. Content Debate

If you Google the phrase “design vs content”, your search will yield a long list of web design articles insisting that content always wins in the long run. This is because the word “design” is actually half of the phrase “graphic design” already, so if someone decides to write an article about this, it’s probably because they’re going for the less obvious approach here. Also, being that articles are generally written by writers, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose from stressing this whole “content” thing.

The more inspired/experienced writers will hit upon the basic moral, which is this: Design gets people interested, but content keeps them interested. No matter how much an amazing design introduces people to your project, once there they need a reason to keep coming back or the novelty will soon wear off.

Though I have many interests, music has always been my main filter for understanding life. I both learn about the world and attempt to explain it via music. My friends are well aware that I talk this way. For example, how we spend a night out is usually defined by a genre. Are we going out to leave subversive art installations at the promenade? We’re punk rocking it. Are we going to buy the cheapest wine we can and sit around eating Trader Joe’s edamame and make fun of whatever’s on TV? We’re indie rocking it. Are we dressing up fancy and going to an overpriced bar? Eighties night.

It goes well beyond that, however. For example, my idealist friends are more likely to listen to instrumental psytrance. My corporate friends probably really dig Bruce Springsteen. And if someone prefers the Bob Dylan of All Along the Watchtower to Jimi’s, then I know that in the Design vs. Content debate they are overwhelmingly, even tragically on the side of “content”.

To define “content and design” musically is not so cut and dry as in web design, but the parallel is pretty uncanny. Content on the web comes from the writers, while in music it comes from the lyrics first, and then probably harmonic structure, and so on down the list to the drums, which is the most visceral and design-y part of any recording or performance. And, as every thoughtful musician will tell you, no matter how good a song sounds, how sick the beat is, or how wicked the wanky guitar solo, after the initial excitement it’s the lyrics that keep the audience hitting repeat on a track over and over and over again.

There is certainly, and will always be, people who hear the words first and music second. I am not this way, and to this day I sometimes have to remind myself to consciously listen to the lyrics of a song, or I’ll just hear them as a string of phonemes. I’m of the opinion that I do this as a result of listening to my mom’s Arabic music as a kid, which I couldn’t understand, but the point is that everybody’s ears are different, and there’s no way you can change that. In my experience, music has always been the most subjective form of creative expression, and exhibits the greatest dissension as to what makes “good” good. There is certainly a sort of collective consciousness that trends one way or another, and I think one of the great quantifiers of this over the years is the design/content dichotomy. In other words, you can chart massive trends in popular music over the decades by how the scale was tipped toward either design or content. I can bet you’re already doing it in your head, but let me break it down for you with some gratuitous over-generalizing:

Sixties: All Content (singer/songwriter, folk, torch songs)
Seventies: More Design, Less Content (disco, motown, prog rock)
Eighties: All Design (Hair Bands, Boy/Girl Bands, New Age)
Early/Mid-Nineties: More Content, Less Design (coffeehouse, early hip hop, grunge)
2000-2004: Mostly Content (hip pop and reality television on MTV)
2005-2010: Mostly Design (the emergence of electronica pop, peaking with Muse and LCD Soundsystem, jumping the shark with Lady Gaga)
Current: Sea change toward content (indie rock emerging as a valid pop force)

And so forth. “But wait!” I can hear you shout. “What about the Beatles? Michael Jackson? Led Zeppelin? David Bowie? [Insert current reference here]? They had/have both!”

That is exactly correct, and drives home the single idea that I harp on more than any other in this blog: The merging of dualities is the secret to being a successful human being. Anytime anyone says “this vs. that”, you should always try to think of a situation where both happen at once, and if you can’t, create one.

You see, starting in the late nineties, things really started to speed up. Our musical trends don’t move in decades anymore, and it’s frankly confusing as hell. In fact, as society gets more and more connected and the pace of entertainment speeds up, I predict a future in which people will think fondly about the Roarin’ First-Half-of-Last-Marches and so forth. But if there’s one thing that can be said, it’s that we are coming to the end of an extremely design-oriented phase and landing on a bit of content, which is a huge relief to this writer if he doesn’t mind saying so himself.

In music, at least, design trends generally come alongside a technologic breakthrough. Think of the phonograph, the electric guitar, the synthesizer, the ready availability of home tape and then digital recording, and currently Youtube. On a smaller scale, take freaking Auto-Tune. T-Pain’s music was based solely on design, because it seemed he could churn out lyrics about pretty much anything (and by that I mean generally the same thing) and as long as it had that particular sound, which was oh so novel at the time people went nuts for it. “I’m On A Boat” was the culmination of that trend, and I ascribe more cultural significance to that than to any actual T-Pain song, actually. Because at least it made us laugh, and thus made the lyrics worth going back for.

In the True Greats I mentioned a few paragraphs back, we have proof that it is indeed possible for music to possess both good content and good, zeitgeist-defining design, with folky lyrics and all the newest-fangled technology that money can buy or download or steal. And when that happens, it lasts, and probably will until the end of time as we humans reckon it. Just look at Palestrina.

But the content is the key, really. There’s no formula for that, no plugin you can download. Content is timeless, and technology is fleeting. So practice that, forever and for always. No matter how good you think that track you just produced sounds, trust me, friends, in another ten years they’ll be making stuff that sounds far better for way cheaper. So, sure, spend as much time as you want on that drop, and throw in all the latest wicky-wah bass riffs you can, and the world will dig it, for a while. But if that’s really all your music has really got going for you, then next year those highly-crafted tracks will likely just be another footnote in the annals of music The Black Keys sold better than.

The follow up question as we try to define music is Weapon vs. Opiate for the Masses, but that, friends, is another entry entirely.

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