Style Versus Substance in the Age of Information

by Paul O'Brien

There are some say we're going through a revolution of information. Empowered by steady strides in computer and communications technology, it's hard to disagree that virtually every aspect of our media has become more powerful and sophisticated. It has affected everything already, from the arts to education and academia. Any musician, for example, can tell you that new products come out every month that enhance their instrumentation, mixing, and recording. Any graphic designer or architect must become adept at handling relevant computer software. Anyone associated with education who doesn't think there is a great need for computers in schools as well just isn't looking one iota into tomorrow.

I would like to separate this informational progress into two categories: Those things associated with the practical, and those associated with entertainment. In the former category, it seems very clear that medicine, scientific research, and general public safety (like the design of safe buildings) have benefitted immensely from technology. More than that --because we cannot forget it-- communication links have surely improved this category as well. Data is widely and easily available, and accessible very quickly. Even though new public problems arise from these same strides (such as computer viruses, more advanced weaponry, and more harmful data available, like pornography in children's hands and the recipe for home-made bombs available on the net), there has been a substantial improvement in this general area of practicality.

But what about the various forms of expression, those fields that fall under the umbrella of both the arts and entertainment? Is music better than it used to be? Are movies better? Has there been a substantial expansion in any of those works of art that have been affected by the new technological and communicative breakthroughs?

This is too subjective a matter to answer definitively, of course, but there has nonetheless been a noticeable trend, at least in many people's opinions: There has been a sophistication of style, with an increasing negligence of substance. This does not apply to all works, nor to all fields of expression... but it noticeably applies to too many cases in arts and entertainment.

For example, popular music has certainly benefitted from drum machines, sequencers, samplers, and new sound recording. But for so much of what these things might add, musicians seem to be leaving just as much behind. There seems more and more emphasis on beats, tempos, and sound clippings then on lyrics, chord structures, and melodies. This trend is exemplified by the musical movement that recycles older popular songs and simply adds new drum patterns with some simple, remixed overdubs. Stylistically, much of popular music has become more rhythmically driven, and those songs that make any lyrical impact often do so with brash, bold words (with little left to the imagination). When it comes to substance, however, critics would probably agree that creativity is relatively low in the art. There are fewer musical styles being presented popularly, it seems, and a great many emulators have succeeded simply mimicking leaders in those schools.

Perhaps the sacrifice of substance is even clearer in cinema. While movie direction has certainly picked up a quicker pace, and soundtracks have striven to drive the movie sequences along, writing seems to have reached an all-time low. Dialogue seems more frequently recycled, cliche, to downright bad. Nonetheless, films are grossing extremely well; even if movie tickets have increased in price, people have shown a willingness to pay more.

Is it the commercial and financial industry, then, behind these two particular examples that accounts for the disparity of style and substance? That may be what has perpetuated these trends, but I don't believe that this is why they started. Rather, I suspect that the technological breakthroughs tap a more basic chord than mere money (as much as money influences any enterprise). Something more primal and more neurological in basis is playing a factor, I believe.

To be frank --even if simplistic about it-- I think our senses have been so dazzled by what we've seen and heard that we've scarcely paused to question its depth. It's no different here on the World Wide Web, currently the most popular jewel on the Internet's crown. The parallels of style over substance are clear: many interesting images presented, but rarely very deep in substance (much like new musical gimmicks and samples, or film special effects); a broader range of information is available, but disproportionate to its lack of depth (just as more albums and movies are being made and are available); and more people can contribute their own material to the Web (just as technology can make musical composition available to those with no musical training whatsoever).

It all become very, very easy; easy to view, to be moved by, and even to create it for yourself. It's a challenge to move someone with the subtleties of a string section, but fairly easy if you lay on a thick, rhythmic bass. It's also a challenge to excite an audience with a situation or characterization, but rather easy if you throw vast explosions into the mix. If you create a web site with all the bells of whistles of images maps and JAVA-driven animations, people will be impressed... never mind what the page might have to offer.

I'm not going to say that these things don't move me, too, because they do. There are times when I enjoy a mindless movie, or times when I would rather not contemplate a song's meaning. Similarly, I sometimes just enjoy surfing the net quickly, looking for and expecting little more than interesting pages with impressive formats and looks. It's just the exclusion of substance that I'm concerned about.

Not everyone is going to care about depth of substance in a given work of art, and that's fine. But for those who do appreciate subtlety and complexity of material --at least some of the time-- the web and popular arts seem to have little to offer. It's unfortunate, because it wouldn't be a radical departure from today's artistic/ communicative status to simply add some depth: Have a movie with some original characters involved in more creative and complex events (and maybe, for once, surprise the audience with a fresh, cogent ending); have a song with many melodic parts and layers; and have a web page that offers original and provocative material on-line.

Let those who couldn't care less about depth move happily on, and those who care to stop and dig be able to stop a digest something richer and more complex; it might just add a little veneration to popularity. And I don't believe it's nearly as difficult as some might think, because adding interest and substance to a project is often as simple as spending the effort to experiment, to try, even if with only partial success. Instead, too many creators are seeking to emulate other works and creators from the very start, never venturing beyond the material in any significant manner.

This discussion calls to mind my opinion of Quentin Tarrintino's screenplays. I find that although he offers natural dialogue, loose humor, and some minor stylistic nuances (like a willingness to be nonlinear with a film's events), he too often resorts to writing about strange, violent people in strange, violent situations. He's a very good writer; it's too bad he can't think of something better to write about.

Because that's precisely the problem of style. Style is only a process, a how. Substance, however, gives the process its application, its matter, its what. A good style with poor substance is blind application, like a Picasso painting on a bathroom wall or an Einstein theorizing about talk show topics. It's so ironic that the place where so much substance resides --in the universities with young, vibrant students and idea-rich professors-- is the place where so many shun new technologies. I once met a wonderful writer with a truly active imagination who still preferred to write out stories longhand... they have never even touched a word processor. Similarly, they think nothing of the Internet and its capabilities.

If style without substance is blind, than maybe substance without style is just plain boring; it makes what it sees unfit for an audience. In so doing, the creativity is locked away from public attention, while lesser talents -- with a greater understanding of how to express and publicize their ideas-- get television and Internet coverage.

And since the masters of style of have flooded the markets of so many arts and entertainment industries (due to our fascination with their speedy, dazzling effectualness), the economic producers of such styles would just as soon deviate as little as possible from them. After all, why experiment with new rhythms and subject matters when a strong dance mix, or a street-tough rap, or a gospel-stylized soul song about love, or a grunge three-chord guitar riff do the job and sell the records? Why venture into new cinematic ground when explosions, natural disasters, simple-minded comedies, and film adaptations do fairly well? We buy into, after all. We, the audience, are not demanding any more... therefore, why produce better?

I would never be so maudlin and patronizing as to say that we should make a difference by expecting more, even demanding it. The issue simply too complex to simplify it that way. Instead, I offer a simple prediction: Those creators who have mastered style and can apply it to subject matters of greater substance will succeed far more than those who master substance alone. Maybe the new technological breakthroughs, especially the Internet, have been too new for us to dig into yet. Like little children at Christmas, maybe we're all just enjoying the variety of toys we're getting, not yet minding which are our favorites or what we'll do with them. If so --and I believe it is so-- then it's just a question of time before substance marries style and we begin to see the real revolution that people have been talking about.