Generic Fit

“This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which a listener imposes himself upon the text, or transforms the text from generic to specific, shows that listener something about himself. He learns his yearnings, his sadnesses, his loves; he recognizes an emotional life which is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state which is otherwise ephemeral.”

I.

What is generic fit? The quality of being widely applicable, of being able to synergize with many different things or in many different contexts. Works of art, suit tailoring, and modes of communication are all capable of possessing high levels of genericism. This quality of wide applicability can be achieved in two different ways, distillation and averaging.

Distillation is the process of boiling away all surface, non-essential details in order to yield common ground. The essence — what’s left over post-distillation — fits both well and widely because of its sweeping inclusivity and non-specificity. An example is the platitude or cliché; almost anyone can relate to The grass is greener on the other side as a true statement about how human perception and longing work. Platitudes in fact demand a high level of generic fit as a precondition of their survival: to become a platitude, an observation has to be so broadly applicable, or else so broadly useful, that generation after generation of humans persistently passes it down (temporal genericism).

Averaging is the process of finding, among a wide field of varying data points, a meaningful middle ground, a thing entirely different from a common ground. Middle grounds fit equally widely, but less well, as common grounds: the more standard deviations from mean an individual or context is, the worse it will fit with the center. Clothing sizes are a classic example of middle-ground fitness, as are virtually all commercial products. Even personal tailoring (counter-intuitively, since “bespoke” is essentially an antonym for “generic”) frequently exploits middle-ground genericism — cuts are altered to allow flexibility for future changes in body size or else evolving cultural fashions.1

II.

Pop songs are an example of generic fitness in that their lyrics employ clichés and their musical choices are broadly familiar. From “Every Little Star”:

The acclimation process [of a song “growing” on the listener] is almost certainly due to the fact that the brain gets melodic and harmonic pleasure from anticipation: if the listener knows what’s coming at the apex of a big pop hook, knows exactly when or how it’ll drop and then ends up correct, his neurons flood him with dopamine… Hit pop records bank on this phenomenon of desirable familiarity, of established intimacy between audience and work, by using a small and powerful collection of stock chord progressions. But they also simultaneously rely on enormous libraries of obscure, never-before-heard textures and sound samples so that the subtle sonic details of a piece lend it a degree of surface-level novelty. Billboard hits are, like [David] Lynch’s films, the perfect hybrid of the familiar and unfamiliar (though they use this hybridity to achieve entirely different effects).

In other words, if dopaminergic enjoyment of an artwork or art event largely hinges on the proper ratio of familiar to unfamiliar aesthetic choices, then the most broadly applicable art will employ middle and common ground ratios in order to be enjoyed by the broadest audience base. Pop song chord progressions work off sequences and patterns of developments which humans are both innately wired to enjoy — a common ground intrinsic in the brain — and have been socialized to anticipate — a middle ground, since everyone’s individual musical socialization and background will vary. 

Mass-market paperbacks and eBook romance novels work in similar ways, writing in diction which is commonly understood and about scenarios which are— in an abstract, averaged, or distilled form— commonly experienced. “Template” romance novels — the budding genre in which so-called custom or “bespoke” novels can be commissioned for $500 or $1000 — operate off of this phenomenon. Though authors of template novels change character names, surface details, and select passages with each commission in order to create a new and “unique” works, the core plotline of each novel stays the same, managing to be effective for so many readers because of its broad, generic appeal.

Wide appeal is the very purpose of popular art; intent is built-in to the name itself; so those who see popular art — be it a pop song, a mass-market paperback, or a Thomas Kinkade — as “failed” or unsuccessful art, the product of less-than-skilled artists, are entirely wrong. (Andrew Barker writes in his review of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook:  “Those who faulted its contrivances, its sentimentality or its heartstring tugging missed the point — in a Sparks story, those are features, not bugs.”) Execution cannot be conflated with intent, and whether or not popular art’s aims are valuable is entirely separate from the ability of a person to achieve them.

III.

Consider two quotations.

From Jeurgen Schmidhuber’s “Art & Science as By-Products of Search for Novel Patterns”: 

“Good observer-dependent art deepens the observer’s insights about this world or possible worlds, unveiling previously unknown regularities in compressible data, connecting previously disconnected patterns in an initially surprising way that […] eventually becomes known and less interesting.”

And Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, on Bourdieu’s Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste

“[Bourdieu] notes that a once-refined or highbrow piece of music, such as the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ can be reassigned to middlebrow culture when it has become overly familiar.”

Indeed, both the platitude and “Moonlight Sonata” are good examples of generic fitness. What’s interesting about both of them is the evolution in their social or cultural currencies despite a maintenance of generic fitness. Obviously “Moonlight Sonata” has such broad appeal in part because we are socialized into its cultural context and norms. But it also became canonized because of its broad appeal, some inherent common or middle musical ground it capitalized on which lead it to “catch on.” Consider, in the way of a middle ground, how the piece straddles the aesthetics of both Beethoven and Adele, making it a familiar enough work to be enjoyed by the audience bases of both artists. That Beethoven did not intend this straddling does not affect the reality of the piece’s contemporary positioning.

It’s only after others notice the generic, wide appeal of “Moonlight Sonata” that the piece begins losing its highbrow position as “fine art” and instead gains the reputation of “popular song” or “popular classical.” The very recognition of hybridity and averaging decreases its cultural standing: while “resonant across class and cultural divides” seems like the ultimate marker of artistic success, cultural elitism and social signaling works counter broad appeal. The platitude arguably works a similar way — an observation is made, or a pattern compressed (as Schmidhuber would put it), which has wide appeal. Its essence resonates broadly, at some universal or near-universal human level, which causes it to spread memetically. Eventually, like  “Sonata,” its viral artistic success transforms its reputation into artistic failure. Important here as well is the disparity between perception and reality: consider again the template romance, and the way in which a story with high levels of generic fitness manages to appear bespoke to its reader, which helps make the story feel real and unique.

IV.

“Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation.”2

—Normand Berlin on Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

Since popular (generic) and high art (specific) alike have survived and thrived side-by-side in contemporary society, they must both fulfill a purpose, perhaps differing or complementary ones. What exactly are the effects of being more or less generic?

Without delving too much into the Theory Wars, it can be asserted that the more specific and detailed a text, the more self-determined its meaning. If we buy into ideas of literary indeterminacy, we might say that even the most specific, detailed of texts has an infinite range of possible interpretations or meanings — but that range is still more constrained and limited than that of a more generic text. There are more impossible or improbable interpretations, each one ruled out by clarifying and qualifying details. Common ground texts, by contrast, have gained through the process of distillation more of what Wolfgang Iser would term “gaps.” Iser in the seminal Prospecting compares the written word to stars in a constellation, allowing different possible interpretations:

We have seen that… the impressions that arise as a result of [the reading] process will vary from individual to individual, but only within the limits imposed by the written as opposed to the unwritten text. In the same way, two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The “stars” in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable.

Because the positions of visible stars are arbitrary in relation to the shapes of real-world objects, they possess, like a generic text, an enormous amount of indeterminacy. As a result, we see a high level of variation in the types of constellations drawn up by different cultures. The Chinese and Greek constellation maps, for example, look entirely different: in the north-right quadrant of the sky, which the Greeks identified as Big Bear, the Chinese instead saw as a Mediator’s Court, the Three Steps, and the Honorable Old Man.

Consider the widely applicable plot points, and the enormous narrative gaps, in The Crystals’ hit “Then He Kissed Me”:

Each time I saw him I couldn’t wait to see him again
I wanted to let him know that he was more than a friend
I didn’t know just what to do
So I whispered I love you
He said that he loved me too
And then he kissed me

[…]

I knew that he was mine so I gave him all the love that I had
And one day he took me home to meet his mom and his dad
Then he asked me to be his bride
And always be right by his side
I felt so happy I almost cried
And then he kissed me

The basic plot-points here are so general that they apply to almost every happily-married couple, or every adolescent girl aspiring to happy marriage, in early 1960s America. In fact, they’re general and generic enough that they still apply to many adolescent romantic aspirations today. (Given the state and probable future of marriage, stripping marital developments from the lyrics might have, like a well-planned tailoring job, increased the track’s longevity — though at the obvious cost of its temporally specific fitness upon release.)

The cultural value and contribution of generic artwork is complicated, and depends on whether its genericism is derived from distillation or averaging. Generic products can ensure that everyone is covered, and without having to put the work in of discovering personal measurements. Picture the consumer of primarily popular art as the resident who, upon moving to a new town, decides it isn’t worth it to test out local eateries, and instead lives off chain restaurants as predictable sources of generic meals. This genericism comes from both distillation and averaging — the food’s appeal comes both from its fitness with some near-universal human quality (the constraints and incentives built-in by our brain and taste buds) and the averaging of our personally varying preferences, be it the amount of grease in a burger or the grams of sugar in a shake.

In explore-exploit models, exploration is costly; no one can explore thoroughly every area of his consumption. Instead we prioritize, and generic-fitting goods allow us to get value out of unexplored, non-prioritized areas. The literary critic might, knowing nothing of fashion, simply buy extra-large shirts and 36×30 jeans at Target. The quality of “two legs of equal length” is a distilled property of pants which applies, purely and truly, to a very wide consumer base. For most people, there is no significant compromise of fitness in buying a pair of pants with two legs of equal length. Then there is specific sizing and cut — the average of human proportions, from which most people vary (and to varying degrees). This critic could get more value out of clothing which fits him more precisely, which are more suitable to his body type or skin tone (specific rather than averaged), but has decided that cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t pan out: the exploration time required to gain this marginal value (taking measurements, reading up on fashion theory, or experimenting with new cuts) isn’t worth it. Nevertheless, there still exists a base value of owning pants and shirts or eating a meal: generic products provide this value without the cost of exploration. Moreover, the financial cost of a generic good is typically cheaper because of mass production, though with art this doesn’t always translate: mass-market paperbacks are certainly less expensive than niche-market, small-batch academic texts, but in cases like the ninety-nine-cent song standard, price normalization often just leads to pop stars getting exorbitantly wealthy.

In a similar way, the pop song is there for almost any listener: its generic quality and meanings gaps jack up the probability that a listener will relate or resonate with it. Like stars to constellations, texts with high levels of generic fitness are able to have meanings imposed on them, perhaps even necessitate the imposition of meaning or process of interpretation to be experienced, and the specific ways in which meaning is imposed (or interpretation drawn) tells us as much about the reader as constellations tell us about their respective cultures. This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which the listener reflects and sees himself in a song is a mode of self-knowledge. He learns his yearnings, his loves, his sadnesses; he recognizes an emotional life that is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state that is otherwise ephemeral. The generic work of art reflects the self — though it might be more accurate to say that the generic in a work of art reflects the self, since texts are obviously composites of many components of varying specificity, existing on sum spectrums rather than binaries.

Of course, all art is instrumental to self-knowledge, though it seems worth distinguishing the ways in which self-knowing occurs. The art song, if we’ll call it that, is specific and detailed, typically expressive. It tells us something about the artist: we learn about an other, and this recognition of an other — the commonalities and differences, the possibilities and constraints of human experience — allow us to recognize and learn about ourselves (it also, as Pinker and Singer alike argue, expands our capacity for empathy towards others). The folk song, meanwhile, passes along tribal or social knowledge, which in turn informs the listener of his roles and heritage within a community. American slave spirituals are a good example, serving for generations to preserve heritages and important community knowledge (including how to escape north to Canada by following the North Star, or noting the growth of moss on trees).3

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Notes:

This essay owes an obvious debt to Sarah Perry’s “Beauty Is Fit,” at least as far as its borrowing of terminology goes. How and where concepts of generic fitness overlap with Perry’s timeless vs. ephemeral beauty is left up to the reader.

Endnotes:

[1] See Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian and Thomas Griffiths 2016, or the authors’ interview with Julia Galef for Rationally Speaking, transcript pg. 9:

Yeah, and Tom and I have talked about this from the perspective of buying a home, where you’re in some sense trying to optimize for the happiness of your 5‐years‐ from‐now future self, who is somewhat unknowable.
I encountered the same thing recently when I bought a tuxedo. It’s funny to buy something where you feel like you’ll wear it 1‐2 times a year for the next 7 years. How do you optimize for something that is going to look good when you take it to a wedding in 5 years?
Just to use this banal example of men’s fashion. Men’s pants are much tighter than they were 10 years ago, currently. When I look at the jeans that I wore in the mid 2000s, they were like twice as much fabric, or something like that.
If I’m buying jeans, which is something where the use case of jeans is that you wear them almost every day for like 18 months and then they develop holes and you just throw them out or something. If I wanted to buy jeans I should buy tight jeans because that is the style of the mid 2010s. But if I want to buy a tuxedo, then I should deliberately get something that is looser in the leg, because I’m just assuming that men’s fashion is on this random walk. I don’t want to nail the current trend right on the button, because I know that it’s going to deviate from that later.

[2] Godot, by virtue of being the script to a play, is predisposed to containing more of these blanks or gaps than might other literary forms: in proportion to the scope of its plotted events, it is significantly shorter in length than most novels or short stories, and this modest wordcount is itself dialogue-heavy rather than descriptive or illustrative; that is, it leaves out many of the visual elements and other sensory details which are key to a reader’s envisioning of the book’s setting (and function as instruments of specificity). Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for instance, is able to contain both Jewish and gentile identities in its central family of characters, the Lomans. Consider that trite and amateurish novelistic device in which the protagonist by the first or second page has looked at himself in the mirror, describing to himself in internal monologue his own physical attributes. Salesman, however, serves as a mirroring of the reader, reflecting the reader’s mind and self through his imagining of Willy (revealing, that is, the reader’s psychology and personal/cultural background through his unconscious filling-in of the descriptive blanks). Interestingly, Iser considers this quality of high indeterminacy evidence of admirable restraint and high artistry, though considering that those very traits which make Godot and Salesman so indeterminate (short length, scant description, stories told by way of clues and sketch) are what also lend pop lyrics their often empty genericism.

[3] For more on the art, pop, and folk classification trifecta, see Philip Tagg’s 1982 “Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method, and Practice,” esp. the figure on p. 42.

Papillae:

Joanna Newsom’s writing is a good example, I think, of the art song as a window into another, specific, world. Here’s “Sapokanikan.”