Sex & Computers & Rock & Roll:The Cycle of Creativity

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Ok, there is actually no sex in this article. The title is merely a tribute to the great Ian Dury & the Blockheads. But there will be computers and Rock’n’Roll.

Recently a question of asked about “breaking the rules” of programming. I used it to discuss my theory of the Cycle of Creativity. Since some questioned it, I figured it would make a good topic for the blog.

All human creative activity seems to follow a cycle of three phases:

  1. A period of random experimentation and mimicry: The results are very hit & miss. We get some of the very best works, but also some of the very worst.
  2. The establishment of “The Rules”: Product is produced steadily. Quality is constant but mediocre. Corporate profits are high. Product become formulaic.
  3. The Masters learn when to break the rules: This is the period of greatest creativity. The rules are there for support most of the time, but, once they are mastered, one knows when is the perfect time to break one, to create a work of true art.

Unfortunately, this is then always followed by people who, having seen the Masters break the rules, decided the best thing to do if just throw out the rules, plunging the whole system back into Phase One.

I believe anyone familiar with computer programming can see the three phases at work there. In phase one was the “spaghetti code” era. Phase two began with the introduction of “structured programming”, then “object oriented programming” and finally “Design Patterns”. We’re now in phase three, where most of the data structures and algorithms we learned in school are readily available in frameworks as a black box. Now we can worry about the design of the application itself, and the skillful know the exact time to use a goto or have multiple function exit points.

The controversial part of that message was an alternate example I gave : That for Rock music, the three phases roughly correspond to the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Some balked at that, but I stand by it.

One commenter stated that R’n’R has been going downhill since Buddy Holly. That’s a imprecise comparison since I was talking about an entire industry, and there will always be individual exceptions. Any observer of the music scene in the late 50s (particularly the part that was true Rock & Roll rather than Rhythm & Blues) would clearly see the random experimentation - Any song that made the Top 40 was follow immediately follows by three or more cover versions by other groups — which also made the charts. Bobby Darrin’s hit “Mack the Knife” (which you’ll recall was a song about a petty thief and murderer from a ten-year old German musical ) was actually the seventh version of that song on the Top 40 that year! No one really knew what they were doing. And Buddy Holly’s brief career demonstrated that he had made it through the three phases: his last recording before his death were clearly in the “master knowing when to break the rules” mode.

This continued into the 60’s – A lot of experimenting (some of it musical) going on. It produced some of the best music (The Beatles) and some of the worst (“Little Itty-Bitty Yellow Polka-dot Bikini” ).

In the 70’s, the corporations finally reigned in R’n’R, and the rules were set. The instruments were fixed: (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums), bands cranked out a new album every 9 months, songs were between three and four minutes long; if a band “broke up”, it were gone for good. Top 40 music became formulaic. The decade culminated with the ultimate in pre-packaged, corporate-friendly music: Disco.

And yet, at the same time, came the beginnings of the third phase, in the punk movement. The early players, notably The Clash and the Sex Pistols (especially their manager, Malcolm McLaren) were definitely in the “masters knowing when to break the rules” realm — unfortunately, it slide into phase four quite rapidly, where everyone started breaking rules without reason, and it soon became a messy.

Which brings us to the 80s, which I have deemed the peak of the rock era, and which some dispute. Now, I spend 1980 thru 1984, in college, DJing at my college’s radio station, so some might think I’m a bit biased towards that period, so I’ll have to offer some proof. First of all, on the news this morning, they listed the top concert acts for the year: Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and the Police. Now, while I think it’s should be noted that the top two are both from New Jersey, the important point is when each of them hit their peak: What was that? Yes, the early 80s. (Yes, I know that “Born to Run” came out in the mid 70’s, but Springsteen was just a one-hit wonder until “Hunger Heart” and “Born in the USA”). And while you might dismiss Jon, Bruce and Madge as just Top 40 fodder, Sting & the Police have proven themselves timeless artist, along with Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Thomas Dolby, The Talking Heads, Prince, U2 — All major talents who established themselves by breaking rules – under controlled conditions, and did so in the early 80s.