The X Factor: Substance over Style

In a perfect world, styling and presentation wouldn’t be important. Or,
at least, they would be less important than substance. I’ve been
thinking about this since Saturday, courtesy of a bad television
program. “The X Factor” is, as far as I can tell, “American Idol” with
British accents — though I can’t be sure because I’ve never seen
“American Idol.” We stumbled on one of the “X Factor” audition shows a
couple of weeks ago and some of the singing was so bad that we had to
leave it on, and some of the singing was so good that we were glad we
did. (For the record, I’m rooting for Mary Byrne, a very
un-popstar-like 50ish woman with a voice reminiscent of some of the old
female blues singers. I’m hoping she’ll do a version of the Etta James
classic “At Last,” because she’ll own it.)

During the judging on
Saturday’s show, there were many references to the styling and dress of
various performers. I’m not trying to be disingenuous when I ask,
should that really matter? I’m old enough to remember when music was
not a visual medium. I couldn’t tell you what John Lennon was wearing
when he recorded “Imagine” or Brian Wilson when he recorded
“Cabinessence” but I can tell you that I don’t care. Nor would I care
what they wore if I saw them on stage. Only the music matters.
Substance rather than style.

My first exposure to the interior of
the Robert Blacker house was via archival photographs published in
books about Greene & Greene. Those dim, black and white photos made
the house, particularly the living room, appear very dated. This
reaction is counter to my belief that the Greenes’ houses and furniture
designs have aged extremely well, looking fresh and current even today.
There was something about those photos that clouded my perception.

One
living room feature I found to be particularly dated – the art glass
basket lanterns. In the old photos, these six lanterns, arranged in two
rows running the length of the room, appeared heavy, perhaps even
pendulous. The form did not appear at all pleasing. In short, I
thought them to be a rare miss by Charles Greene.

In March 2008, I
visited the Blacker house to photograph several items for an article I
was writing. My subjects were all in the extremely spacious entry hall.
Despite being almost giddy in the presence of so much beauty, I set to
work capturing scroll details in various incarnations. When done,
almost as an afterthought, I asked if I could see the living room. My
friend Tom Moore had accompanied me on the visit and entered the room
several seconds before I did. As I entered, I saw Tom standing in the
middle of the room, stunned to silence. Looking around, I too was
rendered mute. Without putting too fine a point on it, that room is the
most incredible space I have ever seen. It constitutes an entire
career, one steeped in perfection. The furniture (all accurately
reproduced) is incredible, the paneling and gold-leaf frieze are
magnificent. The room is flooded with natural light which plays on the
polished surfaces. And the basket lanterns? They are fantastic.
Gathering my wits, I think I cogently exclaimed something along the
lines of “Wow.”

I could attempt in this paragraph to describe
those lighting fixtures but the photo above conveys them far better than
any words, though even that can’t do them justice. Suffice it to say
that in living color and the light of day they make quite an impressive
statement. So, what of my original impressions? It would appear that
my view was influenced by the presentation. I didn’t have the vision to
focus on the substance of the piece over the style, in this case
provided by a vintage photograph. While I’d like to think that I’m
immune to such judgements, clearly that is not the case. WIth that in
mind, maybe I should give Lady Gaga a chance.* Maybe I should open my
mind to the possibility that the substance of her music is sufficient,
that the emphasis on style is unnecessary. Perhaps I need to listen
fairly and form…. Naahhh!

* I don’t really know anything about
Lady Gaga. I see the name a lot on the web, typically in connection
with unusual clothing, but that’s about all I can say.

- David Mathias

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4 thoughts on “The X Factor: Substance over Style

  1. David Mathias

    I would argue that music has been a visual medium at least since the advent of MTV and perhaps for much longer. Consider the Beatles’ films "A Hard Day’s Night" and "Help!" As for performance, I think it’s clear that even that aspect of music has become much more visual over time.

    Al – thank you very much (and thanks to Sandy too).

    David

  2. Al Navas

    WOW!

    It is hard to put myself in your shoes, admiring the room that day.

    But I can say "WOW! about the article, for it conveys the feeling you had. Thanks for transporting us to that day. I had to share the link with Sandy – and She said "WOW! David is a terrific writer!!!"

  3. Derek L

    "I’m old enough to remember when music was not a visual medium."

    *Recorded music* has never been a visual medium. *Live performance music* always has been.

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