Form vs. Content: the Grudge Match in My Head

I. Form

I present exhibit A:

(Warning: If Lady Gaga is your thing, it's probably time to move on to Facebook now.)

Nowhere does Lady Gaga pretend to be anything but about "the show." She is nothing if not sheer spectacle. What's actually impressive about this video is the attention to detail. Not one single prop, hair, lighting setup, dance step is out of place. Nothing. Like the avant-garde, form becomes content. The way that something is said is what is said.

II. Form Redux

I present exhibit B (damn you, MTV, and your embedding disabling!)

Juliana Hatfield - "My Sister" (acoustic, 1993)

You would first probably say that this is the anti-Gaga, and in many ways you're right. Juliana Hatfield could not only kick Gaga's ass with one Doc Marten tied behind her back, she would probably choose to do so in some dingy bar on the Lower East Side where Gaga thought she would show her trendy ass. (hmm, fantasy much?) But at some point, I would argue the following: Any one who did some coming of age in the 90's would admit to you that our stance as the anti-pop angsty generation was as much of a pose as the poseurs we hated. Carefully ripped jeans, oh-so-worn flannels, just-outdated-enough leggings, etc. The anti-aesthetic as clear aesthetic.

And let's be honest. The lyrics to "My Sister" are rather...well...weak. It's not the content that counts, possibly with exception of the repeated line, "my sister," which has a nice resonance the more it's repeated. However, in Hatfield's hands, the song shines so incredibly brightly, gains depth with the timbre of her voice, gains ramification from the shoe-gazing introspection of the vocalist and her lonely guitar in the lonely studio. The form, the presentation, trump the an effective way.

III. Content

I present exhibit C, by the recently late and lovely Lucille Clifton (damn you, Poetry Foundation, and your lame "share" feature!)

Lucille Clifton - "won't you celebrate with me"

Clifton's poem is a sonnet-esque poem, or an allusion to the sonnet, being 14 lines but unrhyming and not directly about romantic love. As a poem, it hardly stands. I almost would have liked it better as a short prose piece. The lines seem strangely and arbitrarily divided, the diction not particularly engaging...but oh the message. How affirming of a message: "come celebrate with me that everyday [sic]/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed." Who cannot identify directly, or at least empathize, with that statement? Clifton pulls out right through a slapdash construction into an immediately interesting and warm message. Content trumps form.

IV. Jim Henson Had It Right

I present exhibit D:

If you haven't seen this movie, we probably don't have as much in common as you think we do. This grand finale scene represents the fulfillment of a prophecy fortelling the eventual reuniting of two different races of being: the evil Skeksis and the peaceful Mystics. The two types of creatures least likely in the world of this movie to combine end up being two parts of each other.

This is my geeked-out way of saying that there's gotta be some middle ground here. Every artist working towards pushing her art further in some fashion at some point wrestles with both what she is saying versus how she's saying it. I can't tell you how many amazing ideas I've had for poems only to watch them die because I had no good way to get the idea onto the page. It makes me wish I could paint, photograph, dance, play the violin, rap, sing, and draw. Instead, all I can do is make the best form I can out of the content I've got. I guess that's all any artist can try make something pretty that actually says something worthwhile.


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