An Odd Complaint

I was talking to my brother the other night. He was telling me about a podcast he had listened to where the woman who talks about music always makes the same complaint when she doesn’t like something. She says it’s too simple. Ironically, she loves Bruce Springsteen, and it doesn’t get much simpler than Springsteen’s music, but that’s beside the point. My immediate response was, “‘Ode To Joy’ is simple. Is she saying that Beethoven’s no good?” It turned into a discussion of all the wonderful simple music that’s out there. But, as we talked, I realized that simplicity is, in fact, a common complaint, and that’s just odd.

You hear it all the time when people talk about the arts. It’s the implicit complaint behind statements like, “It’s just a blues,” or, “My kid could paint that.” You hear with books and movies when the plot is, “So obvious.” Never mind the fact that there are only seven plots, so every story is pretty darn predictable. 

The complaint seems to come from a couple of different places. One is a place of insecurity. It’s almost like saying, “Well, if I can do it, it can’t be that special.” The thing that’s wrong with this complaint is that simple does not mean easy. I get the temptation when looking at paint splatters to think, “I could do that.” But the truth is that most of us can’t do that. Well, we can put splatters of paint on a canvas, but it wouldn’t come out as well as when Jackson Pollack does it. Almost anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar can play a blues pattern, but none of them can sound like Memphis Minnie.

The other place for this complaint is a kind of snobbery. Calling something simple is like calling something unintelligent or basic. It’s a way of saying, “I’m too clever for this.” This is worse than the place of insecurity. It’s basically missing the whole point of art. Good artists aren’t making their art for a select few. They are communicating thoughts, feelings, ideas, even universals. The best art is the art that does that most effectively, and it is often very simple.

I’m not saying that everything simple is necessarily good or that everything complex is necessarily bad. I’m just saying that when something is bad, it’s not the simplicity of it that makes it bad. People should find a new complaint. If anything, I’d say simplicity is a virtue.

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