The law of similars
Like just about everybody else in the western hemisphere, I picked up a copy of Adele’s 25 earlier this month. My favorite song on the album—which I like even more than 21—is “Remedy,” both because it’s sweeter and less bombastic than some of her other tracks, and because it reminded me naggingly of something else. It took me a few days before I realized that I was thinking of one of my secret favorite albums: Essex by Alison Moyet. There’s the same rich, bluesy, but slightly remote voice that circles around the heart of a song before attacking it directly, and when Adele sings “I will be / I will be / Your remedy,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of an artist I’ve loved since I was in high school. And I’m not the only person to draw that comparison: when I enter the relevant search into my browser bar, two of the recommended queries are “Adele Alison Moyet’s daughter” and “Adele Alison Moyet related.” She isn’t, and they aren’t, but Moyet herself has been asked about their perceived similarity. And her response to the question brought me up short: “When I saw Adele I thought: ‘I’ll give it an hour before people say I was her,’ just because I was fat. When you watch X Factor you can bet your bottom dollar, every single fat singer sounds like me as far as the judges are concerned.” And in another interview: “We were two fat girls singing torch songs. It always happens…I do get that we’re both stationary performers, but there’ll be a talented man, with an electronic background, who has much more in common with me musically…It’s lazy comparisons.”
I don’t think that’s where I was coming from—I’ve managed to get through the last two decades with only the vaguest idea of how Moyet looked, aside from on her album covers—and I’d argue that their affinity runs deeper than Moyet acknowledges. But I can understand her frustration. We all have a way of picking up on a superficial similarity between two artists, or two works of art, and using it to draw comparisons between things that are actually quite different. When one actor resembles another, or a singer reminds us in passing of one we’ve heard before, it can typecast them in our minds in a certain way, and when an entire culture sees the resemblance, it can redirect or derail entire careers. It’s the artistic equivalent of the false friend, two words in different languages that look like cognates but really have nothing in common, and it can be equally misleading for the unwary. Back when Clive Owen was being touted as the next Bond, he shrewdly put his finger on the source of the rumors: “I wear a tuxedo in Croupier and that might have had something to do with it.” In fact, Owen wouldn’t have made a great Bond: he’s an odder and more internalized actor than the role requires, and despite his looks, that tux, and the fast cars he drove for BMW, he’s far more comfortable in quirky character parts. Fortunately for us, that snap judgment didn’t have much of an impact, and both he and Daniel Craig are better off. But not every actor or artist is so lucky.
Over the weekend, I started thinking about this again while listening to the premiere episode of the second season of Serial. Back when its initial run was unfolding, I wrote: “Listening to it, I’m frequently reminded of the work of Errol Morris, who exonerated a man wrongfully convicted of murder in The Thin Blue Line and has gone on to explore countless aspects of information, memory, and the interpretation of evidence. But Morris would have covered the relevant points in two densely packed hours, while [Sarah] Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more.” And my first thought on learning about the subject of the new season—which centers on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, who is currently facing a court-martial on charges of deserting his post in Afghanistan—is that Koenig is doing herself no favors by straying back into Morris territory. (Morris famously, if imperfectly, explored the war in Afghanistan in the book and movie Standard Operating Procedure, and the only way Koenig could have made the Morris comparison more explicit would be by structuring a podcast around a topiary gardener and a robot scientist.) Yet the more I think about it, the more I find the comparison strained. Koenig and Morris have two very distinct styles as journalists and interviewers, and they’re seeking fundamentally different effects. Serial was never going to be The Thin Blue Line, either in terms of focus or approach, and using Morris as a club to bash Koenig over the head strikes me as unfair now, even if I still have doubts about how the last season turned out.
Of course, there’s something in the human brain, with its fondness for pattern recognition, that loves to draw such comparisons. All we can do is recognize them for what they are—as judgments made in the space of a blink—and try to separate them from our more considered critical opinions. It’s easy to draw a false analogy from a few similar properties, and it can take a long time before we recognize our mistake. (This is all the more true because the first thing we latch onto from a new artist is often something that happens to ring a bell.) And it applies to more than just art. Over a century ago, the embryologist John Graham Kerr wrote:
Striking resemblance in superficial characters provides a type of pitfall which the morphologist has at an early stage in his education to school himself to avoid. He comes across cases of amazing resemblance, e.g. in pairs of “mimetic” butterflies, between a marsupial and a placental mammal, between the organ of vision in one of the higher insects and that of one of the higher Crustacea, between the skeleton of a flagellate and that of a radiolarian, and he learns to recognize that superficial resemblance may, and frequently does, provide a cloak for fundamental unlikeness. It is, in fact, one of the main parts of his business as a morphologist to find out whether in each particular case the striking resemblance so apparent to the onlooker is an expression of resemblance in fundamental points of structure or whether, on the other hand, it is merely superficial.
And that’s as true of fans and critics as it is of morphologists, and whether we’re looking at radiolarians or just listening to something on the radio.
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