Who’s going to write the next Hamilton? The musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genuine phenomenon, an inspired work that ingeniously fuses hip-hop and literature. So who can match it?
Whoever tries should forget about themselves for a couple of years and just read books and study great art. Critics love to praise Hamilton for its music and its multiculturalism; fewer point out that Miranda’s opus began after he read a particularly inspiring 800-page book. Great art often only comes about after a difficult but rewarding period of immersion in source material—classic novels, great paintings, epic poems, or difficult films.
Ron Chernow’s opus about the life of Alexander Hamilton is the forge upon which Miranda created his work, but he is the exception to the rule. As our culture becomes less literate and artists become less willing to explore new ideas, our art becomes less captivating. Kanye raps about himself and how much fame sucks. Taylor Swift sings about love. Britney Spears dances and sings about sex.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those topics; one of the great things about music, from Chuck Berry to punk to rap, is that you can sing about simple things. But it seems like these days all we have are such expressions of the capricious self. With no real knowledge to mine, artists end up merely celebrating themselves. Hamilton scored because Miranda looked outside of himself to find inspiration.
The late-1960s-era Beatles explored political and theological themes; Stevie Wonder’s masterpieces of the early 1970s were equal parts funk genius and metaphysical poetry (Wonder is also a champion of expanding the range and amount of literature available to the blind); David Bowie had an impressive reading list that informed his songs; Elvis Costello is a walking dictionary. More recently, jazz musician Mark Turner based an entire album on The Lathe of Heaven, a book by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
I recently listened to one of my favorite records from the early 1980s, Synchronicity by the Police. Group leader Sting was often mocked for pomposity, but in listening to Synchronicity one encounters a passionate mind whose thirst for art and literature has produced a record of extraordinary power. The album explores themes as diverse as evolution, the Cold War, and The Sheltering Sky, an existential novel by Paul Bowles.
Synchronicity was released in 1983, a time of effusive musical creativity, much of it based on literary and artistic sources. In his book, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, writer Simon Reynolds notes how bands in the postpunk era were influenced by the modernist artistic aesthetic that predated rock itself:
Those postpunk years from 1978 to 1984 saw the systematic ransacking of twentieth-century modernist art and literature. The entire postpunk period looks like an attempt to replay virtually every major modernist theme and technique via the medium of pop music. Cabaret Voltaire borrowed their name from Dada. Pere Ubu too theirs from Alfred Jarry. Talking Heads turned a Hugo Ball sound poem into a tribal-disco dance track. Gang of Four, inspired by Brecht and Godard’s alienation effects, tried to deconstruct rock even as they rocked hard. Lyricists absorbed the radical science fiction of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick.
Simple pop songs aren’t inferior to complex ones—just listen to the Beach Boys. But once pop musicians—or any artists—have conquered the world of simple things (not to mention fast cars, clubbing, and adolescent self-assertion), they should challenge themselves. And as Miranda’s Hamilton shows, no source of inspiration should be off limits: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor—even a biography of a dead white male.