In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there was a computer terminal that helped trace the influences that led to a given band. Nirvana, it said, was the product of the Pixies and the Melvins. I can’t imagine that anyone at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thinks influence is that simple – in the case of Nirvana, if you miss the Beatles, you miss a big part of the story – but I’m reading Scott Tennant‘s 33 1/3 book on Slint’s Spiderland right now, and it reminds readers how subtle influences can be. He starts telling their story by telling the stories of the bands the members were in before Slint, and it’s clear that the people they played with and the music they made shaped they would come to make with Slint. After playing hardcore punk, some members realized that’s not what they wanted to do, and it seems pretty obvious that the personal dynamics within the bands – who they had affinities for, who they didn’t – helped determine what they wanted to be and what they didn’t.
They’re hardly unique, and if we tracked Nirvana’s or any band’s influences – personal as well as aesthetic – we’d find a far more complex and far more idiosyncratic network than the A + B = C dynamic that’s too often put forward as a short form answer. For me, all those personal, unplanned influences make music and art far more human pursuits and less the product of “genius,” which makes art seem remote and unlikely.