I Hate the Song-as-Flowchart Meme, and Here's Why You Should, Too

Ok, hate is a strong word, but must we turn the Beatles into a software-patent diagram?

What a great song "Hey, Jude" is, especially the soulful Wilson Pickett version. It's about love and letting people in and it's perfect like all the great Beatles songs. There's almost nothing one could do to screw up the enjoyment of the song. 

Almost nothing.

Because there is something one could do: make a flowchart out of the lyrics. You've probably seen them in your Facebook news feed, but if not, they look like this:

But — haha heh — what's so wrong with making a flowchart out of a good song? It's just good Internet fun. People of the Internet love charts! And they love good songs! Put them together and it is like getting a foot rub while on a Netflix binge, but on Facebook. 

Well, I'll tell you what's wrong with it: This kind of metacontent has a fundamentally extractive relationship with the song/art that sits underneath it. This flowchart sticks its proboscis-like arrows right into the soul of the experience and extracts a cheap joke at the expense of the actual song qua the song. The emotion of a singer's voice? Gone. The timbre of the guitar? Gone. The actual feeling of listening to music? Also gone. 

And what we have left over is a joke about office productivity culture, I guess, a cleverism. A thing that reminds me of a thing I actually enjoyed, predicated on a method that is well known.

In the end, all that is emphasized is the method of flowcharting itself. Great! Now I can draw better process flow diagrams at the cobalt plant! 

I look at this musical flowchart and I see a food processing diagram showing "a method of preparing a turkey meat product of the character mentioned, which may be produced economically in large volume and wherein the end product is characterized as having traditional whole turkey flavor."

Just replace "Viscera Removed" with some lines from "Call Me Maybe" and we've got an viral hit.

It reminds me of the group selfie craze touched off by Ellen's/Bradley Cooper's paid social media advertisement. Now all these people are taking "groupies" because ... Well, why exactly? No one is quite sure. The masses certainly aren't being paid to reinforce Samsung's advertising strategy. 

Or, yesterday, our president and vice president took a picture of themselves. So people predictably photoshopped a set of known things into it, and then it was aggregated by the Washington Post. And all of this metacontent is perched on the moments when Barack Obama gave a speech that people loved or passed a law they thought was important. 

Good criticism of art extends and deepens the appreciation of the art itself. It takes from the work at hand, but it gives back, too. Formal analysis of music and alternative notations for that music can be fascinating. Same goes for "distant reading" and computational techniques for understanding novels (or whatever). But that's because those are legitimate attempts to engage with the work. They are not xeroxes of music appreciation. 

Of course, I'm probably making things worse here by thinkpiecifying an Internet trend I disagree with. I've added to the metacontent problem.

So, I should stop here. And so should you. Just say no.


+ Via Laura Olin, whom I hold in the highest esteem, despite her having brought this flowchart to my attention.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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