The Song-as-Flowchart: It's Not Only Great, It's Part of the Tradition

The music does not die by being visualized, just as some zaftig Baroness did not die upon being painted.

I took ill last night, so I woke up this morning groggy and slower-moving than usual. I lurched through my apartment, ate some matzah, and eventually settled myself upon the porcelain throne while I turned on the shower. I simultaneously gained consciousness and scrolled down my Twitter feed—and then I encountered the above chart.

I knew not what to make of it. It had been some time since I heard Bonnie Tyler’s nasalized soft-rock warbling, some time since her 1983 worldwide super-hit had fondled my cochlea. I could not remember what it sounded like.

So (I had by this time risen, preparing to get into the shower), I went to my streaming music service, Rdio. I searched for, located, and played the song. 

Dear reader, I listened to the entire thing. I followed along. The flowchart brought me to the song, as a sheep to pasture.

And now I have come into work and discovered that Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal—my own editor, my manager!—has maligned this fine if superficial meme genre, the song-as-flowchart. Alexis believes them to be “cleverisms,” little shots of pop cultural remixing meant to trigger a moment of frisson. Look at me, Alexis seems to imagine the song-as-flowchart consumer flaunting. I know of this song and I know of office culture’s propensity for charts! I am hip, culturally literate, and downright attractive! 

Meanwhile, thinks Alexis, they rob the song of its vim, its flavor, its song-ness.

Alexis may be right about the appeal of the song-as-flowchart (henceforth abbreviated SAF). But he is dead wrong, dangerously wrong, about how they work.

Here is the heart of Alexis’s argument: 

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. 

Setting aside his seemingly synaesthetic reaction to the meme—apparently the essence of song, once inhaled by the nasalized flowchart, travels up its eustachian tubes and lodges itself in the chart’s sinuses—Alexis misunderstands here the entire history of Western music.

Alexis is arguing implicitly that to represent some aspect of a song is to deprive it of its song-ness. The SAF enters the room, spots Bonnie Tyler standing by the bruschetta, accosts her and—with a snort and a plop—converts her into a shareable image. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is no more, notwithstanding the 6 million physical singles it’s sold. It has become but a log in the social fires.

But to represent music visually is not to deprive it of its essential songness. The music does not die by being visualized, just as some zaftig Baroness did not die upon being painted. To represent music is simply to represent some aspect of it: to depict what’s happening in the sound of the music visually, such that we can better comprehend it, theorize about it, or simply have fun with it.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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