Style Over Substance


By Anjali Nayak

One of my fondest memories is waiting for Blond to come out. A mere four days before my birthday, Frank Ocean released his third album, a standing symbol of the Queer experience, and one of the most successful albums of the 2010s. I stayed up all night, huddled with friends and family, my cousin constantly refreshing the iTunes homepage. Until finally, there it was. 

As a huge fan of Frank Ocean’s work, I have something to confess. The majority of the time I listen to his music, I have absolutely no idea what he’s saying. On a good day, I’ll be lucky enough to catch a line or two, but I don’t need to understand his work to enjoy it, I need to feel it.

While most may argue that the quality of the quote-on-quote “substance” of a piece of art makes or breaks its validity, I personally feel that the best form of art is when the style IS the substance. I don’t know what a white Ferrari exactly is, but Frank’s smoky tenor, the low EQ filter, and the faint acoustic guitars always leave me in tears by the end of the song. 

Hailed as one of the greatest pieces of literature, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse has a fairly manageable storyline. A family stays in their vacation home and thinks about going to a lighthouse, but doesn’t. Ten years pass, and then they do. The simple storyline brings out the best in Woolf’s books, her stream of consciousness occasionally mixed with quick, transient sentences makes for a touching novel. I remember reading the very end of the novel when the Ramsay family finally goes to the lighthouse. James Ramsay understands that the lighthouse of his childhood is paired with the lighthouse of his newfound reality, and faces a reconciliation of these competing images into a whole truth.  

Reading the infamous line, “For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too,” broke me. The book invigorated a greater (and more artful) understanding of life. Suddenly, I was reminded of the fleeting aspects of existence, moments quickly lost, but never found. I remember calling my grandparents, giving my dog a hug, and starting up a conversation with my sister at the dinner table. It wasn’t the three sentence narrative that drove me into the depths of an existential crisis, but rather the writing style. Once again, Virginia Woolf provides an example of when style becomes the substance of a piece of art. 

The most underrated film director to ever exist, Wong Kar Wai serves as a trailblazer of style and substance. While most of his films don’t have any sort of structure or storyline, he is able to make genius, critical, pieces of art. His cinematic style is endearing but grand. He’s able to create character development through dreamy, filtered, cinematography. His most critically acclaimed film Chungking Express follows a love story between a police officer and a drug lord, there’s hardly any dialogue, but the emotions are clear. 

The examples of style becoming substance are never-ending. A man goes crazy working at a haunted ski lodge? Doesn’t work without the isolated, looming cinematography of the Overlook Hotel. Immature high school drama? I won’t watch without ostentatious lighting, makeup, and Labyrinth’s electrifying soundtrack (but I do draw the line at a five-minute Dominic Fike tiny desk performance). Others might say that style over substance is a lazy excuse for terrible writing. They’ve got it wrong. It doesn’t matter if you understand the art, it only matters if you feel it.