Repetition: the Curse of our Time

There I am at the dinner table, watching a break in the Channel 9 news. I have seen this ad dozens of times now, and I can act it out. I do so, somewhat to the irritation of Bev, who has the useful skill of being able to turn off one part of her mind and return to her cryptic crossword the moment an advertisement appears. Why can’t I follow her example, and do something else? I don’t know. Maybe women are just better at this. I am conscious of the repetition, and my irritation comes from wondering why it is that the advertiser thinks I need to see this ad so often. Its product is of no interest to me anyway, and the ad puts me off. Even if I wanted the product I would not buy it. Repetition here is counter-productive, at least for me.

Repetition is everywhere. I encountered it first in primary school, doing drills for arithmetic, and later learning lists of words for French vocabulary. I hated it then, too. I would like to say that my preference was for ‘deep learning’, but the most probable reason is that the repetition bored me.

It is there in pop and rock music, too. I sometimes wonder whether or not it is the case that most of us have a short attention span for music — about 3 minutes — so that the composer has to hammer away at the little figure or theme, melodic or rhythmic, so that we remember it well. The next time we hear the song, it will be a case of ‘I know that!’ and we hear the song as a friend. Certainly the great majority of pop songs last from between two and four minutes. Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, with nine minutes, is the stellar exception.

I mustn’t be precious about it. Repetition is everywhere in the mainstream Western classical repertoire as well. The most famous example is the opening figure of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – dit, dit, dit,dah …dit, dit, dit dah … Someone has counted the repetitions of the Beethoven Fifth opening theme, and there are something like 180 of them in the first movement alone. It reappears later in the symphony as well. Not only that, it is the Morse Code equivalent of the letter V, and was used in the Second World War as the symbol for the Allies’ eventual victory — which was paradoxical, given that the symphony is one of the great symbols of German culture.  A repeated figure in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was so ever-present that the musicians themselves protested.

From music to politics. Coming remorselessly towards us is one of the great opportunities for mindless repetition, the 2013 Federal elections. How could I forget the last one, when Tony Abbott endlessly chanted ‘stop the boats’ and Julia Gillard endlessly chanted something else, which I have fortunately forgotten. Perhaps I am quite wrong, but I do not recall that kind of repetition in the past.

So I wonder about the implications of it today. Does it mean that the election strategists think we are unable to understand argument, and that driving a message into our skulls is the only way the get us to vote a particular way? Or do they think we are distracted by other matters, and bored with politics? Or is that television only has time for a ten-second message, and that’s all we get? Or all the above?

I dislike the cry that everything is ‘dumbed down’ today, but electioneering is a field where that argument is hard to counter. It is not so much the repetition that I hate, but its emptiness. Winston Churchill was an adroit user of repetition, as in his call to the nation: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.’ But he was a student and exemplar of good prose.

If the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are to engage in repetition next year, could they at least study the master?

Leave a Reply