David Byrne: Not Just Another Talking Head

Introducing: David Byrne

 

Media and Communication are both ideas that are considered to be largely controlled by outlets such as Radio and Television, however some of the most potent and prolific communicators are ones in areas we overlook. One such man, who has continuously pushed the boundaries of how we receive things, is Scottish/American Musician, Actor, Filmmaker and Artist David Byrne. Born in West Scotland and emigrating to America during his childhood, Byrne established himself as a pioneer of Post-Punk before reinventing how the western world viewed world music. After a moving to New York he founded the band Talking Heads with whom he was the frontman between 1977 and 1991 (Byrne, 2012). As well as a commercially and critically lauded band (Rolling Stone, 2016), Byrne has had success in visual art, film direction and writing, earning an Academy Award, a Grammy, and Golden Globe awards along with a New York Times bestseller – his talents spread across multiple communicative media (Wikipedia, 2016).

 

Inspiring and Influencing

 

David Byrne was never one to stick to the status quo, writing pop music and pandering to the largest demographic didn’t interest him. As an artistic communicator, he borrowed and integrated ideas from styles worldwide, challenging what western audiences and society expected from music as a form of communication; Byrne emphasised the communicative values of the medium. To him, sound in whatever form communicated something. This was spoken word, music to evoke an emotional response, cultural integration of abstract or otherwise unknown sounds. Through all this he did what he wanted. When he heard a piece of Latin pop, he listened. The intricacies of European and African traditional music excited him. The pantomime acts of Asia gave him food for thought, and he assimilated this information and used it to create what he wanted, regardless of what 1970s and 80s America wanted. (Byrne, 2012)

As anyone who values self-expression in communication, Byrne is an inspiration. There was no other way to him than to communicate the way he wanted to. In today’s media landscape, with monopolies on what we can say and do, this self-expression – freedom to communicate your opinion, your thoughts, your ideas – is somewhat of a lost art form. Byrne is to the concept of sound as a communicative medium as Ebert is to Film, Christgau is to Music, and Frost is to Politics; a groundbreaker (Rolling Stone, 2016). As far as inspiration goes, there’s not much further to look than an innovator in his field – and for someone who’s voice is one of a highly opinionated and critical nature, Byrne is an obvious influence.

However a poignant feature of Byrne’s work is that he never credited invention. He merely reinterpreted ideas that have been in use for many a year, and credits the sources openly (Byrne, 2012). This humility is perhaps the most integral element that provides inspiration, as he does not seem to reside on a plane higher than that of any common bystander – rather as one of them who decided he wanted to do things his way, giving reason for anyone to believe they can do the same thing. This acknowledgement of influence doesn’t just stem from music, his books and films also make mention – implicit and explicit – of his wide-ranging influences.

 

These facets all come together in the person Byrne presents as a professional, and this positive manipulation and willingness to step outside of the norm while keeping humble is a definitive reason for both inspiration and influence.

 
Media Convergence and/of the World

 
First off, “Media” is the plural of “Medium”, as Oxford defines as “A means by which something is communicated or expressed”- meaning yes, art is media (Oxforddictionaries.com, 2016).

 

Other than the obvious fact that an entire 2 sections of Byrne’s How Music Works (of which I won’t make mention, more for reason of oversaturation and complication rather than relevance) are dedicated to the trend of media convergence and the influence technology has had on communication – especially his – his rise to popularity came at an integral time in the expansion of music as a form of communication; the 1980s gave birth to the golden age of MTV and the music video format. Up until the launch of MTV in 1981, music videos were more or less a band standing on a stage, lip-synching to a backing track – not a particularly powerful means of expression. This all changed when some Radio professionals came together and decided to create a channel dedicated to music videos. This form of media convergence dates back to the early days of film, where music accompanied the motion picture to add an added layer of depth – but seldom was the video the accompaniment to the music (Tannenbaum and Marks, 2016). Having seen how oriental theatre and African natives used the visual component of a performance to enhance what was being communicated, Byrne took to this trend of videography and created complementary short films as experimental and unique as Talking Heads’ music (Byrne, 2012). The 1984 musical documentary Stop Making Sense was the outcome. Besides being one of the most highly regarded concert films ever made, it managed to touch on elements of media convergence in a way that was modern. Of course we think of media being a purely technological idea, and the technology behind the film was impressive, however the convergence of the mediums of Theatre, Music, Oral Communication and Visual Communication were the keys here. Combining these elements into one film took expert skill, because the combination of these elements was only growing at the time. As the artistic driving force behind the performance, Byrne had to readily accept that what had been viewed as normal for the past decades was no longer – at least in his mind – and challenge the norm. Again, he never took credit for the decisions he made in gratifying the new media landscape, rather embraced the trend of media convergence – film becoming more and more associated with music – and if not for his willingness to experiment and push the boundaries, Byrne wouldn’t have had the opportunity to produce the film (Staff, 2011, Byrne, 2012).

 

The film medium might be a stand out, but without the global cultural landscape Byrne drew upon, it would have been nothing. As technology advanced in the late 1900s, it gave rise to the beginning of mass globalisation, from west to east as had not been so available until that point. Byrne didn’t go from west to east, he took a concerted approach to discovering what the rest of the world had to offer. It comes across is almost all of his musical works, from consistent afro-beats (derived from African percussion works discovered in his travels) to theatrical elements translated from Asian traditional performance arts (prime example is the Pho inspired “Mr. Big” suit seen on Stop Making Sense) – he used the world as his palette. He took a risk and used recordings of the Qu’ran, cut, rearranged and pasted to self-recorded music on the imaginatively titled track “Qu’ran” on his and producer/friend Brian Eno’s 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (a title borrowed from a Nigerian novel). Also included and reference points for his total embrace of globalisation are an American Radio broadcaster (also some blatant Media Convergence), Lebanese singers and gospel choirs. A continued interest in worldwide music seeped through into his music, his acquisition of Latin American vinyls prompting subtle inclusions in his records, as well as continuing love for polyrhythms and other assorted tribal percussion throughout his musical career. He even beat Paul Simon’s seminal Graceland to the African idea six years prior, Talking Heads’ 1980 breakthrough record Remain in Light popularising the use of tribal music yet not gaining quite as much attention or praise (Byrne, 2012). The ease in which technology could and did breach the gaps between nations and continents (however reluctantly at the time) allowed natural innovators such as Byrne to use the globalisation of media to experiment, and in terms of a creative individual consistently using the world as an influence, it’s hard to go past him.

The Public Sphere and Fourth Estate

It’s hard to understate the impact journalism media has had on society, and that’s no exception with the society Byrne was a part of. As a performer, much of the success attributed to Byrne and his endeavors is directly related to critical reception. With Talking Heads having been labeled “one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the ‘80s” by critic  Stephen Thomas Erlewine (Thomas Erlewine, 2016) the success and longevity of the experimental work and boundary pushing music could not have been without the general praise of the (mostly print) media at the time and the concept of the fourth estate having social influence.

 

In terms of a public sphere, the band and Byrnes music itself wouldn’t have come if it weren’t for the uprising of the Punk subculture some years earlier. This movement, of course, is an example of the public sphere at work; clubs like the historic CBGB’s provided a public venue for the oppressed to discuss and create a culture thriving on being disenfranchised with the current state of society and government – Punk (and subsequently post-punk, in which the ‘Heads were a major player) (Byrne, 2012). While not the traditional model of the public sphere, it’s an example of a niche public sphere holding major power in creating social and political movements; perhaps more powerful than a broader sphere itself.

 

Conclusion

 

From the first Talking heads album he penned in the ‘70s through his illustrious art, film and writing careers and continuing to this day, David Byrne is a modern communication guru (Thomas Erlewine, 2016). Through his willingness to experiment and adapt to the changing social landscape through media convergence and globalisation, his acceptance of the public sphere created post-punk movement and continued success with thanks to the fourth estate, Byrne has utilised foundational communication theories to better himself and his role as a media professional. His continuing presence in the arts field will only add to this, and his achievements won’t be forgotten for generations to come.

 

References

Byrne, D. (2012). How Music Works (37, 42-43, 68-79). San Francisco [Calif.]: McSweeney’s.

Wikipedia. (2016). David Byrne. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Byrne [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Oxforddictionaries.com. (2016). medium – definition of medium in English from the Oxford dictionary. [online] Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/medium#medium__2 [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Rolling Stone. (2016). Talking Heads – 100 Greatest Artists. [online] Available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-artists-of-all-time-19691231/talking-heads-20110426 [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Staff, N. (2011). The Golden Age of MTV — And Yes, There Was One. [online] NPR.org. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2011/11/06/141991877/the-golden-age-of-mtv-and-yes-there-was-one [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Tannenbaum, R. and Marks, C. (2016). I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. 1st ed. [ebook] Penguin, pp.2,3. Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=zrBolXPYq40C&pg=RA1-PA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Thomas Erlewine, S. (2016). Talking Heads | Biography & History | AllMusic. [online] AllMusic. Available at: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/talking-heads-mn0000131650/biography [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

 

 

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David Byrne: Not Just Another Talking Head

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