Thursday, June 30, 2005

You Hear What You See

I recently watched the movie "Beyond the Sea" staring Kevin Spacey about the life of Bobby Darin. For those who don't know Bobby Darin was a prolific songwriter/performer who wrote the songs "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife" among many others.

An interesting part of the movie was when Bobby Darin tried to use his music to protest the Vietnam War. Up to that point he'd been doing standards in lounges and clubs but was beginning to feel real opposition in his heart to the war. So he books a gig at a club in Vegas. He starts off the show with a protest song and quickly turns off the crowd. They didn't want to hear protest music, they wanted the standards. So he gets very upset that his message didn't get received by the crowd that night, to which his wife replies, "Bobby, they only hear what they see."

Suddenly a light bulb goes off in Bobby's head. Out of what seemed like a low point in his career Bobby asks his agent to book him in Vegas again. However this time Bobby reconfigured his show to combine his message with what he was best known for. By the end of the movie he does a show in a club and does the same protest song. While it starts with him and an acoustic guitar as if it's going to be a typical folky protest song, the lights come up to reveal a whole band and choir. By the end of the gig everybody in the place is singing along with him. This is a great example of an artist who learned how to use his art to engage an audience with his message.

MORAL: As an artist who has something to say I have often struggled with the presentation of it all. For example, I remember when I did my first CD back in 1994 called "Through These Pinholes". My mentality was that I wanted people to hear the music. I didn't care about the look of the artwork much because I was focused on the music. The problem is folk’s first impression of my music is from the cover. And, to be honest I think the cover sucked pretty bad. However from my mindset at the time which was defining itself against pop commercialism, spending much time on the cover seemed like a compromise. The sad thing is that many folks that might have responded to the music were turned off by the cover.

As artists we have to figure out ways to effectively engage society. I want to make people think, to get them to question, to cause them to want to live from their hearts. I won't be successful at that if they can't get past the presentation. I am not saying that we need to start judging the books by their covers; I am just stating that this is what happens naturally.

When I met Dina (who later became my wife) my first impression was not based on the wonderful hidden aspects of her heart. I just thought she was beautiful. As we have been married now for nearly 8 years I certainly appreciate her heart and personality much more. In fact they give great depth to her beauty. But I suspect I'd never have gotten to know the other aspects if my first impression hadn't been so good.

So as it applies to art, I think we artists can benefit by judging how we come across. Too often we make our art inaccessible to people because we are so concerned with artistic integrity. We make it about us and our art rather than communicating something that transcends us and our art.

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