Monday, October 12, 2020

The 4 Minute Mile: Establishing a Framing vs Following Formula

This sensational cover of "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac is sweeping the Internet:

You see a woman singing (quite well). Me? I see the 4 minute mile. More on that in a moment. First some quick impressions:

1. To cover a song that's been so mind-numbingly overplayed (I was alive in 1977, and just barely survived with sanity intact), and make me listen all the way through - and even like it - is near-miraculous.

2. Professional musician appraisal: this woman is supremely talented. No laser-sharp scalpel of penetrating criticism could find fault with a single note, a single breath. This is Nadia Comăneci territory. Perfect 10.

3. What's more, it's effortless. It's not the sort of effortlessness that comes with hard work, however. This is effortless effortlessness. She was born this way.

That's not to say she hasn't worked. She undoubtedly has. But the perfection you're seeing doesn't stem from that work. It gave her confidence, consistency, versatility, and showed her her own limits. But the perfect timing, perfect pitch, perfect shadings of timbre and feeling? Natural, all of it, goddamn it.
Here, fyi, is another very young singer, with equal natural talent, who works the jazzier side of things.
But for all her talent and subtlety, she has not an iota of creativity. You can replay that video 14,000 times and never pick out a single nuance, intention, or shading you haven't heard a zillion times before. And the tantalizing scraps of emotion, perfectly portrayed, are 100% canned, simulated, faked. She cooly injects heat with scientific precision, like adding a precise quantity of argon gas to a beaker. She even lets us see the machinations. After her most impassioned bursts, she side-eyes the camera with bemused mirth. Fooled you!

Whipping together a grab bag of canned, clichéd moves with easy talent and charismatic delivery is suficient to achieve great things in this world, and I hope she does. But her approach is, alas, hollow and cynical.

If you don't understand, let me shake you up a little. Here's Billie Holiday in 1959, wailing her way through "Strange Fruit", her gutsy original song about lynchings. See if you detect any side-eye to the camera. See if you catch her adorably puncturing her own mock-seriousness. See if there's anything "mock" about this.

Ok, the two songs are extremely dissimilar, so I'm a dork for choosing this as a contrast. But regardless of material, it would not occur to Billie to wink at the camera - "Look at me, acting all emotional!" - because Billie isn't acting. She's genuine. Remember "genuine"?

Stevie Nicks spent years on the road honing her music. By contrast, the post-adolescent in this video likely developed her skills in showers and on school buses. And, to be honest, she kicks Stevie's butt. She does Stevie's thing better than Stevie ever did, and blends in plenty of other singers just as skillfully, pastiching a flawless result via ungodly natural talent and skill.

So here's the big question: How does someone like this kick the butt of someone like that?

Leapfrogging. Efficiency. Roadmaps. The vast difference between devising a formula and following a formula.

Stevie came up with a way of singing that was the organic product of rich life experience and a particular  stream of influences. She distilled it into a unique expression of perspective - a musical framing. And once someone creative establishes a fresh framing, it's much, much easier for people to glom onto it, effortlessly.

If you discovered a door in your home no one had previously noticed, everyone would start passing easily in and out of that doorway with nary a thought. Your genius fostered their ease. Finding and establishing hidden doorways requires vision and commitment. Stevie took years to find her door and to present it contagiously. YouTube woman waltzed through the easy open door.

I'm trying to make a larger point, and don't mean to leave this terrific kid bashed and bloodied. If she didn't have freakish talent, skill, and charisma, none of this would be worth discussing, and I wouldn't have been riveted to my screen. Credit given; hats tipped! But, in the larger picture, it’s posing. She's not doing, she's seeming (same even when she sings her heartfelt original composition about depression). This is the best seeming a seemer could ever seem. But I felt nothing deep or lasting. My perspective wasn't tweaked, much less shifted. There was no galvanization or inspiration. I was merely impressed.

Truly creative people move you more than they impress you, because it's not about them. Inspiration serves you, the observer, whereas admiration solicitation serves only the performer. The latter is like getting trapped in a spider web while the former is liberating.

In 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes. It was a miracle; an accomplishment previously deemed impossible. Yet suddenly everyone could do it (see the progression here).

Suddenly everyone could do it.

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