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My pole-star song for 2022 is David Byrne’s Here, the opening number to American Utopia. I saw it performed live by the show’s Byrne-led ensemble last week, after Amy scored front-and-center seats through a Broadway ticket lottery; “close enough to see the sweat”, as she described it to friends afterwards. I don’t think it’s too early to describe the experience as life-changing.
Here establishes the show’s framing metaphor of the human brain. The curtain rises on Byrne holding a neuro-anatomical model, and he proceeds to indicate various parts with his hands, addressing the audience like a lecturer. “Here is a region of abundant detail,” he sings, touching one part, and then another. “Here is an area of great confusion.”
Having seen it performed, several moments in the song make me shudder on re-listen. One is the moment when the first of the ensemble’s two dancers first joins Byrne on the stage, harmonizing with the chorus, and beginning the very gradual build-up of performers that fills the stage over the course of the initial numbers. Another happens at the close of Here’s second verse, when Byrne runs a finger along the fissure between the brain’s two hemispheres. “And here’s the connection,” he sings, “to the opposite side.”
That moment defines the show. Having lyrically activated the corpus callosum, the remainder of the song celebrates the brain’s cohesion into something greater than the sum of its parts; how the presence of that connection pulls all those sections together into a miraculous organ that can listen, comprehend, and dream. The rest of American Utopia frames itself around the idea of the brain as microcosm for human society, as a model for many discrete regions connecting to make something beautiful and amazing. Byrne monologues briefly between all the songs—a mix of original numbers and venerable Talking Heads favorites—to set them all in this context, and to share his motivations for creating a staged concert whose musicians are entirely mobile, playing only portable, wireless instruments.
Ultimately, the show dreams of Americans, specifically, finding connection—for all their vast differences, and for all that has gone wrong. (Among the numbers is Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout, protesting racial injustice.) And performed today, American Utopia quite intentionally challenges the listener to put aside cynical thoughts of futility and hopelessness, and to consider other paths.
Hopelessness feel easier to come by today than ever before, but that doesn’t make it any healthier to swaddle your heart in. I needed to hear the suggestion of an alternative direction, and a reminder that even when things seem very bleak, one can gather personal energy and optimism by imagining a better future, and moving oneself in that direction.
On the topic of connection, the show catalyzed something I had experienced earlier that week. Apple’s Fitness+ channel, which I have been enjoying for the past year, recently added meditation guided-programming. In one recent episode, the instructor Christian Howard leads the audience through an unexpected and difficult emotional exercise. Think of a person you dislike, and then imagine the child deep inside them that just wants love and safety. And then imagine embracing and comforting that child. Just holding it for a few minutes.
The point, of course, is to see yourself in others, to see a common, shining, most-essential core shared by all individuals, and to acknowledge a similarity even when surface differences seem unbridgeable. It’s a bit of mental reality-folding I’ve heard from gurus in the recent past, most especially in the writings of Alan Watts, adapting Hindu cosmology for western audiences. It’s all very easy to forget! With music—with the experience of sitting just feet away from those performers, a memory I can revisit at any time by listening to the cast album—I hope it has seared itself more permanently into my own brain.
I have found ways to apply Byrne and Howard’s accidental amalgamation of sympathetic optimism into my life, starting with my day job that sees me working with lots of other people carrying their own desires and directions. It has already felt like a breakthrough. Time will tell whether this lasts beyond the intrinsic novelty of a new year, but I feel hopeful. (About feeling hopeful.)
None of this is easy. Byrne’s show is a wish to apply this on a national level, perhaps a global one. That’s a tall order! But that isn’t for me—one little neuron—to accomplish alone. I’ll take the lessons and that fortune saw fit to provide me with in the first days of this year, and do my best to light up the space around me, and I’ll see what might shine back as a result.
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