Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dancing Like David Byrne: Apollo Performs Dionysus

A while ago I went a bit overboard in examining the phenomenon of the hipster in terms derived from Nietzsche's study The Birth of Tragedy. Long story short, my argument was that the hipster was, at the core, an Apollonian rather than a Dionysian figure — that is, a figure devoted to self-possession, critical distance, and individual identity, rather than being devoted to the loss of selfhood in an ecstatic fusion with others. The hipster doesn't want to, or is unable to, join in with large groups. He or she just can't quite surrender the self to the whole. But at the same time, I argued, the hipster also wants camaraderie and a sense of group-identity — wants, that is, some measure of Dionysian experience. This is why there is a recognizable hipster look, and recognizable hipster music and neighborhoods. But the hipster position is unstable: wanting to be part of a group but hating giving oneself over to a group is a complicated, fraught place to be. This is why we find hipsters hating on other hipsters for being hipsters: they yearn for group identity and despise it at the same time. Or so my story ran.

Today, though, thanks to some comments from Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, I've been thinking about a happier fusion of Apollo and Dionysus, a fusion to be found in the music of a band that meant a lot to me back in the 80s, Talking Heads, and the dancing of their frontman, David Byrne.

I've never quite been able to put my finger on the exact nature of the curiously affectless nature of much Talking Heads music. Certainly much of it comes from Byrne's singing, which is almost a kind of talking. He does little to give emotional quality to his delivery: dynamic changes are muted, there's little or no tremolo, and he doesn't run notes like an R&B singer. The flatness of delivery really stands out when you listen to the Talking Heads' cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" after listening to the original: Al Green glides into and out of falsetto, purr-growls like a cat, holds back and then releases energy, lets his words blurr at the edges, to where they become purely emotive sound. He even lets loose with a little James Brown at the end. In contrast, David Byrne mostly sort of narrates, with a slightly breathy quality. When he does go into a kind of falsetto, it isn't driven by passionate intensity, as in Al Green's falsetto of barely-controlled ecstasy. Rather, it seems like Byrne's read an instruction saying "insert falsetto here," and followed it, for no compelling reason. I don't mean that this is a bad thing — the affect of affectlessness is the genius of the band. This affectlessness comes across in the arrangement and instrumental performances, too. Talking Heads keep the tempo slow and steady, and you could pretty much set your watch by the drum beat.

But you didn't want to talk about music. You wanted to talk about dance. Okay! Consider Byrne's dance in the video clip above. The person who posted it to Youtube considers it "funny," and I suppose it is, in that there's a kind of incongruity to it, and incongruity is at the root of a lot of humor. But I'm interested in the particular kind of incongruity. On the one hand, the dance signals "performance" and "rock show" mostly by the largeness of the movements. This is stage stuff, giant, choreographed, and meant for a big crowd in a big venue to notice, focus on, and collectively get into — good Dionysian stuff. On the other hand, there's a kind of distance between the dancer and the dance: Byrne moves as if he's not emotionally committed. There are no Freddy Mercury operatics, there's none of that Mick Jagger sex-chicken strut. There's a sense of performance, but not performance of emotion. The excessive symmetry of the movements, their regularity, and the relative lack of energy all create a sense that the dancer stands above the dance, rather than enters into it and emotionally commits. All of this combines to put the idea of performance in quotation marks.

There are a number of ways one could talk about this. "It's defamiliarization," we might say, echoing Victor Shklovsky, "it's a way of highlighting convention by tweaking it a bit." True enough. But it's more than that. It's also a matter of taking a Dionysian ritual — the rock concert, where the audience sways, butt-shakes, and sings in unison, enjoying its togetherness and unity-in-fandom — and combining it with a kind of Apollonian self-reserve. We don't just lose ourselves in the performance, because the performer himself hovers a little above his performing self, and asks us to do so, too. We enjoy the loss of ourselves in the crowd and the music, but we also watch the front man hold himself back, and we emulate that. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the weirdness of this holding-back in the Dionysian context of a concert takes us a little out of the moment, and we stand back and analyze it, even as we participate in it. We get to be Apollonian observer-critics even as we also get to be Dionysian participants. It's no wonder Talking Heads was the intellectual's rock band: they let us worship our usual god even when we're in the realm of his rival, Dionysus.