Great art is an amalgamation of three basic things:
- THE SAME. This is where the artist quenches our thirst with the exact same taste we have tasted before.
- THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT. Once our thirst is quenched, an artist begins taking us on a journey by giving us “the same thing but different.”
- THE GREAT BEYOND. A truly great artist will spot moments in the journey where, for as long as we can hang in there, the artist lures us outside our comfort zone and sometimes out of our universe, exposing us to The Great Beyond.
Picture yourself cheering on your favorite band. When the stage lights up and the music blares, you are probably hoping that your favorite cuts get played that very night, and you probably want them played mostly the way you know them. When the singer gets bored and sings my favorites differently, I’m taken aback and feel a bit cheated. I came to hear the mp3 but louder! Don’t get cute on my favorite song, dude with great hair! Play it right!
This process of giving people what they expect is what I refer to as giving them “The Same.”
I saw a band with five albums play a show in Cleveland back in 1991. They opened up with a couple of very familiar songs and the crowd drank it down. Cheering was so loud we almost couldn’t hear ourselves scream. With that much excitement in the air, what could possibly go wrong? (This was back before 80% of America was offended by absolutely everything, so that’s not the answer.) Here’s what actually happened:
[Singer] “Hello, Cleveland! Thanks for coming out! How are you doing tonight?”
[Crowd]: “Wooooo! Woo. Wooooooh!”
[Singer] We love this city. It’s great to be back!
[Crowd]: Yeahhhhhhh! Rock on! Wooo!”
[Singer] “We’re so excited! Tonight we’re going to do our entire new album, the one that just came out last Tuesday!”
[Crowd]: Nearly immediate silence amongst a few inaudible groans.
For real. It wasn’t that the crowd didn’t like the new album, it’s that listeners had spent 8 years developing a taste for the first four albums (“The Same”) and the only time many of them were going to get to have that particular taste of those first four albums served to them in person was that night. That’s what they came for. They weren’t ready for the new album (“The Same But Different”) yet. Not enough time had passed for people to get to know the new album and for it to feel like it was a part of the band’s identity.
It’s like, to me green Mountain Dew will always be king. But if I’ve had green Dew plenty of times this week and I spot purple Dew at Taco Bell, yeah, just maybe I’ll give it a try. But if I go to Taco Bell and they only have a shot of green Dew and then expect me to feast on purple, think again awesome Taco Bell manager. I’ll probably rebel and just get water.
The singer playing in Cleveland didn’t realize this because he is an artist. An artist’s favorite work is always whatever the heck it is they did that day. Ask any songwriter. “Everybody, stop what you’re doing! You gotta’ hear what I just finished! Well, kind of finished.... It’s my best song yet!”
For us artists to understand how the crowd thinks, we have to picture the crowd showing up thirsty, as if there’s no carbonation in the whole town and we’re a pop-laden food truck there for one night only. When they’re parched in a desert of fruit juice and bottled water, they’re not ready for purple Dew. They’re jonesing for the green stuff. The singer wanted them to take a sip of green and pound a two liter of blue, purple, and red, but he had yet to quench their thirst with “The Same.”
THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
However, after an artist quenches the participants thirst with “The Same,” the participants may be ready for a some new product taste tests. They got what they came for. Instead of feeling violated, they feel wined, dined, and validated. Now they may be ready to let the artist serve up a few new flavors for a bit by playing the less popular songs that the band loves.
THE GREAT BEYOND
During those taste tests while the crowd is trying out “The Same But Different,” the goal of the artist is to spot a few lush moments where the crowd is primed for (or at least acquiescent to) a true departure. If that moment comes, “Punch it, Chewie!” Hit light-speed and take those people where no one has gone before. It will freak most of them right out. They will resist. It will fatigue them. But if you have honored their expectations up to there, they just might not mutiny. And for a few, it can spark something that makes them open to hearing it again.
We need artists to help us with this. Look at rock music in its infancy. Think about the reception hip hop, progressive rock, metal, and indie rock received on year one. Some of the most provocative art I have ever experienced came via those media, yet they were not beloved at first listen by most. They were “The Great Beyond” and we didn’t get it. Yet if no artists had been willing to take us there, we’d still be singing “Mr. Sandman” instead of “Enter Sandman.”
I TIP MY DEW TO YOU, SIR
So with this blog I salute a man who started out his career trying to take “modern” Christian music to a new place. And unlike many of his contemporaries who have spent the last 15 years reproducing with every “new song” the same moment they created 15 years ago (moving the capo 2 frets and playing the same chords on every chorus can only take us so far!), Mr. David Crowder is still hitting light speed, offering people the purple Dew, and whatever metaphor you want to use.
So to him I say, “Thank you, Sir. May I have another! I salute you, Brother. May we all learn from your example.”