“This Ain’t No Disco,” Broadway Tells David Byrne
Former Talking Heads front man David Byrne has seen the future of rock and roll, and it is not solidarity. Ahead of the July Broadway debut of Here Lies Love, Byrne’s “immersive” musical theater collaboration with Fatboy Slim, the production has run afoul of the American Federation of Musicians’ Local 802, which objects to the show’s extensive use of prerecorded music. The Local’s Broadway contract usually stipulates that productions employ 19 live musicians, and union representatives take understandable exception to a pending show that disregards that protection for workers in the industry. Byrne’s supposed artistic motives align a bit too neatly with measures that other cost-cutting executives would embrace as a precedent to sideline musicians already struggling to make ends meet in the age of monopoly-platform streaming.
In response to the union’s concerns, Byrne and the show’s PR team released a sententious statement on Instagram to lay out the production’s revolutionary format and genre-bending originality. “Here Lies Love is not a traditional Broadway musical,” the statement reads.
The music is drawn outside of the traditional music genre. The performance of the live vocals to pre-recorded, artificial tracks is paramount to its artistic concept. Production has ripped out the seats in the theater and built a dance floor. There is no longer a proscenium stage. The Broadway Theater has been transformed into a nightclub, with every theatergoer immersed in the experience.
If this sparks traumatic flashbacks to the cultural-studies jargon of the 1990s, prepare yourself: Byrne and company are just getting warmed up. The statement builds to its own karaoke-in-a-graduate-seminar-room crescendo:
Here Lies Love is on Broadway because Broadway must support boundary-pushing creative work. Broadway is also the venue for a well conceived, high-quality show that highlights the valued traditions of specific cultures whose stories have never been on its stages. Here Lies Love does not believe in artistic gatekeepers. Here Lies Love believes in a Broadway for everyone, where new creative forms push the medium and create new traditions and audiences.
In short, Here Lies Love is an opportunistic Mad Libs–style display of self-serving pomposity, haphazardly dressing up a slender theatrical conceit as a vehicle of mass empowerment and liberation. The premise of the show is simply to recreate the atmosphere of the New York townhouse that Imelda Marcos, the turbo-shopping wife of former Filipino authoritarian leader Ferdinand Marcos, converted into a disco in the 1970s. Like the not-at-all boundary-pushing work Evita, the production supplies a decontextualized, aesthetic account of an ugly political moment, posing as a searing commentary on the politics of cultural production. Despite the overblown liberationist rhetoric of the show’s Instagram statement, its only innovation appears to be linking the name “Fatboy Slim” with the phrase “new creative forms.”
More than that, though, Here Lies Love also serves as the perfect distillation of Byrne’s own free-floating omni-aestheticized worldview—and the reactionary labor politics of its producers are entirely of a piece with Byrne’s own terminally preppy view of the world as his customized playhouse of innovation and expression. That vision was confidently announced in the Talking Heads’ 1977 debut LP, with not merely faux-transgressive fluff like “Psycho-Killer” and “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” but also the wan character study “Don’t Worry About the Government.” Here, the trademark Byrne narrator—an agitated and suggestible art-student type plunged into one stagnant over-signifying set piece after another—finds to his own quasi-bafflement that he’s the president of the United States. “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones,” Byrne sang. “They work so hard and try to be strong.” He goes on to hymn the perks of his station with the mien of an overgrown infant: “My building has every convenience / It’s gonna make life easy for me / It’s gonna be easy to get things done / I will relax, along with my loved ones.”
This early outing conveyed the essential message of every Talking Heads song: Alienation is amusing and harmless, even (or perhaps especially) when partnered with maximum social power. It’s the refrain that blares throughout the signature Heads anthem “Once in a Lifetime,” where the pasteboard Byrne character muses on the empty material rewards of suburban life like a minor John Cheever character: “And you may ask yourself, ‘How do I work this?’ / And you may ask yourself, ‘Where is that large automobile?’ / And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house’ / And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife.’”
Trippy. But here, as in most of the entries in the vast and numbing Talking Heads catalog, nothing much is ultimately at stake. It merely turns out that, seen from a certain angle, American success is unreal and ritualistic. (The video for “Once in a Lifetime” has Byrne assuming the character of a Pentecostal preacher, as the song’s chorus evokes the rite of baptism.) But life goes on, and the malleable posture of restive-yet-comforting unreality infects the band’s treatment of every conceivable topic, from international terrorism and political exile (“The Listening Wind,” “Life During Wartime”) to work and culture creation (“Paper,” “Found a Job”) to sex and childrearing (“Little Creatures”) and moving house (“Cities”). To be immersed in the Talking Heads songbook is to experience in utero the same hermetic gestures of labored whimsy and entitled rebellion that would later fuel the relentlessly twee cinema of Wes Anderson and the pipsqueak-pomo fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer. It is to scan across the landscape of cultural power and gurgle in self-satisfied delight.
Indeed, David Byrne’s sensibility—the bedrock conviction that saucer-eyed bemusement simultaneously explains and absolves all—is perhaps the most enduring cultural legacy of the Reagan era, when the Talking Heads catapulted into mass stardom. Jonathan Demme’s worshipful 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, transformed Byrne into an all-purpose prophet in a gargantuan white suit, purring the very sort of koan-like couplets that one could all too readily imagine caroming through the head of an American president who was not always sure he wasn’t on a movie set. At the same time, Byrne’s own foray into filmmaking—the unwatchable cracked-Americana travelog True Stories—showed none of the Gipper’s assured populist instincts. Instead, it’s a cringey tour through a stereotyped version of small-town USA: a museum installation of tabloid-besotted proles, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted oddballs, with Byrne as the deadpan, self-appointed docent. Like the band’s recorded work, Byrne’s film was steeped in the smarm and condescension that infused the era’s superficial fascination with offbeat and quirky Americans who work for a living and retreat into dumbfounding private cosmologies in their off-hours. It’s as if Frank Capra had matriculated at the Rhode Island School of Design—the well-appointed art school where Byrne met up with Heads drummer Chris Frantz and set about forming a band.
But as the dispute over the staging of Here Lies Love shows, Byrne is now fully aligned with his inner Reagan. Reagan was perhaps the country’s greatest labor-movement turncoat; after serving in the 1940s as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he moved swiftly as president to break the air traffic controllers’ union, and thereby discredited work stoppages as an effective mobilizing strategy for the better part of a generation. In an official statement, Musicians Union Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi argued that Byrne, too, “is trying to break the union” and attacking members by “denigrating their work, tossing them aside, and saying they can’t do it.” Reagan, like Byrne, pawned off a fundamentally reactionary model of enterprise as an unrelieved study in exhilarating liberation: Screw the gatekeepers, man! Both cultural entrepreneurs wasted little time in disowning their past comrades—be they the air traffic controllers, who actually endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election, or Byrne’s fellow musicians, who are trying to ply their craft without having to compete with the hoary conceit of a dictator’s first lady’s playlist. (By the way, Mr. Offbeat Celebrant of the Plain Folk: If you want to stage a theater project in a disco setting, rent a fucking disco.) Both men even share an inexplicable fascination with Imelda Marcos.
Reagan claimed that his reactionary views on political economy were grounded in his disenchantment with liberal politics writ large. He famously proclaimed that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party; rather, it left him. David Byrne, bard of the ascendant Reaganite cultural consensus, can claim no such excuse. As the master himself put it back in the day: “same as it ever was.”
[Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, co-editor of BookForum, DC correspondent for The New York Observer, senior editor at CQ Weekly, an erstwhile columnist for The Awl, and held positions at New York magazine, Washington Post Book World, and Newsday. Lehmann has published essays and reportage on politics and culture in a wide range of outlets and is the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016) and Rich People Things: Real-life Secrets of the Predator Class (Haymarket 2012).]
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