By Sam McPheeters
Rare are the artists who find themselves welcomed in more than one great cultural scene. The herky-jerky art-rock band known as Talking Heads accomplished this trick early in their career, however, neatly mixing with New York City’s Class of '77 (Ramones, Television, Blondie) and the more high-minded crowd of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass, Twyla Tharp). This struggle of "downtown" vs. "uptown" sensibilities—the psychic commute between CBGB’s and BAM—would follow the Talking Heads throughout their career and has followed the band’s front man David Byrne farther still.
In his life outside Talking Heads, Byrne has shown a remarkable adaptability as a photographer, author, movie director, visual and video artist, and Oscar-wining musical collaborationist. The Luaka Bop label he founded and ran until last year was steeped in dopey, love-struck reverence for its artists. Never willing to grandstand Paul Simon-style before the Latin and African musicians he championed, Byrne highlighted a rare decency in pop culture.
Recently, the man has dabbled in the world of PowerPoint presentation software. Last year on NPR, he explained this latest work as the logical consequence of a long musical career: "I'm using a medium that's ubiquitous, that everybody knows about, and maybe using it in a slightly different way, giving it a little twist or tweak. In that case, it was pop songs—I was perfectly happy and excited about using the limitations. I would write within that format. In this case, I"m limited by what PowerPoint would do."
This is refreshing: the face of a hugely successful rock band not only unswayed by the undertow of glories past, but also actually placing that experience in a modest artistic context. Byrne has called himself "a smug pseudo-bohemian" in more than one interview, which seems not entirely tongue-in-cheek. For someone with a bad case of the decents, these slips of modesty hint back to a career-spanning propriety, to a maturing rocker able to flourish in the shadow of past accomplishments. Even the band's conflicts came tainted by this civility: Byrne sued in ’96 to prevent his former band mates to tour as "The Heads"; six years later, all four reunited for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Of course, a little human decency can go a long way. As a medium, PowerPoint seems overdue for satire, but Byrne's "I ♥ PowerPoint" lecture series isn't terribly funny. The slender coffee-table book that accompanies the piece lists at $80 and comes burdened with the title "Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information." PowerPoint’s clunky clichés—overlays, swipes, swirling drop-ins—are here summoned to showcase businesswomen with cube heads and droll electronic music (three new compositions grace the DVD). No immediate political conclusion or artistic irony is to be had. As with many of David Byrne's projects, there is an overabundance of that dry, arctic wit shared by Garrison Keillor in specific and all of Minnesota Public Radio in general. Not quite a "Yes Men"-style prank attack on business presentations, not quite full-bore performance art, Byrne’s new career as a lecturer projects a civilized, good-natured bemusement that verges on the precious.
That could be part of the charm. A PG-rated David Lynch, Byrne has that rare gift of making his audiences feel they have been the beneficiaries of something magical. His—a sales sticker on another recent coffee-table book tells us—is an "affectionate critique." Fair enough. But of what?