David Byrne performs live on stage during the first night of the European leg of his 'American Utopia' tour, at New Theatre on June 14, 2018 in Oxford, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)
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American Utopia

Facts are overlooked in American Utopia’s HBO concert film to accommodate the systemic white racism narrative

David Byrne recently became the latest in a list of celebrities to apologise for “blacking up” in the past. His racial sin occurred in a promotional video for the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense in 1984. Byrne wrote on Twitter: “I’d like to think I am beyond making mistakes like this, but clearly at the time I was not.” As he concedes in his 2019 Broadway show American Utopia – a 2018 album, and now an HBO film – he needed to change.

Change is central to the gist of these projects as well as the David Byrne persona that’s surfaced in his later years. It’s aeons since he first sang of losing his shape trying to act casual. That awkward, nervy figure unable to keep eye contact made for a mesmerising frontman, but a difficult fellow musician. At least according to this summer’s Remain in Love, the autobiography of erstwhile bandmate Chris Frantz, who formed Talking Heads with Tina Weymouth – his wife – and Byrne when they were students at Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s.

Facts are overlooked to accommodate the systemic white racism narrative

Frantz alludes to Byrne’s competitiveness and failure to acknowledge the creative contribution of other band members. These days he champions community and inclusiveness. The Broadway show featured eleven choreographed musicians barefoot in egalitarian silver-blue suits shifting about the stage, breaking with the stationary concert band formula. “It’s true that his public image has changed,” Frantz said in a recent interview. “But friends of mine assure me that he hasn’t. I think he probably just decided that he could catch more bees with honey.”

These charges, along with previous accusations of cultural appropriation and the blacking up incident have little relation to the reformed figure in the HBO concert film. Spike Lee is in the director’s role which possibly prompted Byrne’s public mea culpa for his black face routine, as well as the swell of celebrity support for Black Lives Matter. Context and intent serve no purpose these days; humour and irony provide no excuses. Whatever those claiming to be offended project onto a situation becomes the official interpretation and the mob descends.

No matter how much Byrne may be embarrassed by a skit involving race all those years ago it pales, or at least it should, beside one of the few dud moments in the American Utopia musical – a percussive interpretation of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout in which the cast list names of black men and women killed by police officers. Stats and facts are overlooked to accommodate a stunt that conveniently confirms the black victims of systemic white racism narrative. As Byrne himself once sang: Facts don’t do what I want them to.

Byrne seems unaware that the world has changed along with the attitudes of those that inhabit it

“Say Their Name!” he and the cast chorus as though at a revivalist meeting, in anticipation of a response. Some nights the routine was met with silence. On some occasions a few not so die-hard fans made for the exit. Despite the brilliance of Talking Heads back catalogue, the innovation and musical eclecticism of his solo work and the unexpected collaborations, when it comes to Byrne’s politics there are no surprises. All that continues to make him unique and relevant, all that brings a dignity and originality to him as a performer at the pensionable age of 68 is absent. It’s as though the politics of that student back there in Rhode Island in the 1970s are accompanying him into his Seventies. Like so many in his industry and the world he occupies, he seems unaware that the wider world has changed along with the attitudes of those that inhabit it.

The punters leaving the auditorium when the virtual-signalling and name-chanting kicked in were the exception rather than the rule in New York, he says, because of the demographic. I guess that means they weren’t the out-of-towners portrayed in his satirical comedy True Stories (1986), which put the mythical Virgil, Texas in the frame. American Utopia references immigration and the forthcoming US election; it looks to the future with a quote from the author of The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin: “I still believe we can do with this country something that has not been done before.”

Decades on from Stop Making Sense a selection of epic numbers from that film, that era, that America – Burning Down the House among them – are included alongside more recent, less familiar solo songs. It’s apt that David Byrne should end up on Broadway as his output has covered music, theatre, dance and film. He worked with choreographer Twyla Tharp when many of his contemporaries were still in the grip of punk and wrote the distinctive brass score for Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays in 1985. He remains very much a fixture of New York; a familiar figure cycling from his Chelsea apartment to his SoHo office, picking up his cup of coffee, editing the online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful while surrounded by Henry Darger paintings.

It’s an altogether different outlook to inhabitants of American cities that have endured the antics of those aligned with Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd: the burning buildings; businesses and livelihoods destroyed. While in there somewhere the murder of 70-year old former police captain David Dorn, a black life that doesn’t matter enough to be chanted by an upmarket white liberal audience between the handicapping and the overbite at a Broadway theatre. Not that the streets of New York have escaped the carnage and the chaos. Wagons are being circled; an exodus is in the offing.

Having apologised for blacking up; having shouted the names of the official black lives that matter to musical accompaniment; having dedicated a film directed by Spike Lee to Colin Kaepernick and name-checked James Baldwin, David Byrne no doubt believes that he, the Chelsea apartment and the SoHo office with its Henry Darger artworks will be free from the flames during the fire next time.

American Utopia will be broadcast on HBO and made available for streaming through HBO Max from 17 October.

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