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David Byrne's guide to appreciating music

David Byrne has been a continuous beacon of light over the last six decades since he first emerged from the depths of New York City with Talking Heads. In that time, Byrne’s love of music has never evaporated, and instead, has only intensified as the years have progressed.

Despite being in the belly of the industry for a lifetime, Byrne has managed to retain the unbridled joy that comes from being a genuine fan of music. Byrne still can enjoy the art from the same perspective he did when he was growing up in Maryland, and that passion has doubtlessly transcended into his work.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Byrne’s vivacious burning passion has never dwindled, and it continues to illuminate his work to the current day. Throughout this period, Byrne has always triumphed originality above everything else. Innate creativity is the ingredient that made the rhythmic tones of Talking Heads so addictive, asserting them as the royalty of New York’s new-wave scene. The group took risks and were handsomely rewarded for their imaginative approach to pop music.

Speaking to Smithsonian in 2012, Byrne shared his thoughts on ‘The Great Man’ theory in relation to music. While the singer admits that he is critical of the belief system coined by Thomas Carlyle, one that suggests that natural-born geniuses are the reason for cultural change or historical events, Byrne believes some musicians are exceptions to the rule.

“I’m very suspicious of the ‘great man’ theory of history,” the Talking Heads frontman explained. “But there certainly are artists I totally revere. I will go out and get their next record without listening to it or anything—I’ll just buy it. But there aren’t too many of those. And I’m aware that some of those people borrow; they didn’t make everything up from scratch.

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“I ​encourage people not to be passive consumers of music and of culture in general. And feeling like, yeah, you can enjoy the products of professionals, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to completely give up the reins and give up every connection to music or whatever it happens to be. One’s not ‘this is the real stuff; and this is ‘not.’ They’re both real”.

Elsewhere in the conversation, Byrne pinpointed one specific night in which he was listening to jazz in New Orleans, a moment that handed him an epiphany and made him realise the most important thing about listening to music. “Whether it was a survival instinct or whatever else – it has now, for most of us, become something else,” he said. “I thought: ‘Ooh, my perception of what the music means – ow you enjoy it, how you perceive it physically as well as intellectually— is being completely skewed by the context that we hear the music in, not by the music itself’. Anyway, I realised: ‘Oh, that must happen with other kinds of music too”.

Byrne’s belief that the environment is the key to enjoying music explains why he has created theatrical live performances such as American Utopia, creations that are more than just a concert, but an all-encompassing immersive experience that makes a David Byrne show beyond compare.

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