A Starry Night Again: art and storytelling

One of my favorite moments on Joni Mitchell’s first live album, Miles of Aisles, happens when a fan calls out a request for her to sing “Both Sides Now.” Joni says something like:

You know, that’s the difference between singing and the visual arts. Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Hey, paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!” He painted it and he was done. He didn’t have to do it again.

Now, of course Joni played “Both Sides Now” in that concert. And she’s done it again many thousands of times since. But what do we expect when we hear an artist sing a song we love? Do we want to hear the exact sounds she made in the studio, or do we want to hear what the song means to her at that moment?

To judge from the few pop concerts I’ve gone to in the past couple of years, often these days audiences expect the same kind of visual stimulation they get from a music video. That could mean something as innocuous as images streaming on the background screen while the artist sings. Or it could mean having to pound out the exact choreography from the video—complete with dozens of sweaty backup dancers. And then people are outraged when they discover the star was lip-synching!

Is replication Art? I have no doubt someone could take the exact measurements of Michelangelo’s “David” statue and, given a big enough 3-D printer, spit out another one just like it. Art? Maybe to some people. But I love the idea of knowing that the artist turned rough stone into smooth “flesh” with the crude instruments he had at his disposal. When I stand before that statue, I feel an emotional connection to its creator. A 3-D “David” would be an amazing feat of replication. But—in my opinion—not art.

Now, Van Gogh could well have “painted ‘A Starry Night’ again.” Not exactly, of course—he didn’t have a 3-D printer. His subsequent “Starry Nights” might have been better in some way, or worse. But they would still be art, because they would be products of the human brain and heart—not just mindless reproductions. (See Monet’s “Haystacks.”)

So when I hear a singer sing a song I love—whether it’s her own song or someone else’s—I don’t want unswerving faithfulness to the original. I want to hear how the artist connects to the song herself.

Because you can’t tell someone else’s story. Whether you’re singing a song or giving a speech, you can only authentically tell your own story. That’s why canned jokes at the front of a speech never work as well to connect you with an audience as a true story about something that happened to you. Even if you’ve got to retell a story—the origin story of your nonprofit, for instance—you pick out the moments that resonate with you and craft the story around those. You don’t just stand up there and recite a bunch of facts.

Tell your story. Whenever you speak, speak your truth. It’s the best way to make a lasting impression.

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