More Creativity in a Can: When Thomas Dolby Met the Rhinestone Cowboy

By Spencer Critchley
March 4, 2009 | Comments: 2

Microsoft Songsmith has been stuck in my mind lately like, well, a bad song (follow that link at your own risk). It's got me reflecting about the long trend towards using music technology to increase productivity, but not creativity. And that reminds me of the following anecdote about one night in New Orleans with Thomas Dolby, the Rhinestone Cowboy and an electronic harmonizer...

Just possibly, the Rhinestone Cowboy was drunk. Or maybe this was how he always danced to his own music: a contining cycle of nearly falling, forward and then backward, as if he were tethered to an invisible - and distracted - puppeteer.

But drunk or dancing, the Rhinestone Cowboy, aka David Allan Coe, looked and sounded like pure honky tonk. Black boots, black jeans, black cowboy hat and black shirt, plus, of course, rhinestones, and songs like "Take this Job and Shove It" and "Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)". Or as pure honky tonk as Thomas Dolby and I could tell.

Thomas, the synth-pop pioneer behind "She Blinded Me With Science" and "One of Our Submarines", was watching the Rhinestone Cowboy from a VIP seat in the balcony at the New Orleans House of Blues on a summer evening in 2000. At that time I was the head of the creative department at his interactive audio firm Beatnik, and was sitting next to him. Our presence at this evening's show was an odd, random encounter across what felt like a much wider gap than the distance from balcony to stage: it was the gap between rock and country, Silicon Valley and the South and, we assumed, high and low tech.

Then the harmony vocals came in. They flawlessly tracked the Rhinestone Cowboy's lead - but seemed to originate from nowhere. None of the other musicians had opened their mouths. "What's going on here?" wondered Thomas. We were familiar with harmonizers, devices that could digitally replicate and transpose any melody fed into them. But neither of us had ever seen one used outside a studio (good ones were expensive back then). The Rhinestone Cowboy had a harmonizer on stage, and was turning it on and off with a foot switch. And with surprisingly precise timing, what with the nearly falling over and all.

The Rhinestone Cowboy was out-teching us.

We were impressed. But we didn't like it much - at least I know I didn't. Why not? After all, we were music tech-heads, especially Thomas. His friends had christened him "Dolby" after his youthful habit of taking stereos apart. In his early days as a performer he rigged up a DIY drum machine by connecting a stage light sequencer to a set of Simmons electronic drums.

But I think that's the point. Thomas' use of technology was creative, taking things apart and reusing them in imaginative ways. His music presented technology through an emotional filter, such as affectionate parody, as in "She Blinded Me With Science", or a haunting nostalgia, as in much of The Golden Age of Wireless. (I once visited Thomas at his seaside cottage in England, and was struck by the beauty of the obsolete radio technology collected on his mantle, some of it familiar from his album imagery and videos.)

The Rhinestone Cowboy's use of technology wasn't creative, just productive. He was simply saving himself the expense of hiring background singers. The harmonizer didn't add anything new to his music, apart from the slightly creepy effect of hearing two perfect clones of the Rhinestone Cowboy.

Now we hear harmonizers on stages everwhere. Lately, a Hawaiian duo I used to like has become a solo act, one guy playing guitar and singing while harmonies are provided by a box of chips in place of his former bandmate. The hotel gets its entertainment cheaper now, and Hawaii enjoys a small productivity gain.

When I'm on the Big Island I still like to hear him sing that beautiful, gentle music in the bar down by the beach. But he sure looks lonely. And for my part, seeing two friends singing together is worth something in itself.

Something maybe even worth paying for.


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2 Comments

Singer Amy X Neuburg, who has mastered electronics in her live act, notes that whenever you use a tool in the easiest, most obvious way, you'll sound like everyone else. To me, SongSmith's potential is in (1) providing beginning musicians enough instant gratification that they'll be inspired to explore further and (2) suggesting new harmony ideas for experienced musicians. That's the experimentation side of science, and it works just as well on a toy program as on Thomas Dolby's megabuck Fairlight.

Then again, a lot of people are simply having fun making comedy mashups with SongSmith. So it may never rise above a YouTube punchline, but think about how many other lo-fi toys inspired cool music years after they'd been scorned.

So in facilitating the creation of more music, productivity products can have a positive impact. As you said, it's all about imagination.

And Brian Eno is very good on this subject as well, recommending that users of musical equipment go in the direction of what the equipment doesn't "want" to do.

Songsmith has proved to be a great tool for comedy. I'm about to blog on this very subject!

I certainly think people should be free to play with tools (or toys) like Songsmith, and I agree that unanticipated benefits often follow, as in the frequently cited example of drum machines and hip hop. But I'm not sure that *facilitating* music or other forms of creativity is in itself all that fruitful. I don't think the fact that being creative involves difficulty is necessarily a problem. Difficulty often marks the path to learning and to change, and avoiding difficulty often results in staying stuck where you are. In a sense people who look for surprising ways of using tools like Songsmith are turning away from the facilitation and inventing ways to make using it more "difficult", and so more fruitful.

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