David Byrne Talks Barry Manilow’s My Dream Duets

The author of How Music Works explains how Barry Manilow's new album is emblematic of the way we live now.
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On the occasion of the November 4th release of Deerhoof’s really excellent new album La Isla Bonita (which you can buy here), we invited the band’s drummer Greg Saunier to be guest editor of Talkhouse Music this week. Greg enlisted some Deerhoof fans to write about new albums for the Talkhouse and expertly edited the pieces too. It’s all great stuff. Thanks, Greg!
— the editors of Talkhouse Music

Viva los Muertos!

I was on a morning TV program the other day and a man was there from a company called Genepeeks that does virtual combinations of you and your partner’s (or donor’s) DNA to determine, let’s say, the odds that your offspring will have some birth defect. They call the results your “digital babies.” I was just thinking to myself what a field day insurance companies could have with these tools, charging premiums for those couples with higher risks, when the guy from Genepeeks casually dropped the bomb that “in the future we won’t have sex to have babies.”

We know that it’s not uncommon for fertilization to happen without the sex act, and many women are now opting to hire other women to bring their babies to term. Our lustful drives, according to this man, will soon have no purpose other than the pleasure they bring — pleasure that we presume evolved to encourage us to make babies. The divorce between our instincts, our behavior and the consequences is proceeding apace.

We will still, some of us, be drawn into the mating dance — and all the social behavior that goes with that (which includes going out to see and hear music). Our deeply evolved urges and behaviors aren’t going to vanish just because they aren’t needed.

Artificially enhanced bodies pull the same visual and sensory triggers as naturally evolved ones. But in some cases the person being stimulated is in for an evolutionary dead-end. A woman who appears to be in her 30s might actually be well beyond childbearing age, and her health might not be all that good either. (Then again, she may already have frozen her eggs, as Apple and Facebook employees have been offered the chance to do, in which case the disconnect gets complicated.) Appearances can be deceptive: our finely evolved intuitions and instincts can be sidetracked by surgery, chemicals or digital recording technology.

Like such enhanced appearances, recordings are simulations of reality. They make us believe — as we have evolved to do — that what we are hearing actually happened. Maybe we even believe, in some biological way, that every time we hear a recording, it is happening right at that moment. And maybe that’s why recordings are so popular — they can trigger the same responses over and over. The spectrum of sounds in a recording often mimics a “performance” to which we have evolved to respond emotionally, even when the sounds are obviously electronically reproduced. We can know the recording never took place, and still our deeply evolved reaction is to feel that it did.

Barry Manilow’s new album My Dream Duets is all duets with dead people. He sings with Marilyn Monroe, John Denver and Mama Cass, among others — a dream come true for him, as the album title makes clear. The listening experience is uncanny — the dead sound remarkably alive. This is not someone interjecting comments over a scratchy LP or patently lo-fi recording (like the surviving Beatles singing and playing with the late John Lennon). Here, the dead sound like they are fully contemporary. Although the performances on this record never really took place, sound takes precedence over intellect, as all of us who enjoy music know. You will believe. You can reason as much as you like that this never happened, but your senses tell you it did.

The same can be said of most recordings over the last 40 years. The disconnect is the way we live now. What we see, hear and feel is not necessarily what is actually going on. We can no longer trust our senses. Then what do we trust? In this way Mr. Manilow’s record is profound, bluntly confronting us with this cognitive dissonance. He never conceals the fact that he’s duetting with his favorite dead singers, free of the risks involved in getting their permission, let alone in actually collaborating. But once the digital patchwork is complete, he and his partners sound unanimously chummy and affirmative and defect-free. It’s creepy, but only in your head. If you just listen, the illusion is totally believable. We trust, instinctively, but our head tells us “no, no, no.”

Where can this go? Obviously, samplers are going to go on a serious binge with this vocal extraction technology. Not just the funky drummer (Clyde Stubblefield), but James Brown himself can appear on your record. One can easily imagine the windfall this could be for lawyers and the writers and owners of old recordings. If vocals can be extracted, then what about other folks who contributed to old recordings? Why not bring them back too? Duane Allman solos on my new record, and Al Jackson, Jr. plays drums.

If we can travel backwards in time, cherry-picking elements from history, effectively to re-write it for future generations, can’t we also go forward in time? Can I make a record with folks who haven’t been born yet? If the past can be the future, can the future be the past?

Esteemed musician, the force behind Talking Heads and creator of the highly regarded record label Luaka Bop, David Byrne has published and exhibited visual art for decades, including photography, filmmaking and writing. Recognition of his various works include Obies, Drama Desk and Lortel awards for Here Lies Love and an Oscar for the soundtrack to The Last Emperor. You can visit his website here. (Photo credit: Catalina Kulczar)