David Byrne nixes TikTok debut, unveils We Are Not Divided website and Spike Lee-directed 'American Utopia'

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An scene from "David Byrne's American Utopia." - David Lee/HBO/TNS/TNS

Winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe and multiple Grammy Awards seemed to come easily for veteran music maverick David Byrne, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 as the co-founder of the boundary-stretching band Talking Heads.

But making his first TikTok dance challenge video? Or, rather, trying to make his first TikTok dance challenge video? Surprisingly difficult.

So difficult, in fact, that the Scottish-born, New York-based Byrne recently abandoned what would have been his official TikTok debut. It had been planned to promote the launch last week of his new six-week online collaborative journalism initiative, We Are Not Divided, an offshoot of Reasons to be Cheerful. Byrne launched Reasons to be Cheerful last year as a “solutions journalism” website, which he described at the time as “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.”

In hindsight, creating the website — and the nonprofit foundation that operates and funds it — may have been less challenging than attempting to have his first TikTok moment.

“It turns out it was terrible, so I put it on the shelf for now,” Byrne said, sounding bemused at the difficulties he faced in trying to create a 15- to 30-second-long dance challenge video.

“I’ve done other little things in the past that turned out really well, but this was terrible! Everything you do, or try, doesn’t always work out. But I also think that, sometimes, in order to get to do something that comes after what doesn’t work out … not everything will be brilliant. To get to the brilliant thing, you have to keep plugging away and put the nails in the house. Eventually, there will be a house, but it won’t happen if you stop.”

Nostalgia? Not interested!

That’s sage advice from this Rhode Island School of Design alum, whose 1983 hit with Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House,” topped the charts in Iceland and rose to No. 9 in the U.S. Before Byrne disbanded the group in 1991, Talking Heads’ singular blend of rock, funk, pop, experimental, electronic and African music set an enduring standard.

Its influence is strongly evident in the work of such bands as Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and Radiohead, which named itself after a 1986 song by Talking Heads. The Byrne-led group’s 1983 film, the Jonathan Demme-directed “Stop Making Sense,” still ranks as one of the most visionary rock concert movies ever made.

Yet, apart from a three-song performance at the 2002 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Byrne has steadfastly resisted all offers to reunite Talking Heads. Cashing in on nostalgia does not appeal to him. Neither does working with his former band mates.

Byrne’s far-ranging solo career hit an all-time high with his groundbreaking 2018 “American Utopia” tour, which redefined how concerts can sound, look and feel. Last year saw the launch of “David Byrne’s American Utopia” on Broadway. The stage version features largely the same songs as the tour, mixing choice numbers from Byrne’s solo career and rearranged versions of various Talking Heads’ classics.

The Broadway iteration of “American Utopia” was scheduled to resume this fall but is on indefinite hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Spike Lee-directed movie version of “American Utopia” opened the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 9 and earned rave reviews. Its TV debut is set for Oct. 17 on HBO and HBO Max.

“I asked Spike if he wanted to shorten anything, open something up, or change the song order,” Byrne recalled. “And he said: ‘No, it works the way it is — I don’t want to mess with it.’ He captures it in a way that puts you, as the viewer, right in the action of the show. You can see what’s going on in a way the audience never could.”

An “American Utopia” book, a collaboration between Byrne and set designer and illustrator Maira Kalman, will be published Oct. 13 by Bloomsbury. It features snippets of his song lyrics and some of his spoken text from the Broadway show with more than 150 of her paintings.

Alas, the song lyrics in the book do not include “Body Parts,” whose music Byrne had hoped to feature as he danced, sang and spoke in his would-be TikTok video. He wrote “Body Parts” — a calypso-styled ditty about medieval instruments of torture — for his 2017 musical “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire.” It followed his similarly ambitious 2010 concept album, “Here Lies Love,” about former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos.

“Of course, when I told people that I am going to do ‘Body Parts’ on TikTok, they were thinking: ‘Yeah, you and a bunch of 3-year-olds’!” said Byrne, who was stymied trying to truncate the song into a 15- to 30-second dance video.

“You have to get the whole thing to happen really quickly, and the song doesn’t emerge fast enough,” he said. “You have to get names in from the lyrics — arms, feet, eyes, whatever — and it has to be compressed. I haven’t figured out how to make that work.”

Hope in a time of growing despair

The notion of Byrne, 68, seeking to embrace the youth-fueled world of TikTok reflects his quirky sense of humor. It also underscores his genuine desire to connect with an audience whose parents or grandparents may have grown up with his music.

This acclaimed cultural provocateur’s other current pursuits, which include his genre-leaping new monthly Sonos radio show, “Here Comes Everybody,” are designed to provide a unifying platform. Reasons To Be Cheerful was launched in 2019 to provide solutions and to promote hope in a time of growing despair.

But that was last year, before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down — and before Black Lives Matter became a game-changing national and international movement, which has brought together millions of people from across the racial and social spectrum.

Byrne’s response was Now Anything is Possible, which debuted in May as an offshoot of Reasons to be Cheerful. The new We Are Not Divided has a multiple focus on health, education, culture, economics, the environment and more. It includes such thoughtfully written essays as “This Is What Listening Looks Like,” “Recording Racism’s ‘Small Stuff’,” “Taiwan’s Crowd-Sourced Democracy,” “We Hate Each Other Less Than We Realize” and “Are You Liberal? Are You Sure?”

Byrne discussed We Are Not Divided, “American Utopia,” his dancing and other subjects in a late July phone interview from his Manhattan home. He also chatted during a Sept. 9 follow-up interview from upstate New York, where he was visiting his daughter, Malu, 30. Here are edited excerpts from those conversations.

Q: What is a typical day for you like during this time of pandemic?

A: Aside from visits to my daughter, who lives upstate, I’ve been in Manhattan the whole time. Occasionally, I go for bike ride with friends. Yep. That, and many, many, many Zoom calls.

Q: What would you have been working on now if there wasn’t a pandemic?

A: There was an immersive theater project, “Theater of the Mind,” I was going to be doing in August at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Off-Center. And in September I would be back on Broadway doing “American Utopia.” Those things were planned a year ago. I do actually have stuff I’m working on now. One of them is somewhat theatrical and might take place in the fall, depending on how things go, socially distanced. And Reasons To Be Cheerful is all writing and research, so I can continue to do that. Now, we’re talking about things that might happen next spring or summer, so there’s a big gap in between — and a big hope that things start up again.

Q: In times like these, when live performances have largely been put on hold, does music mean more, less or something different to you than it did prior to the pandemic?

A: Hmm. No, I don’t think so. I don’t think music or performance is any less important to our lives. I think group experiences like that are part of who we are as a species. It’s really difficult that we can’t have those experiences right now. People really long for them. When they can come back, they will. But the tough part is — with all the social distancing, all the venues being closed, and all the musicians out of work — how are they going to hang on until that happens?

Q: How are the members of your 11-piece “American Utopia” band faring?

A: I haven’t asked them about all their finances. I’m hoping they are getting some government checks. They got paid a decent amount being on Broadway. But the question is that all of us often assume that — when things are going well — they will keep going well. It’s difficult to say: “Oh, I’ve got to save for a rainy day.” So I hope that we’ll all have savings and be getting government checks.

Q: In a March 28 Reasons to be Cheerful essay, you hailed the potential for inter-dependency during the pandemic. You wrote: “What is happening now is an opportunity to learn how to change our behavior.” Here we are, months later. Are you more encouraged, or more discouraged, about people’s behavior?

A: Ooh. Both. The federal government seems to have completely failed us, which is tragic with the pandemic, but also tragic for people’s faith in government and the belief it cares for its citizens. But I do see lots of (positive) things going on. I think all the talk about race, racial discrimination, health care — people are thinking about stuff they didn’t talk about before. Not that that means everything will change. But at least they are talking about it and acknowledging things need to change, which is more than they did before.

Q: Did the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016 inspire you to create Reasons to be Cheerful?

A: Yes. It made me fear for my own sanity and I had to find reasons to be hopeful. Eventually, I made it official, created a nonprofit and hired some writers, editors and people that do web design and social media. I was already doing it before, but just doing it myself. I was collecting things and occasionally posting them online — evidence of things that were encouraging to me — because the country was already very divided with people yelling at each other.

Q: Have you been surprised by what Reasons To Be Cheerful has entailed?

A: (laughs) In a way. I came to realize that for a nonprofit to work, an extraordinary amount of time is spent on fundraising and making things presentable by collecting evidence of the impact you are having — things that are a little extraneous to writing and researching. But if you didn’t do that, things would close pretty quickly. … I assumed it would take a while for people to see that you’re serious, that you will stick around and that you can grow — and grow an audience.

Q: The country, if not the world, seems more divided than ever in some ways, at the same time that Black Lives Matter has created unique alliances. Does it seem counter-intuitive to launch We Are Not Divided? Or does it feel like absolutely the right time?

A: Yeah. I feel like the idea came from my colleagues and the hope is that, when everything happening is telling us how divided we are, we can find evidence that we are not as divided as we think. That would be very important news to get out there.

Q: What are your goals for We Are Not Divided? And is it more than coincidental its eight-week launch in September and October comes as the nation is gearing up for the presidential election in November?

A: No, that’s not a coincidence. We thought that would be the best time to put that message out there, have people communicate with each other and see that everyone else is not their enemy and that we have common ground.

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