On Sunday, February 18, I listened to Fergie butch the National Anthem at the NBA’s All-Star Game. What gets me, is that she has a good singing voice and had she gone out there and sung the song as it is meant to be sung, she would have done fine. Would she have been memorable? Probably not. But would she have been ridiculed in the media on Monday morning, definitely not.
This event poses a few questions.
Why do artists feel compelled to “make it their own”?
When I was a kid, my father and I went to a Rockets game at the Summit. Before tip-off, this gentleman stepped out onto the court and belted out the worst rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard. Believe it or not, even worse than Roseanne’s debacle. He went up, he went down, he free-formed, he scatted a little. It was everywhere and the entire crowd laughed – hard. His singing was memorable for all the wrong reasons, much like Fergie.
Other renditions of the Star Spangled Banner that get me are when the singers insert extra notes and use the song as a platform to show off their unbelievable talent. Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey come to mind. They go up too high, hover in the stratosphere far too long and are compelled to add in a series of scales in the middle of the song, often more than once. You know, the song is hard enough to sing as it is; you don’t need to push the boundaries of it even further. Listening to their wailing, you lose the melody. You definitely lose the meaning of the song, and isn’t purpose of singing it to begin with?
Just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you have to exploit it all the time. Adele does that with her singing. Yes, she has an amazing, HUGE voice and can sing the hell out of a song. But her best music, IMHO, is when she sings quietly. Her accent comes out and she has that real authenticity and intimacy in her voice. Just beautiful. Much more so than when she’s belting out a song.
Miles Davis understood this. He was a virtuoso trumpeter, inarguably one of the most gifted jazz musicians ever. He could play as hard and fast as anyone. But listen to his “Cool” music — You can feel the restraint, the power behind his each note. With his confidence, he never had to show off, or go off script to prove himself to anyone. He knew he could make the most amazing music and he did. He regularly co-opt a song from one of his contemporaries not by playing the hell out of it, but rather crafting it until he owned it.
I take such umbrage to singers butchering the National Anthem because it is OUR song, not THEIRS. It is about our collective experience, not that of the individual.
So what does any of this have to do with design?
First and foremost, the work we do is commissioned. Rarely does a designer work in a vacuum. You give up the right of personal expression when you cash the check. The designer’s role is not to express their thoughts/opinions/etc., but to help their client realize their vision.
Your work is out in a public space. Should your biases or attitudes come through? What if those attributes convolute your client’s message? How successful is your design?
There is plenty of room for creativity in commercial design. Plenty of room to be yourself. But often times, taking the mindset of a craftsman and go through the motions to achieve excellence is exactly what is order for the task at hand.
Much like singing the National Anthem.