David Byrne Fights Nearly 30-Year-Old Charges of “Cultural Imperialism”


Tutu avalanche alert.

I admit, upon reading Jon Pareles’ Times review of David Byrne’s Radio City show Friday night, to being a bit self-conscious about my own take, whether it got a bit too fawning and fanboyish. (Any review employing the phrase “Favorite Band Ever” will probably trigger this fear.) I don’t disagree with the meat of Pareles’ objections to the show (“cute,” “clever,” “neat”), but simply don’t view those words as pejoratives or surprises; from the Talking Heads’ onset Byrne had a very strong twee detachment to him, the shape of Sufjans and Wes Andersons to come. If you think this is a Very Bad Thing — and you blanche a bit at the Radio City bit where David and his dancers spin around on office chairs — fair enough. Agree to disagree, etc.

Byrne himself, though, is way less agreeable about Pareles than I would’ve expected.

Thus does Byrne’s latest journal entry mention the Times review, albeit in a I-heard-it-was-negative-I-won’t-read-it way, as a way of revisiting Pareles’ 1981 Rolling Stone review of the first Byrne/Eno record, the sample-dominated My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a review that, surprisingly, still stings Byrne plenty.

This, however, is the same reviewer who leveled charges of “cultural imperialism” against Bush Of Ghosts in his Rolling Stone review back in the early 80’s. For years afterwards, almost every interviewer asked me to respond to his charge, and many press articles quoted it. It was like the joke about “When did you stop beating your wife?” — the charge was silly and ill-informed, but one was constantly put on the defensive, and even assumed to be guilty, simply by the question being raised. It was annoying, it lasted for years, and it hurt.

Given that track record, I guess 30 years from now he’ll figure out what this show was about.

Not much by normal Internet-vitriol standards, no, but this is as harsh as Byrne generally gets. (As his hilariously zen Colbert interview Monday night proves, he is among the mellowest of dudes.) In the post-Girl Talk era, it is fascinating to read a 1981 take on the record — indeed, Pareles seems very bothered by preachers, exorcists etc. having words they presumably take seriously being hijacked for Byrne/Eno’s cute/neat/clever ends. He finishes off his (three-and-a-half-star, by the way) assessment by envisioning the source material’s revenge:

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts does make me wonder, though, how Byrne or Eno would react if Dunya Yusin spliced together a little of “Animals” and a bit of “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch,” then added her idea of a suitable backup. Does this global village have two-way traffic?

The answer, of course, is that Byrne and Eno would’ve probably loved it, and that kind of thing now happens all the time.

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