David Byrne Shows True Acceptance of Self in 'American Utopia'

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by Owen Murray

David Byrne has always made a show of embracing his awkwardness. From his live shows with the Talking Heads, most notably the iconic movie and live album Stop Making Sense, it’s clear that he is a truly unconventional rockstar. Stop Making Sense is a spectacular movie in which David Byrne handily dominates the spotlight with his guttural shouts, his tight guitar playing, and most importantly, his mechanistic dancing. But even as Byrne shines, he maintains an air of discomfort. He embraces his awkwardness, but he isn’t at peace with it yet. 

Years later, with his brilliant broadway production American Utopia (Which our own Mateo Rispoli reviewed an early showing of), Byrne seems as awkward as ever. At the same time, he seems calm. He’s not on edge, as if he has come to terms with his roboticisms and met them with a full embrace. 

To me, Byrne’s tranquil demeanor was the show’s most inspiring element. Not only did he calmly make some sense of the tumultuous political and social landscape outside, but he made a statement with his demeanor itself. Byrne showed that you don’t need to hide your social quirks in order to make your mark, nor does your mark need to be overshadowed by your awkwardness.

Byrne uses American Utopia to send a message of optimism and inclusivity in the face of extreme divisiveness. He is fully aware of the hate, polarization, and toxicity in America, but is confident that the people of America will find a way to come together for the better. The message was so clear and so in-touch, it’s easy to let its unconventional delivery slide right to the back of your mind. 

Byrne rarely made his personality the center of attention in American Utopia, but when he did, he told a clear story of progress in which he learns to live with himself proudly. The first instance was the performance of “I Should Watch TV,” a song that originally appeared on his 2012 album with St. Vincent, Love This Giant. Byrne introduced the song by explaining that it was about a time when he was feeling very isolated and having tremendous difficulty socializing. His solution: watch more TV. This way he could look at people and how they interacted with one another without having to interact with them himself. When he felt like he had studied enough, he would emerge from his shadowy apartment ready to interact with the world. 

Without Byrne’s candid introduction, “I Should Watch TV” would have been one of the show’s darkest moments. But by speaking so fearlessly about his phase of anti-social and delusional behavior, Bryne transforms the song into a moment of inspiration. The social discomfort that made Byrne’s innate desire to isolate himself with his TV is likely still a part of him, but he realizes now that they don’t need to be hidden and that they don't mean that he needs to study how to be normal. 

Byrne’s personal success is captured triumphantly in “I Dance Like This,” an exceptionally weird song in which he sings “I dance like this because it feels so damn good! If I could dance better, well, you know that I would!” over chugging electric guitars, primal drums, and whirring electronics. As he sings, he and all his bandmates dance some of the most elementary dances imaginable; not even a shade more complicated than the chicken dance. It’s awkward, it’s bold, it’s goofy, and it’s proud. 

American Utopia will probably be remembered most for its message of optimism and inclusivity. But to me, Byrne’s more personal subplot resonated just as strongly. Coming to terms with discomfort and social anxiety is a difficult task that requires pushing against every internal insecurity that holds you from feeling at peace.

David Byrne’s honest account of his journey is massively inspirational to anyone coming to terms with their anxieties. He shows his progress and provides an aspirational goal: to dance, no matter how it looks. To make a fool of yourself with the utmost self-awareness, and to do it proudly. And once when you’re there it feels so damn good.