Don’t Smell the Roses, Go to a Garden: Joshua Bell Story is BS

A few people Twittered and blogged about Joshua Bell’s solo in a Metro station. Most I read mourned humanity’s lack of ability to recognize beauty around us, being too enraptured with our own trivial problems. I concurred and moved on. Next day, I thought about it a few times while waiting on compiles or sitting in traffic (omg , I’m driving again!). The more I thought about it, the more irritated I got. The whole thing just didn’t sit right with me. It really seemed pompous, actually.

I was fixin’ to rant, but a quick Google search showed I’m not alone (uno, dos). The authors there pretty much summarize my feelings as well. One thing they don’t really cover, however, is the experience part.

Yes, a rose, alone in the middle of a large bustling city is definitely something beautiful, innocent, fragile, and neat to behold. However, one amongst a throng in a lush public garden is even better. One goes to a public garden to be amongst beautiful flowers. This is a consumer choice, and one that is usually planned, and looked forward too. The anticipation grows, batteries are purchased for the camera, grandma is brought along, lasting memories are created.

Nine Inch Nails, for example. Weird, random websites appearing on various places on the web based on innocous phrases on T-shirts and lyrics. USB keys found in bathrooms randomly containing tracks for NIN’s upcoming album. The expected RIAA’s attack, with predictable backlash, only a few loudly proclaiming, “This is marketing genius… they all fell for it!”. If you didn’t catch my sarcasm, mainly using the RIAA’s legal aggression as a personified target for the angst ridden teenage youth, one of the target demographics for NIN’s music is just a fantastic marketing tactic; planned or not (naturally I think planned). While I loathe un-cited sources, this is still a great quote from someone apparently familiar with Trent Reznor’s involvement:

“It’s not about slapping something on top of an existing experience,” the source says. “It must be its own entity. Make the experience as immersive as possible for fans.”

People go to symphonies to enjoy the experience, and Joshua Bell is a contributor to that experience. You can’t rip Joshua Bell out of context, and shove him into one that personifies preparation for the trials of the day. We live in a day and age where consumers demand, and expect great experiences. They want control of the timing and place. Home theaters vs. going to the movies, time shifting video on your Tivo on Tuesday afternoon vs. Friday night Battle Star Galactica, making video you want to watch and publishing it to the world vs. 999 one way channels of DirectTV non-refundable crap.

Instead of putting Mr. Bell out of place, they should of instead adapted the place to compliment Mr. Bell. Throw him in a monkey suit, add some of his other instrument playing friends, nicely decorate that portion of the metro, improve the acoustics, low lighting, and provide comfortable seating with an usher. Not the symphony, but hey… I’m a consumer in the 21st century, I want the symphony to come to me! THAT would of been significantly more positive.

7 Replies to “Don’t Smell the Roses, Go to a Garden: Joshua Bell Story is BS”

  1. Yeah, some seemed a little pompous, true. The article did have some classism in it.

    A lot might have depended on where he thought he was playing. If he were playing like he was in a symphony hall it might have seemed bizarre. But if he realized he was in a subway station, and had an idea of why he was playing there, then he might have pulled it off. Some people did find value in that session.

    (Symphony halls, for me, are a bit of an uncomfortable experience. Better than movie theatres, though. ;-)


  2. Not sure where you guys got classism in the article. About 3/4 of the way into the article they actually made the same point I think Jesse’s making: context matters. Take a critically acclaimed painting out of a museum and put it on the wall of a coffee house and see if anyone recognizes it as a great work of art without ever having heard of it before. The fact is that fame happens to artists in part because of where they’re shown. I actually think it ought to be required reading for art students of all kinds, the lesson being not to get discouraged when people don’t appreciate your work. Maybe part of the problem is that the location where your stuff is being shown isn’t somewhere people go to appreciate art.

    To bring it back around to the good ol’ web, I’ve noticed a great deal more interest in my resume when I mention that I’ve done work for some big names – suddenly, I’m a better web designer. :)

  3. This article reminded me of another aspect of the importance of context. I have often wondered – if the soloist was hidden from the audience if the audience would have any idea who was playing.

  4. i differ on the matter of context. this is precisely a lesson about the artificiality of the contexts we build up around things.

    the skill and beauty of the artist’s music is a constant. we change our perceptions, depending on where we are and what we’re doing, to either increase or decrease the perveived value of experiences that are in, or out of, place.

    there are many things that we would not like to think of as dependent on context, for example the value of a human life. but do we stop to check the pulse of every unconscious homeless man in the city? of course not. a well-dressed man unconscious on a suburban sidewalk? well, yes.

    i think there’s an important lesson here, for those who care to seek it out.

  5. Listening to the audio on the video he was playing extraordinarily well. If a passer by was musically discerning (classical or otherwise) I’m sure they would conciously register that fact. During the experiment most of these people chose not to stop – probably because they were already engaged in an unpleasant experience (commuting to work) and this isolated great experience does little to ameliorate the unpleasant one, or even worse makes the unpleasant one last longer.

    As for important lessons, as UI developers we already know that adding Joshua Bells and whistles rarely saves a bad user experience…

  6. i see the irony that the Washington Post was trying to shed light on, but I agree with you. I find the tactic sort of smarmie.

    They’re basically saying ‘Look at what happens when you put a musical genius in front of the masses, in their environment…idiots!…they have no idea what they are witnessing!

    This is emphasized by their usage of the ‘Pearls Before Swine’ take-off.

    In reality, its all about positioning :: Bad positioning produces bad results.

    It’s not like we would applaud a business or company for pitching their fission reactor through an ‘As Seen on TV’ commercial at 3am…

    Its not like you’d think you just got a great value out of having an elevator conversation with that guy with the ‘Movie Trailer Voice’ just because he gets like $100K a second to do voice overs! It’s not like you’d scream out ‘Mwahahaha, fool! I just spoke with you for over a minute…for FREE! And you didn’t charge me a red cent!’ as he walks away.

    Btw, saw you at 360Flex. Excellent job.

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