All of Me

Q: What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians?
A: A drummer.

We like to put people into boxes–roles that are defined by simple rules. Like: a musician is someone who makes “complete” music: melody and harmony and rhythm. If a person doesn’t make melody or harmony, how can he be a musician?

Designers? We like to say that we are problem solvers, but the larger culture thinks that we make things beautiful. Fashion designers make beautiful clothes, and interior designers make beautiful rooms and graphic designers make beautiful printed materials. And even when we know that it’s more complicated than that, we still tend to buy into the broader cultural definition.

I’ve thinking about this recently as I read and considered the responses to my previous post. People–even other interaction designers–seem to want interaction designers to fit into some pre-conceived box, some well-sanctioned model. I certainly understand this impulse: the more I am exposed to traditional wisdom–especially traditions of craft–the more I see that they contain wisdom that is not immediately apparent. But I also believe that as the world changes, models that were once apt can become less so. New people work in new ways in new conditions. These people bring new combinations of skills to the table. They are of a new shape. Can we honor the shape of the individuals who do this new work while at the same time working within and learning from the tradition?


I’ve been thinking about the parallels between my work and music, especially in terms of the creative collaboration typical of most music-making. Listen to this Billie Holiday recording of  “All of Me.” This song has been recorded literally thousands of times, mostly by people who choose to treat the song as an exaggeration, a pop trifle built on a slim lyrical conceit. Listen to Sinatra’s recording, or Louis Armstrong–both capable of very sensitive interpretation–and you can almost hear the songwriters’ glib Tin Pan Alley studio banter: “you took the part that once was my heart, so why not take all of me?” It’s pure schmaltz!

But Holiday’s vocals do something simple and amazing with the song. The force us to take the lyric seriously. The result is raw, the cry of of a lover who cannot bear the burden of her broken heart.

All of me
Why not take all of me
Can’t you see
I’m no good without you
Take my lips
I want to lose them
Take my arms
I’ll never use them
Your goodbye left me with eyes that cry
How can I go on dear without you
You took the part that once was my heart
So why not take all of me?

Listen to the sax playing (Lester Young, I think) that follows the first chorus, how sensitive it is to the mood Holiday sets. Listen to the band behind Lester, how it drops out to nearly nothing, just drums, bass and guitar as if it too can’t bear the burden of its body. This beautiful collaboration transforms the songwriters’ framing work–whatever their intention–into a devastating piece of art.

So here’s my question: who is responsible for the success of this collaboration? Are some of the musicians here more “real” than others? What can we learn about the way we think of our roles from this model?

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