Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Creativity, and OK Go

Sometimes I overlook how great OK Go’s music is, because I’m too overawed by great their music videos are. In case you need a reminder, OK Go, an alternative rock band from Chicago, are best known for their elaborate, original, and extremely complex music videos, often involving complicated mechanisms, and shot in a single take. Dancing on treadmills, an 89-step Rube Goldberg mechanism, a time lapse music video shot over days, are just some of the amazingly creative music videos they’ve done.  


It’s their latest music video, “Needing/Getting”, which set me thinking about the nature of creativity, and the misconceptions we have of it. No one would deny that the concept of this music video (in a nutshell: the band, in the car, sings while car plays various musical instruments by driving past them) is creative. The question I often heard asked in Singapore is how we should teach creativity to our students, or foster creativity in our artistic communities - yet we often misunderstand what creativity is. 

Creative thinking is work 

When we talk about creativity, we often focus on the intuitive leap, that moment when an idea pops into the head of the thinker, whole, complete, unique, novel and ingenious. We even have a name for it: the “eureka!” moment. There’s no doubt this is part of the process of creative thinking, but it’s only one part, and it often overshadows what comes before, and what comes after. 

What comes before “eureka!” is the context that allows that creative leap to take place. It is partly the history of the creative thinker, the skills and training they’ve acquired, often slowly and painfully, over the years (think of the years Da Vinci spent training in technique). It is partly the context of other ideas, from other thinkers, which inspire, inform, and incite: thinkers may build upon other thinker’s ideas, challenge them, riff off them, or rip off them - but in all cases, their great and ‘novel’ idea couldn’t have existed without the background and context of other great ideas. It is partly the context of time and opportunity, of random events that set off the chain of thought, of being in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time. 

Putting the “create” back in “creative” 

What comes after is the work that brings a creative idea to fruition. There are almost 7 billion people on this planet. That’s seven billion thinkers, some consciously working hard at generating new ideas, others idly day-dreaming, but all thinking. “There is no new thing under the sun”, goes Ecclesiastes, and statistically, that’s likely to be true. Very few of those creatives ideas, however, are brought to fruition, because it takes work, real work, to create something. OK Go are hardly the first people to think about using a car to make music: in 2009, Honda paved a road in Lancaster, California with strips that played (albeit badly) the William Tell Overture when a car drove over them. Somewhere out there, some one, watching the OK Go video, must be thinking to him or herself “I thought of that once!” The difference is they didn’t put in the work to bring those ideas to fruition. It took OK Go four months to set up the music video, and then four whole days to shoot it. Making 1157 instruments from scratch, planning and setting up the track, and working out the mundane logistical details doesn’t seem very glamorous, or creative. Getting 288 guitars and 55 pianos at short notice seems more the province of a supply clerk than an artist. The lead singer took lessons in stunt driving to prepare for the video, so he could drive a 1000kg car with the finesse of a musical instrument, while singing. It took four days of takes and re-takes until they got it right. Nowhere in there can we discern an “eureka!” moment, yet without all this, they wouldn’t have created something. 

When we think about teaching creativity, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach our children “get” creative ideas, when it turns out “getting” those ideas is only half of the problem. People “get” ideas all the time - and, with so many people on this planet, odds are that interesting ideas are being generated all the time. There’s a story I once heard about Christopher Columbus, and it goes like this: returning from his discovery of America, he was feted at a grand dinner, where guests sang his praises. One guest, however, jealous of the attention Columbus was getting, was heard to ask loudly what the big deal was. All Columbus did was sail west until he hit land: any one could do that. Columbus rounded on the man, and challenged him to balance an egg on its end. The man said it was not possible, and Columbus promptly took an egg, tapped it on the table so the shell flattened, and stood it on its end. “But any one could do that!” the embarrassed guest exclaims. Yes, replies Columbus, any one can - once someone does it first. 

Creative work is hard work

Creative work appears easier when reverse engineered (and I’ve often wondered whether this could be an easy heuristic to distinguish creative from non-creative work). We focus on the ingenuity of the idea, but ingenuity is only hard to achieve the first time, and easily copied the second. It is the wrong thing to focus on. Friends who are in the creative industry tell stories of clients asking them why they should pay so much - “I could do this myself” is often the refrain, whether its photography, writing or design. Yes, any one could do this: but it takes a creative to do it first. The ease with which something is replicated in subsequent reproduction is not indicative of its worth, or the worth of the work of the person who created it. 

If there’s any doubt that creative work is work, take a look at these screenshots from what is (in my opinion) OK Go’s most ambitious music video so far: White Knuckles, involving 12 dogs, performing complex stunts, and moving (almost) perfectly in cue to the music. It took four weeks to prepare, and 4 days and 124 takes to shoot (and it is noteworthy that they ended up using take 72 - yes, they went on for another 52 takes after the optimal one, just to be sure, just to try to do it better). It’s not the numbers that I want to draw your attention to though, but this screen-shot from the music video, of the band: 


Look at their faces: it is the look of concentration, of someone praying please, please, let this be the last take. It’s the look of someone working, hard.