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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Flow," Basketball and Prince

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied a phenomenon that he calls "flow": "The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as 'being in the zone,' religious mystics as being in 'ecstasy,' artists and musicians as 'aesthetic rapture.'"

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James experience "flow" when they play basketball at a higher level than anyone else currently does--not that they are the only players who experience "flow" but they are quintessential examples of it, whether you want to cite Bryant's 81 point game or James' 48 point outburst in game five versus the Pistons in 2007. When you watch someone who is the best at his craft perform you feel like that person is doing something that he was born to do, though of course it takes an enormous amount of "effortful study" to achieve what looks like effortless greatness. Tiger Woods stalking his prey on the back nine is another great example of "flow," as was Bobby Fischer slaying top grandmasters as if they were children.

In the classic Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever," Edith Keeler, who does not know that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are from the future but suspects that they are not who they say they are, says to Kirk and Spock that they seem to be "out of place" in her world. Spock asks her where she "would estimate we belong" and she replies, "You--at his side, as if you've always been there and always will." Keeler's words--"as if you've always been there and always will"--are an apt description of the "flow" experience, of someone doing exactly what he enjoys doing and was meant to do; Kirk and Spock made a perfect team, as Keeler noted when she observed that even when Spock did not address Kirk as "Captain" it was as if he had said it. Although Scottie Pippen proved to be a fine soloist in 1994--finishing third in MVP voting--after Michael Jordan temporarily retired, when Pippen played alongside Jordan it seemed as if he had "always been there and always will" be there because their games and skill sets blended so perfectly.

Actually, that Star Trek episode is also an example of "flow" in the sense that it was based on a masterfully crafted, award winning screenplay by Harlan Ellison, a screenplay that Ellison proudly proclaimed was so well written that even though he disagreed with changes that the show's producers made to his story they still could not destroy it (a great writer's ego is no less magnificent than the ego of a great athlete). Ellison's story powerfully examined the themes of destiny, friendship, loyalty and the danger of being ahead of one's time; Keeler envisioned a world of peace and cooperation but her pacifist views--if enacted into government policy at the time of the rise of Hitler--could have led to a victory for the Nazis (in one version of history portrayed in that episode, she led a pacifist movement that delayed America's entry into World War II, providing the Nazis enough time to develop the atomic bomb and conquer the world). As Spock said to Kirk, "She was right, but at the wrong time."

I have always enjoyed following the careers of performers who are able to achieve a "flow" state, particularly when they overcome or circumvent traditional norms. For instance, George Lucas used the money and influence that he gained from making "American Graffiti" to get the backing to film "Star Wars" and then he earned enough from "Star Wars" to achieve complete freedom from the Hollywood studio system, whereupon he removed himself from the mainstream bureaucracy of the film world and created his movies on his terms. Needless to say, most people do not have the necessary vision, courage and persistence to pull that off.

Prince has accomplished a similar feat in the music industry. He went from being a wunderkind at Warner Brothers who wrote, produced, delivered vocals and performed on an astounding variety of musical instruments to being a completely independent artist who dictates his own terms to record labels and distributors. Along the way, he received scorn for scrawling the word "slave" on his face and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol but there was a method to his seeming madness: Warner Brothers wanted to control when and how he would distribute his music, while the incredibly prolific Prince simply wanted to release everything to the public as soon as he created it, whether or not this supposedly oversaturated the market. Since Warner Brothers owned his name (in a performing sense), Prince felt like a "slave" because he could not put his music out as Prince--so he circumvented the system with his "name change" until his Warner Brothers contract expired, whereupon he reclaimed his name and took total control over his music. Now he releases his music whenever and however he wants to, including his Planet Earth CD that he arranged to be given away with a newspaper in Great Britain in order to promote a series of concerts; in one fell swoop, Prince made a small fortune (he was paid in advance by the newspaper), sold out most of his appearances instantly and irritated Sony BMG, the corporate giant that was supposed to distribute the CD to retailers: for a nonconformist genius, it is hard to imagine a better day than that!

Prince's new three CD set titled LOtUSFLOW3R dropped on Sunday exclusively at Target and he promoted it by performing for three straight nights last week on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno." For his finale on Friday, Prince sang "Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful." I know that Prince is a big hoops fan and I swear that one verse of that song is supposed to represent what Kobe Bryant was thinking a few years back when he played with Kwame Brown: "I just can't recall what the ---- I was thinking when I threw you the ball/It hit three bystanders after you touched it/Now they want to sue me." Of course, Prince did not utter the "----" part because he has transitioned into a no profanity stage of his career after becoming notorious for some of his raunchy lyrics; it is interesting to observe the evolution of his efforts to balance the spiritual and carnal aspects of his personality, particularly because so many artists have struggled greatly with that dichotomy.

Prince dictated the format of his "Tonight Show" appearance, mainly that he would not be interviewed but instead would go straight into his performance after a brief introduction by Leno. The coolest thing about Prince--other than the amazing width and breadth of his musical talent--is that he has forged a path that enables him to uncompromisingly create his art and to share it with the world on his terms. If he does not want to sit on a couch and banter with a talk show host about banal topics then he simply won't do it; Prince knows that he is talented enough to merit being on the "Tonight Show" doing what he does best and he will not compromise anything to get what he deserves. You can bet that Prince would not have lost any sleep if the show's producers had rejected his terms; he simply would have gone ahead with his other plans and it would have been their loss, not his.

A lyric from Prince's new song "Ol' Skool Company" not only sums up the sad state of the music business but also is an apt description of the sad state of the writing business as well: "The songs we sang used to mean something/Now every other one's just mean." Prince often laments the state of the world and the state of the music business but he is not just some cranky old guy talking about the good old days--he still possesses the full range of his talents and when he brags about producing real music by real musicians that is not false bravado.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:16 PM



At Thursday, April 02, 2009 6:03:00 AM, Anonymous warsaw said...

Prince did that after getting millions and fame by doing the opposite thing and recording for a major label (where he composed his best music, by the way). It’s easy to do whatever you want when you are already rich and famous. And it’s funny that an act of promotion like playing at Leno’s show is supposed to be a sing of independence. It isn’t, Leno is part of the system he criticizes.

Ah, and many new composers are playing music that means something today, is just that Prince doesn’t even know them. I’m talking about creative and innovative music that doesn’t rely on old Funk clichés. Bands like Supersilent or Dälek, that won’t record for a major because their music it is uncompromising, bands that won’t make a deal with a newspaper because they are not famous enough.

At Thursday, April 02, 2009 6:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You make some valid points but my understanding of Prince's career is that he has been "difficult" (from the perspective of the record labels) all along, not just since he became rich and famous--he has insisted on doing things his own way and was able to do that to a large degree even when he worked for Warner Brothers. At some point, he either wanted further freedom and/or they became more oppressive and so Prince ventured forth on his own.

While it is true that Leno and Target are part of the larger system, Prince is operating independently and on his own terms: he negotiates each CD distribution deal separately instead of being tied down to one label or one distributor and he set terms for his Leno appearance that few if any other artists would be able to do. Prince has proven that he not only has a lot of musical talent but that he can be a very shrewd businessman and promoter.

You are of course correct that there are new artists who are also highly talented and uncompromising but do not possess the fame that Prince has. My point is that I wish that all such artists will be able to accomplish what Prince and Lucas have done; obviously, few people will ever amass personal fortunes as large as those two men have built but the important thing is for an artist to have the means to produce his art on his terms.


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