There’s no shortage of World War II movies, and there’s no shortage of twentysomething critics pontificating about their “accuracy.” Whether a film like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk—a thrilling chronicle of the escape of Allied troops over the English Channel from the tip of France in 1940—is “accurate” is probably best determined by someone who was, you know, actually there. Luckily, that someone exists: His name is Ken Sturdy and Global News caught up with him in Calgary as he was leaving a screening of the film.
With emotion in his voice, Sturdy, a 97-year old veteran who served as a signalman with the Royal Navy during the Dunkirk evacuation, expressed admiration for the film. “I never thought I would see that again,” he said. “It was just like I was there again.”
It’s impossible not to be moved when he talks about being “saddened” by ...
The crows she feeds obviously have their own little lives. They go about their business, and they spot *pretty thing* or /unique thing/ in question. What gets me is that the *first* thing on their minds as recipient of this thing is the little girl that feeds them.
They spot a thing, and immediately must think, “that nice girl with delicious foodstuffs must have this to show my gratitude.”
It’s actually more than that, though, if you read the articles or watch the videos. This has taken place over YEARS- it started with these birds following this little girl around because she was a messy eater and it has turned into a ritual for the family. They have a water station and food stations where they daily set out things for these birds and sometimes (but not always), these birds leave ‘payment’ behind for the food.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE
These birds are not just taking food and leaving shinies. These birds are watching over this family now. Their lives have become involved. These crows are keeping track of this girl and her mother even when they are out of the yard. How do we know?
One of them is a photographer, and one day while she was photographing some stuff on a bridge, she dropped her camera’s lenscap over the edge. There was no way she could get it back, so she left it. When she got home, the lenscap was sitting on the edge of one of the feeding stations, waiting for her.
Not only were the birds following and watching over her, they were smart enough to realize she dropped an Important Thing and cared enough to bring it back to her.
I love them so much because they’re about as sharp as a baseball and their anatomy is ridiculous to the point of them literally being classified as plankton for years because they just sort of get blown around by the ocean and look confused, but because they lay more eggs than ANY OTHER VERTEBRATE IN EXISTENCE, evolution can’t stop them
Why is no big predator coming and gnawing on them?
Their biggest defense is that they’re massive and have super tough skin, but they do get hunted by sharks or sea lions sometimes and they just sort of float there like ‘oh bother’ as it happens
Even funnier, because they eat nothing but jellyfish they’re really low in nutritional value anyway, so they basically survive by being not worth eating because they’re like a big floating rice cracker wrapped in leather.
Perfect example of “survival of the fittest” NOT meaning being some hyper aggressive, muscular manly asshole. This creature fell upon the complete opposite combination of traits and just rolled with it and evolution was like “well, it’s working, somehow".
So it turns out you can train a neural network to generate paint colors if you give it a list of 7,700 Sherwin-Williams paint colors as input. How a neural network basically works is it looks at a set of data - in this case, a long list of Sherwin-Williams paint color names and RGB (red, green, blue) numbers that represent the color - and it tries to form its own rules about how to generate more data like it.
Last time I reported results that were, well… mixed. The neural network produced colors, all right, but it hadn’t gotten the hang of producing appealing names to go with them - instead producing names like Rose Hork, Stanky Bean, and Turdly. It also had trouble matching names to colors, and would often produce an “Ice Gray” that was a mustard yellow, for example, or a “Ferry Purple” that was decidedly brown.
These were not great names.
There are lots of things that affect how well the algorithm does, however.
One simple change turns out to be the “temperature” (think: creativity) variable, which adjusts whether the neural network always picks the most likely next character as it’s generating text, or whether it will go with something farther down the list. I had the temperature originally set pretty high, but it turns out that when I turn it down ever so slightly, the algorithm does a lot better. Not only do the names better match the colors, but it begins to reproduce color gradients that must have been in the original dataset all along. Colors tend to be grouped together in these gradients, so it shifts gradually from greens to browns to blues to yellows, etc. and does eventually cover the rainbow, not just beige.
Apparently it was trying to give me better results, but I kept screwing it up.
Raw output from RGB neural net, now less-annoyed by my temperature setting
People also sent in suggestions on how to improve the algorithm. One of the most-frequent was to try a different way of representing color - it turns out that RGB (with a single color represented by the amount of Red, Green, and Blue in it) isn’t very well matched to the way human eyes perceive color.
These are some results from a different color representation, known as HSV. In HSV representation, a single color is represented by three numbers like in RGB, but this time they stand for Hue, Saturation, and Value. You can think of the Hue number as representing the color, Saturation as representing how intense (vs gray) the color is, and Value as representing the brightness. Other than the way of representing the color, everything else about the dataset and the neural network are the same. (char-rnn, 512 neurons and 2 layers, dropout 0.8, 50 epochs)
Raw output from HSV neural net:
And here are some results from a third color representation, known as LAB. In this color space, the first number stands for lightness, the second number stands for the amount of green vs red, and the third number stands for the the amount of blue vs yellow.
Raw output from LAB neural net:
It turns out that the color representation doesn’t make a very big difference in how good the results are (at least as far as I can tell with my very simple experiment). RGB seems to be surprisingly the best able to reproduce the gradients from the original dataset - maybe it’s more resistant to disruption when the temperature setting introduces randomness.
And the color names are pretty bad, no matter how the colors themselves are represented.
However, a blog reader compiled this dataset, which has paint colors from other companies such as Behr and Benjamin Moore, as well as a bunch of user-submitted colors from a big XKCD survey. He also changed all the names to lowercase, so the neural network wouldn’t have to learn two versions of each letter.
And the results were… surprisingly good. Pretty much every name was a plausible match to its color (even if it wasn’t a plausible color you’d find in the paint store). The answer seems to be, as it often is for neural networks: more data.
Raw output using The Big RGB Dataset:
I leave you with the Hall of Fame:
Big RGB dataset:
Bleepoban Tauve is my #newfavjedi
Tag yrself I’m Burble Simp
Gotta go everybody, hitching a ride on GSV Luck In The Spice
Man of the moment Keanu Reeves has shown his generosity by giving away £50 million of his earnings from the Matrix sequels. The 38-year-old decided to hand over the money to the unsung heroes of the sci-fi blockbusters - the costume and special effects teams.
Confirmed. He’s also dumped millions into cancer research. I really do love Keanu Reeves a lot.
Keanu Reeves is like the nicest person. He still lives in an apartment/flat and he gives most of his money away to charities and people who need it. He even invites some paparazzi people to sit down and eat with him when he’s at a coffee shop or restaurant. He’s such a nice person.
When I was working on the UWS, one of my delivery guys accidentally backed his scooter into a parked car in front of the restaurant. I went out to help, since the driver didn’t speak much English, and it turned out the car belonged to Keanu Reeves. He helped us pick the scooter up, and when I asked if we could exchange insurance information (because the front of the car was pretty banged up), he kept telling us not to worry about it and put his hand on the driver’s shoulder and said “I just want to make sure you’re okay, man. Are you okay?” And he was so sincere about it and so kind that I decided in that moment I would always defend Keanu Reeves at all costs. He is an excellent man.
I need to be more like Keanu Reeves because I’m evil compared to him.
“Next few centuries”
Keanu dropping hints that he is an immortal.
i love keanu reeves
My wife and I were dining at Nobu’s in Honolulu and sitting across from us was Keanu or at least I thought it was. We kept talking about whether it was him or not and finally, I decided to throw some old school Bill & Ted at him.
I stood up and threw my arms up into the motion of an air guitar, my wife is begging me to sit back down, and I pointed at the guy who may be Keanu Reeves, and said, “Most Excellent.”
He stood up and did it back at me. Then we both had a moment and pointed at each other. I sent him another of whatever it was he was drinking. It was a cucumber sake martini. That was the end of it.
Or so I thought.
He left before we finished our meal. By the time we were done, dessert came that we didn’t order. We thought, “oh, must be compliments of the chef.” Then the bill never came. When we asked for it, our waitress said Keanu Reeves took care of it.
IT WAS REALLY HIM. And he left a note. It said, “thanks for the refresh. Keanu.”
When I finally saw him again years later, because of work. I brought it up. Then he air guitar and said, “most excellent. I remember. At Nobu’s. Thanks for the drink.” We chatted a bit and I got an autograph for my mum because she’s a huge Keanu fan. Then that was that.
i keep seeing that one post about ‘wanting a sword but not being sure What to do with it practically’
when i was like 15 my brother asked me what i wanted for christmas and i jokingly said i want a sword like a knight sword he bought me one from some historical replica place and i just hung it on my wall
and for YEARS what i always did
was whenever i was going out somewhere fancy and i was in my dress and my heels and my hair all nicely done i would take the sword around and just walk around the tile part of my house with it kind of loosely gripped in my hand, just all slow and casual, hear my heels click, carrying it bc you would be amazed what looking rly hot AND carrying a sword will do for your confidence l i ke. i’d feel ready for anything
and my mom would always come out because she’d be expecting it and just watch me with some mixture of amusement and bewilderment but she never actually asked
five years later i still do this in college… before job interviews… formal affairs… dates…. just get ready and then carry the sword around for a while you’ll feel so good i promis
I feel like this is important information on its own and also anecdotal evidence that the sword plan would provide unlooked-for side benefits in addition to its stated goal.
Amid a night characterized by chaos and confusion, one unsettling question still lingers from this year’s Academy Awards: Why does Nicole Kidman clap like that? What is wrong with Nicole Kidman that she doesn’t know how to clap? Why does it feel like we’ve punched through some ragged hole in the space-time continuum and the mask of normalcy that once barely covered the rictus grin of madness just beneath is now peeling away? Can you please stop clapping like that, Nicole Kidman? You’re freaking everyone out.
Kidman’s version of what you humans call “clapping”—palms lightly touching, fingers rigidly arched away from each other as though embarrassed by such vulgarity—was caught by cameras twice during the broadcast, leading viewers to wonder aloud what ...
How studying the Enneagram can expand one’s empathy.
Last month, right after the New Year, on a day I was feeling distracted and listless at work, my friend Ella mentioned a personality-typing system known as the Enneagram over G-chat. She described it as Myers-Briggs but better, and though I was skeptical, I clicked around the Internet until I discovered a test at the Enneagram Institute that would produce my “full personality profile.” It had been independently scientifically validated in El Paso, Texas.
I didn’t take the test because it costs twelve dollars and consists of 140 questions. (It felt too early in the year for impulsive wastefulness.) But I became absorbed in learning about this theory of self-discovery anyway. I read the website, then I borrowed a book from Ella, then I gave in and ordered The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types, via overnight mail.
The Wisdom of the Enneagram vacillates between scientific analysis and spiritual fervor. It describes an origin story for the Enneagram that name-checks Sufism, Pythagoras, Plato, Taoism, the Kabbalah, and The Canterbury Tales, among other religious and philosophical texts. In an introductory passage, one of the authors describes the moment he began to believe in the path to self-actualization articulated by the Enneagram:
I saw clearly that everyone is made of light—that we are like forms of light—but that a crust has formed over it. The crust is black and rubbery like tar and has obscured the inner light that is everyone’s real, inner self.
It should have been easy enough to dismiss this as woo-woo mumbo jumbo, but I couldn’t stop reading.
The Enneagram’s theory of the human condition relies on a dualistic faith: that humans are essentially dissimilar from each other, but that their temperaments can be broadly categorized and thus provide unity among all people. (“The Enneagram can therefore be enormously valuable in today’s world to show white and black, male and female, Catholic and Protestant, Arab and Jew, straight and gay, rich and poor that if they search beneath the surface difference that separate them, they will find an entirely new level of common humanity.”) The word enneagram refers to a nine-sided geometric figure that charts the traits behind the personality typing system. Its shape, which resembles a pentagram, is numbered around its circumference from one to nine—like a clock with too little time. Each number signifies a different personality type, and each personality type is rooted in a different primal fear—or motivation, to think of it in another light. For example, type one—“The Reformer”—has a fear of corruption, therefore they are motivated by ideology and ethics. Type two—“The Helper”—fears being unwanted, which motivates them into affection and intimacy.
Each personality type comes with a road map for emotional development, with different “levels” representing psychological health. These are also numbered from one to nine, with level one representing the healthiest state of a type and level nine representing the least healthy. The least healthy state of a type three (“The Achiever”), is described as “Monomaniacal and Relentless”:
Unhealthy threes feel that there is nothing they can do to win the positive attention of the people whose approval they need, and may lose control of their repressed hostility and rage.
At average levels, threes can be “Self-Promoting and Grandiose” or “Success Oriented and Performing.” At their healthiest state (level one), threes are “Inner-Directed and Authentic”:
[Healthy] threes let go of the belief that their value is dependent on the positive regard of others, thus freeing them to discover their true identity and their own heart’s desire.
I pored over each variant, enthralled by the complexity and openness of each categorization. Most friends I’ve shared the website with have been able to identify their type quickly enough by scanning through the descriptions. And if not, there are pages devoted to disambiguation and helpful guides to the relational dynamics created within the combinations.
I should admit here that I might be more delighted than most when it comes to entertaining the absorbing and egocentric work of self-identification—I’m an Aquarius, an earth dragon, an ENTJ, a Shoshanna—but I’ve never found any practical application in these often entirely superstitious means of self-reflection. Unlike the zodiac, the sorting hat, or Jungian archetypes, the Enneagram’s philosophy is rooted in fluidity and growth. Even as the system categorizes a person by her essential qualities, it simultaneously urges her to challenge those traits by understanding the limitations of a fixed pattern. “It is meant to initiate a process of inquiry that can lead us to a more profound truth about ourselves and our place in the world,” the book says. “In short, knowing our type is not the final destination.” Wrangling our psychological impulses helps free our minds for the real work of self-discovery.
I identify as type six—“The Loyalist.” I have an inclination to draw out every worst-case scenario, distrust groupthink, and ice overly friendly strangers. But I’m also willing to take great risks on behalf of the people and ideas that I believe in. It does not hurt that Bruce Springsteen, a personal hero, also types as a six. Enneagram philosophy advises our people to push toward trusting others rather than remaining forever suspicious. (Sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road.)
And I’ve been surprised to find that even in the past month, it’s worked. I can’t have a conversation without part of my brain flipping through what I’ve memorized about types, and determining whether my ambitious colleague who is mouthing off on Twitter is a healthy three or an unhealthy one. I’ve found myself thinking about the fluidity not just of myself but of others around me, too. I am more curious about considering a person’s priorities as I interact with them, rather than dismissing them straight away, if, say, they’re visibly annoyed that I cancel a drinks date last-minute to have some alone time. Oh of course, I think to myself, classic two. Most often, we think of empathy in relation to pain—it’s the tricky work of attempting to understand another person’s experience by exploring why and how they were hurt. But lately, I’ve found it more rewarding to exercise my capacity for empathy in mundane interactions instead.
I called my mother for Chinese New Year last weekend—I’ve surmised that she’s type seven (“An Enthusiast”)—and sometimes I am hurt by her tendency to spend our time on the phone cataloguing every event she and my father have attended and every dish they have eaten since we last spoke. (Why isn’t she spending more of her time reinforcing our family unit? my six tendencies cry out). But even if she isn’t a seven, even if the Enneagram is bogus, even if I have been coaxed into a cult, completely brainwashed, now I’ll stay on the line and feel some joy in listening to her, in the understanding that perhaps she is telling me because it gives her pleasure to do so.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
February 3rd, 2017: Next week I will be in the UNITED STATES as part of a book tour! It's for Squirrel Girl but I'll also be happy to talk/sign anything else, INCLUDING Dinosaur Comics stuff! Wednesday Thursday and Friday in San Diego, Portland, and Seattle: the details are RIGHT HERE.
As a musician, visual artist, filmmaker, and author, David Byrne has sung about buildings, made buildings sing, and given beauty and meaning to the average American shopping mall. In 2015, this fixation with overlooked or undervalued cultural fixtures led to Contemporary Color, a multi-venue performance celebrating color guard, the flag-twirling, rifle-tossing, saber-thrusting accompaniment to countless halftime shows and marching bands across the United States. At the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn and the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, 10 color guards collaborated with a roster of musical artists including St. Vincent, Ad-Rock, Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes, and Byrne himself. The performances and preparations were documented by directors Bill Ross and Ross, for a film that premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and begins a theatrical run on March 3. Watch the official trailer for its bright pops of color, acrobatic derring do, and footage of Byrne’s amusingly ...
The connection between writing and dancing has been much on my mind recently: it’s a channel I want to keep open. It feels a little neglected – compared to, say, the relationship between music and prose – maybe because there is something counter-intuitive about it. But for me the two forms are close to each other: I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.
One of the most solid pieces of writing advice I know is in fact intended for dancers – you can find it in the choreographer Martha Graham’sbiography. But it relaxes me in front of my laptop the same way I imagine it might induce a young dancer to breathe deeply and wiggle their fingers and toes. Graham writes: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, “and I represent the proletariat
What can an art of words take from the art that needs none? Yet I often think I’ve learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading. Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect. What follows are a few notes towards that idea.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly
“Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic – is that it? There’s the obvious matter of top hat and tails versus T-shirt and slacks. But Fred sometimes wore T-shirts and slacks, and was not actually that tall, he only stood as if he were, and when moving always appeared elevated, to be skimming across whichever surface: the floor, the ceiling, an ice rink, a bandstand. Gene’s centre of gravity was far lower: he bends his knees, he hunkers down. Kelly is grounded, firmly planted, where Astaire is untethered, free-floating.
Likewise, the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields. Cyd Charisse claimed her husband always knew which of these dancers she’d been working with by looking at her body at the end of the day: bruised everywhere if it was Kelly, not a blemish if it was Astaire. Not only aloof when it came to the ground, Astaire was aloof around other people’s bodies. Through 15 years and 10 movies, it’s hard to detect one moment of real sexual tension between Fred and his Ginger. They have great harmony but little heat. Now think of Kelly with Cyd Charisse in the fantasy sequence of Singin’ in the Rain! And maybe this is one of the advantages of earthiness: sex.
When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating. The ground I am thinking of in this case is language as we meet it in its “commonsense” mode. The language of the television, of the supermarket, of the advert, the newspaper, the government, the daily “public” conversation. Some writers like to walk this ground, recreate it, break bits of it off and use it to their advantage, where others barely recognise its existence. Nabokov – a literal aristocrat as well as an aesthetic one – barely ever put a toe upon it. His language is “literary”, far from what we think of as our shared linguistic home.
One argument in defence of such literary language might be the way it admits its own artificiality. Commonsense language meanwhile claims to be plain and natural, “conversational”, but is often as constructed as asphalt, dreamed up in ad agencies or in the heart of government – sometimes both at the same time. Simultaneously sentimental and coercive. (The People’s Princess. The Big Society. Make America Great Again.) Commonsense language claims to take its lead from the way people naturally speak, but any writer who truly attends to the way people speak will soon find himself categorised as a distinctive stylist or satirist or experimentalist. Beckett was like this, and the American writer George Saunders is a good contemporary example. (In dance, the example that comes to my mind is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whose thing was tapping up and down the stairs. What could be more normal, more folksy, more grounded and everyday than tapping up and down some stairs? But his signature stage routine involved a staircase pressed right up against another staircase – a stairway to itself – and so up and down he would tap, up and down, down and up, entirely surreal, like an Escher print come to life.)
Astaire is clearly not an experimental dancer like Twyla Tharp or Pina Bausch, but he is surreal in the sense of surpassing the real. He is transcendent. When he dances a question proposes itself: what if a body moved like this through the world? But it is only a rhetorical, fantastical question, for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams.
By contrast, I have seen French boys run up the steps of the High Line in New York to take a photo of the view, their backsides working just like Gene Kelly’s in On The Town, and I have seen black kids on the A train swing round the pole on their way out of the sliding doors – Kelly again, hanging from that eternal lamppost. Kelly quoted the commonplace when he danced, and he reminds us in turn of the grace we do sometimes possess ourselves. He is the incarnation of our bodies in their youth, at their most fluid and powerful, or whenever our natural talents combine ideally with our hard-earned skills. He is a demonstration of how the prosaic can turn poetic, if we work hard enough. But Astaire, when he dances, has nothing to do with hard work (although we know, from biographies, that he worked very hard, behind the scenes). He is “poetry in motion”. His movements are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dance like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabokov.
Harold and Fayard Nicholas
Writing, like dancing, is one of the arts available to people who have nothing. “For 10 and sixpence,” advises Virginia Woolf, “one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare.” The only absolutely necessary equipment in dance is your own body. Some of the greatest dancers have come from the lowliest backgrounds. With many black dancers this has come with the complication of “representing your race”. You are on a stage, in front of your people and other people. What face will you show them? Will you be your self? Your “best self”? A representation? A symbol?
The Nicholas brothers were not street kids – they were the children of college-educated musicians – but they were never formally trained in dance. They learned watching their parents and their parents’ colleagues performing on the “chitlin” circuit, as black vaudeville was then called. Later, when they entered the movies, their performances were usually filmed in such a way as to be non-essential to the story, so that when these films played in the south their spectacular sequences could be snipped out without doing any harm to the integrity of the plot. Genius contained, genius ring-fenced. But also genius undeniable.
“My talent was the weapon,” argued Sammy Davis Jr, “the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.” Davis was another chitlin hoofer, originally, and from straitened circumstances. His logic here is very familiar: it is something of an article of faith within the kinds of families who have few other assets. A mother tells her children to be “twice as good”, she tells them to be “undeniable”. My mother used to say something like it to me. And when I watch the Nicholas brothers I think of that stressful instruction: be twice as good.
The Nicholas brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw. They are progressing down a giant staircase doing the splits as if the splits is the commonsense way to get somewhere. They are impeccably dressed. They are more than representing – they are excelling.
But I always think I spot a little difference between Harold and Fayard, and it interests me; I take it as a kind of lesson. Fayard seems to me more concerned with this responsibility of representation when he dances: he looks the part, he is the part, his propriety unassailable. He is formal, contained, technically undeniable: a credit to the race. But Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back. Between propriety and joy, choose joy.
Michael Jackson and Prince
On YouTube you will find them, locked in many dance-offs, and so you are presented with a stark choice. But it’s not a question of degrees of ability, of who was the greater dancer. The choice is between two completely opposite values: legibility on the one hand, temporality on the other. Between a monument (Jackson) and a kind of mirage (Prince).
But both men were excellent dancers. Putting aside the difference in height, physically they had many similarities. Terribly slight, long necked, thin-legged, powered from the torso rather than the backside, which in both cases was improbably small. And in terms of influence they were of course equally indebted to James Brown. The splits, the rise from the splits, the spin, the glide, the knee bend, the jerk of the head – all stolen from the same source.
Yet Prince and Jackson are nothing alike when they dance, and it’s very hard to bring to mind Prince dancing, whereas it is practically impossible to forget Jackson. It sounds irrational, but try it for yourself. Prince’s moves, no matter how many times you may have observed them, have no firm inscription in memory; they never seem quite fixed or preserved. If someone asks you to dance like Prince, what will you do? Spin, possibly, and do the splits, if you’re able. But there won’t appear to be anything especially Prince-like about that. It’s mysterious. How can you dance and dance, in front of millions of people, for years, and still seem like a secret only I know? (And isn’t it the case that to be a Prince fan is to feel that Prince was your secret alone?)
Prince's shows were illegible, private, like the performance of a man in the middle of a room at a house party
I never went to see Michael Jackson, but I saw Prince half a dozen times. I saw him in stadiums with thousands of people, so have a rational understanding that he was in no sense my secret, that he was in fact a superstar. But I still say his shows were illegible, private, like the performance of a man in the middle of a room at a house party. It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening.
Jackson was exactly the opposite. Every move he made was absolutely legible, public, endlessly copied and copyable, like a meme before the word existed. He thought in images, and across time. He deliberately outlined and then marked once more the edges around each move, like a cop drawing a chalk line round a body. Stuck his neck forward if he was moving backwards. Cut his trousers short so you could read his ankles. Grabbed his groin so you could better understand its gyrations. Gloved one hand so you might attend to its rhythmic genius, the way it punctuated everything, like an exclamation mark.
Towards the end, his curious stagewear became increasingly tasked with this job of outline and distinction. It looked like a form of armour, the purpose of which was to define each element of his body so no movement of it would pass unnoted. His arms and legs multiply strapped – a literal visualisation of his flexible joints – and a metallic sash running left to right across his breastplate, accentuating the shift of his shoulders along this diagonal. A heavyweight’s belt accentuated slender hips and divided the torso from the legs, so you noticed when the top and bottom half of the body pulled in opposite directions. Finally a silver thong, rendering his eloquent groin as clear as if it were in ALL CAPS. It wasn’t subtle, there was no subtext, but it was clearly legible. People will be dancing like Michael Jackson until the end of time.
But Prince, precious, elusive Prince, well, there lays one whose name was writ in water. And from Prince a writer might take the lesson that elusiveness can possess a deeper beauty than the legible. In the world of words, we have Keats to remind us of this, and to demonstrate what a long afterlife an elusive artist can have, even when placed beside as clearly drawn a figure as Lord Byron. Prince represents the inspiration of the moment, like an ode composed to capture a passing sensation. And when the mood changes, he changes with it: another good lesson.
There’s no freedom in being a monument. Better to be the guy still jamming in the wee hours of the house party, and though everybody films it on their phones no one proves quite able to capture the essence of it. And now he’s gone, having escaped us one more time. I don’t claim Prince’s image won’t last as long as Jackson’s. I only say that in our minds it will never be as distinct.
Janet Jackson / Madonna / Beyoncé
These three don’t just invite copies – they demand them. They go further than legibility into proscription. They lead armies, and we join them. We are like those uniformed dancers moving in military formation behind them, an anonymous corps whose job it is to copy precisely the gestures of their general.
This was made literal on Beyoncé’sFormation tour recently, when the general raised her right arm like a shotgun, pulled the trigger with her left and the sound of gunshot rang out. There is nothing intimate about this kind of dancing: like the military, it operates as a form of franchise, whereby a ruling idea – “America”, “Beyoncé” – presides over many cells that span the world. Maybe it is for this reason that much of the crowd I saw at Wembley could be found, for long periods, not facing in the direction of the stage at all, instead turning to their friends and partners. They didn’t need to watch Beyoncé any more than soldiers need to look fixedly at the flag to perform their duties. Our queen was up there somewhere dancing – but the idea of her had already been internalised. Friends from the gym stood in circles and pumped their fists, girlfriends from hen nights turned inwards and did “Beyoncé” to each other, and boys from the Beyhive screamed every word into each other’s faces. They could have done the same at home, but this was a public display of allegiance.
Beyoncé's lesson is quite clear. My body obeys me. My dancers obey me. Now you will obey me.
Janet Jackson kicked off this curious phenomenon, Madonna continued it, Beyoncé is its apex. Here dancing is intended as a demonstration of the female will, a concrete articulation of its reach and possibilities. The lesson is quite clear. My body obeys me. My dancers obey me. Now you will obey me. And then everybody in the crowd imagines being obeyed like Bey – a delightful imagining.
Lady writers who inspire similar devotion (in far smaller audiences): Muriel Spark, Joan Didion, Jane Austen. Such writers offer the same essential qualities (or illusions): total control (over their form) and no freedom (for the reader). Compare and contrast, say, Jean Rhys or Octavia Butler, lady writers much loved but rarely copied. There’s too much freedom in them. Meanwhile every sentence of Didion’s says: obey me! Who runs the world? Girls!
David Byrne and David Bowie
The art of not dancing – a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense. It’s interesting to me that both these artists did their “worst” dancing to their blackest cuts. “Take me to the river,” sings Byrne, in square trousers 20 times too large, looking down at his jerking hips as if they belong to someone else. This music is not mine, his trousers say, and his movements go further: maybe this body isn’t mine, either. At the end of this seam of logic lies a liberating thought: maybe nobody truly owns anything.
People can be too precious about their “heritage”, about their “tradition” – writers especially. Preservation and protection have their place but they shouldn’t block either freedom or theft. All possible aesthetic expressions are available to all peoples – under the sign of love. Bowie and Byrne’s evident love for what was “not theirs” brings out new angles in familiar sounds. It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing these men dance that a person might choose, for example, to meet the curve of a drum beat with anything but the matching curving movement of their body, that is, with harmony and heat. But it turns out you can also resist: throw up a curious angle and suddenly spasm, like Bowie, or wonder if that’s truly your own arm, like Byrne.
I think of young Luther Vandross, singing backup a few feet behind Bowie, during Young Americans, watching Bowie flail and thrash. I wonder what his take on all that was. Did he ever think: “Now, what in the world is he doing?” But a few performances in, it was clear to everybody. Here was something different. Something old, and yet new.
Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov
When you face an audience, which way will you turn? Inwards or outwards? Or some combination of the two? Nureyev, so fierce and neurotic, so vulnerable, so beautiful – like a deer suddenly caught in our headlamps – is faced resolutely inwards. You “can’t take your eyes off him”, as people like to say, but at the same time he is almost excruciating to watch. We feel we might break him, that he might crumble – or explode. He never does, but still, whenever he leaps you sense the possibility of total disaster, as you do with certain high-strung athletes no matter how many times they run or jump or dive. With Nureyev you are an onlooker, you are a person who has been granted the great honour of being present while Nureyev dances. I don’t mean this sarcastically: it is an honour to watch Nureyev, even in these grainy old videos on YouTube. He’s a kind of miracle, and is fully cognisant of this when he dances, and what did you do today to warrant an audience with a miracle? (See also: Dostoevsky.)
Baryshnikov's face dances as much as his arms and legs. He is whatever you need him to be
With Baryshnikov, I have no fears of disaster. He is an outward-facing artist, he is trying to please me and he succeeds completely. His face dances as much as his arms and legs. (Nureyev’s face, meanwhile, is permanently lost in transcendent feeling.) Sometimes Baryshnikov wants to please me so much he’ll even try tap dancing with Liza Minnelli, risking the scorn of the purists. (I am not a purist. I am delighted!) He is a charmer, an entertainer, he is comic, dramatic, cerebral, a clown – whatever you need him to be. Baryshnikov is both loving and loved. He has high and low modes, tough and soft poses, but he’s always facing outwards, to us, his audience. (See also: Tolstoy.)
Once I met Baryshnikov over a New York dinner table: I was so star-struck I could hardly speak. Finally I asked him: “Did you ever meet Fred Astaire?” He smiled. He said: “Yes, once, at a dinner. I was very star-struck, I hardly spoke. But I watched his hands all the time, they were like a lesson in themselves – so elegant!”
• Swing Time by Zadie Smith is published on 15 November (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99). To order a copy for £15.57, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
Getting a surprise from a friend is always nice, but it’s probably especially delightful when your friend is famously quirky French film director Michel Gondry. Gondry—whose most recent film, Microbe & Gasoline, debuted back in July—apparently was feeling especially whimsical in the shower the other day, and so he set up his camera and decided to make a music video for the recently unearthed White Stripes song “City Lights”:
According to a press release from White Stripes frontman Jack White, the video was made completely independently by Gondry without asking permission from the band first. They clearly weren’t mad about it, though—who would be?—and they’re now sharing this cute gesture of friendship and fandom with the public. Gondry, of course, has worked with The White Stripes before, most notably directing their famous Lego-based video for “Fell In Love With A Girl.”