You’ve heard the chorus to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” before:
Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
It’s always seemed to me a childish, naive complaint. Not because of progress in the free-market enterprise sense, but because of art and culture in the progressivist, futurist sense. I always heard Mitchell’s song in the shadow of a better one, Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers”:
(I was going to link to a performance of this song at the 2010 TED conference with David Byrne, Thomas Dolby, and a string quartet, but at the first chorus the TEDers start clapping along and it’s…. Well you can imagine it’s excruciating.)
The lyrics are clear if you watch the video, but if you’re not an online video-watcher (me neither!) here’s a sampling:
There was a shopping mall Now it's all covered with flowers You've got it, you've got it If this is paradise I wish I had a lawnmower You've got it, you've got it ... This used to be real estate Now it's only fields and trees Where, where is the town Now, it's nothing but flowers The highways and cars Were sacrificed for agriculture I thought that we'd start over But I guess I was wrong ... We used to microwave Now we just eat nuts and berries You got it, you got it This was a discount store Now it's turned into a cornfield You got it, you got it Don't leave me stranded here I can't get used to this lifestyle
Byrne’s lyrics are far more evocative, brave, and tragic than Mitchell’s, not only in their specificity (and there’s also just more of them) but in their treatment of the world. Just how, he seems to ask her, are we to live in paradise? What’s a person supposed to even do there?
It’s also why I could never fully enjoy DeLillo’s White Noise (or Cosmopolis, which is guilty of similar missteps): he treats the mess of mass culture with this bewildered Boomer-esque gawking. Every other page he’s all “Can you believe this, folks?” I can believe it, Don. This world Mitchell laments and you shake your head at is the only world I’ve known.
DeLillo is 77. Mitchell is 70. David Byrne’s only 62. It’s not much younger. But for whatever reason he was able to treat the pop of our culture the way Wordworth treated flowers and clouds—as a place where we might find salvation. That’s why he’s been my go-to guy since I wrote my college entrance essay on him.