David Byrne’s playful, awkward persona remains consistent across Stop Making Sense (1984) and American Utopia (2020). The same somewhat coordinated, often flat-faced but infectiously enthusiastic performer remains center-stage. "I Zimbra," surely the only sound poem hit, is performed at both shows.
American Utopia also demonstrates an evolution in Byrne’s self-presentation as he has increasingly embraced social advocacy and community building over art as an end itself. To illustrate this shift, I compare Byrne's choice of cover songs and promotional interviews for each film. In a Stop Making Sense promo clip, Byrne appears in numerous costumes. As both interviewer and interviewee, Byrne asks pat questions and gives nondisclosive answers. Recalling the scene in Don’t Look Back where Bob Dylan refuses to answer the questions of a Time magazine critic, Byrne evades a clear discussion of the values or interests that inform his music.
American Utopia’s promotional interview demonstrates a different type of engagement. His first response to a question from the film’s director, Spike Lee, is “The days of just providing entertainment, they are over. We have an obligation to do more.” Lee and Byrne discuss institutional racism and voting rights as subjects that can and should be engaged as part of popular culture. This clip also includes a moment in which a lighting tech helps Byrne illustrate voter participation rates with the audience.
Choice of cover songs also demonstrates Byrne’s shifting priorities. He performs just one song he didn’t originally write in both films: Al Green’s “Take Me to The River” in 1984 and Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” in 2020. Green’s song, which mixes Christian and romantic scripts, suggests that music itself, especially in ambiguous moments, is rich redemptive water. The meaning of the Monáe song, by contrast, is more direct as it is a musicalized version of “Say Their Names.” Byrne’s band not only says the names of Black victims but display their faces as well. It is the only song in American Utopia that features intercut material as band members put faces to names with large posters. Byrne’s commitment to social engagement, over playfulness for its own sake, takes center stage in the new film.