What is art? That's one of those great college study group questions, where everyone has an opinion and virtually none of them are the same. The classical definition of art is typically the idea of using skill and imagination to create something that can be shared, while more modern conceptions of art seem to emphasize the importance of creating things that provoke reactions and engage audiences. Whatever one's definition, I believe the highest form of artistic expression is when one uses creative skills to inspire other people, to lift them up, or to make a mark in the culture that points us to a better place.
Last night, my wife and I had the tremendous pleasure of sharing the evening with friends of ours at The Hollywood Bowl, where James Taylor and Carole King commanded the stage in a way that few musical performers are able. As I reflect back on the evening and the songs they performed to a sellout crowd, I'm struck by the mark these artists have made on our culture.
My bias is overt and unashamed. As a longtime devoted fan of Taylor (well, whatever adjective sits between "devoted" and "obsessed" would be a better fit), I own every piece of music he's ever commercially released and I've seen him perform live a couple dozen times in my life. I think he's the most brilliant singer-songwriter in American history and the most important recording artist of the past 40 years. He has won five Grammy awards and has maintained one of the most reliable, loyal audiences of any performer in the past four decades.
King, of course, has an extraordinary catalog of songs that go back to the late-1950s. She's widely viewed as one of the most influential songwriters of her generation, having written or co-written an amazing 118 songs that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1999, and has won four Grammy awards of her own.
Last night, these two all-American artists shared the stage and reminded those of us who were blessed to be there of the mark they've made on our culture. Aside from the pure musical talent on display, the toe-tapping rhythms of the evening and the phenomenal vocal perfomance of JT, the lyrics of the songs in the set list contained enough poetry to occupy a college literature class for a semester. To wit:
-- JT's Fire and Rain: "I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought I'd see you again."
-- King's It's Too Late: "It used to be so easy living here with you. You were light and breezy and I knew just what to do. Now you look so unhappy and I feel like a fool."
-- JT's Blossom: "Blossom, smile some sunshine down my way, lately I've been lonesome. Blossom, it's been much too long a day. Seems my dreams have frozen, melt my cares away."
-- King's So Far Away: "Long ago I reached for you and there you stood. Holding you again could only do me good. Oh, how I wish I could, but you're so far away."
-- JT's You Can Close Your Eyes: "It won't be long before another day, we're gonna have a good time. And no one's gonna take that time away, you can stay as long as you like."
-- King's You've Got a Friend (made famous by JT): "Hey, ain't it good to know that you've got a friend? People can be so cold, they'll hurt you and desert you, well they'll take your soul if you let them. But don't you let them."
The list is endless, but the theme is the same: by acting as professional musical autobiographers, expressing themselves through the poetry of song lyrics and the melody of beautiful tunes, these artists have blazed a trail of human emotion. Sometimes their art enlightens us, sometimes it challenges us, sometimes it inspire us and sometimes it makes us sad, providing the valuable experience of cathartic relief.
How does this happen? It's so simple and yet so remarkable: they put their experiences into words, they work their extraordinary creative magic to transform those words into music, and then we listen with open ears and attentive hearts. The end result is a shared experience that reminds us we are not alone in trying to navigate the challenges of life.
James Taylor is not shy about his political leanings and indeed has a history of modest activism, but anyone who is a fan of his music can tell you that he is definitely not a political songwriter. In a career that now spans nearly 45 years, he has penned just a few songs with political themes or even references. Instead, his music is filled with explorations of the things that matter most in our lives: faith, hope, love, parents, siblings, marriage, children, friendships, sickness, career, travel . . . and the inevitability of death. This is the stuff of life.
It's not too often that we get to watch someone work their craft flawlessly and it's even rarer when we have the opportunity to experience first-hand an artistic performance at the highest level of professionalism in the world. But to be on hand for a magical evening when two living legends showcased how they made a mark on American culture by pointing us all to a better place? The only word is unforgettable.