What Van Halen taught me about being an artist
Tuesday, while taking my hourly stroll through Twitter to check how the world was holding up, I learned of the death of Eddie Van Halen, and with him, a part of my childhood. Van Halen was my first concert, in 1982, when I was nine years old (my mom was the best). They were the first band I wrote about. The first (and only) stadium show I saw from the front row.
During the years when the human brain is most easily influenced by outside forces, I was exposed to extremely high levels of Van Halen. And I could not be more grateful. Here’s what the band taught me about being an artist.
Have a good time
You know that slow, dirgy, minor key Van Halen song that makes you want to go hide in a cave? No, you don’t. Because it doesn’t exist. To listen to Van Halen is to have a good time, all the time. Van Halen sounds like a party. They sound like how it feels to have a drink in your hand and your toes in the sand. Like summertime. Van Halen music should be treated like Christmas music — you only get to enjoy it in its proper season, then you have to wait until next year.
Don’t worry about critical acclaim
Despite the band’s blistering virtuosity, Van Halen never got much critical acclaim. They were too popular to be taken seriously, and they were having way too much fun to be making real art. My love for them and other similarly regarded bands gave me strength when it came time to choose a college major. In art school, it’s easy to take yourself very seriously, and the desire to have others do the same can overwhelm a young psyche.
Now, I know it’s hard to think of graphic designers as anything but the coolest people in the room — we’re the rock stars of the business world. But in art school, Graphic Design is the Van Halen of art majors. It might be fun, but don’t expect to be taken seriously. Enjoy being a sellout.
Graphic Design is the Van Halen of art majors. It might be fun, but don’t expect to be taken seriously.
No brown M&Ms
Along with the time Eddie did the solo on Beat It, in one take, for a case of beer — brown M&Ms are now part of rock legend. It became known among concert promoters that Van Halen required a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room, sans the brown ones. Now, you can’t fault them for that. Why coat chocolate in candy that’s the same color? But this was no diva move. It was a simple, effective way to make sure promoters and venues read every part of their contract. When you’re dealing with truckloads of gear, pyrotechnics and enough electricity to power a skyscraper, if a small detail is ignored, it can cause a big problem. At a glance, the band could tell whether they had to worry about a lighting rig falling on their heads.
Working with clients and working with partners, we’re always thinking about brown M&Ms — looking for those small details that instill confidence that everything is taken care of.
It’s about the work, not the credit
When a creative collaboration is working, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Bruce Springsteen calls this the magical equation of a rock and roll band — when one plus one equals three. Who contributes what is irrelevant. The art is the product of the group. Without any one of the collaborators, it wouldn’t be the same.
Every Van Halen song has four equal writing credits. There are no Eddie songs, no Sammy songs. They’re Van Halen songs. That’s not the case with every band. The Beatles had John/Paul songs, Paul/John songs, George songs, and Ringo songs. They negotiated who got how many each album. Seventeen percent of Queen songs — you know, the band with Freddie Mercury — are sung by other guys in the band. The drummer sings the song about being in love with his car because he wrote it.
Now, this might sound like creative Socialism — a system where no one brings good ideas because they won’t get their fair credit. But in practice, the opposite is true. It’s human nature to prefer your own ideas. So in design and branding, the creative process can’t be framed as a competition. When it is, the winner is often the more forceful voice, not the best idea. When all involved — creative agency and client alike — focus on making the best idea as good as it can be, that’s when you get to what’s real.
Everybody wants some
When it comes to art, I’m an unabashed populist. I think artists should want a lot of people to love their work. I caught flack in my sophomore painting class for citing my favorite painters as Salvador Dali and Norman Rockwell. Granted, Rockwell was an illustrator who painted, not a fine artist. But I still love them both, as do millions of people. Because they’re awesome.
There’s a place for important art with a more selective appeal, and I love lots of it. But I believe art that can make people smile or tap their foot or pump their fist is the highest, finest form of art. When our work can elicit these emotions in another human, it’s one of the most intimate and powerful connections we can make.
Even now, as I listen through the entire VH catalog, I’m not mourning. I’m happy. The same kind of happy I was in 1982 and 1992 and 2012. I’m grateful to live in a world full of such beauty and to have a front row seat.
As designers, we have the incredible privilege of taking something our clients are excited about and positioning it so that everybody wants some. If that’s not a ton of fun, I don’t know what is.