YouTube Symphony, Susan Boyle and the hero’s journey

It’s been nearly two weeks since the YouTube Symphony project culminated at Carnegie Hall. But really, was it a culmination?

The New York Times reviewed the concert fairly positively. Anthony Tommasini thought it went “quite well, actually.” Anne Midgette over at the Washington Post was somewhat less positive and wrote that the concert sounded “ragged, uneven, of wildly different quality.” But really, did this matter?

Those two questions, I believe, are central to “reviewing” the YouTube Symphony project. Was it a culmination, or alternatively what was the point? And did artistic quality matter?

Before I proceed in any kind of review, let’s bring up another YouTube sensation: Susan Boyle. What made her such a success? Immediately after I saw the video, I posed the question on Twitter whether she would be such a sensation if she were a pretty, 20-year-old. Of course she wouldn’t. Behold the power of the story; the hero’s journey in which the antagonist overcomes trials and tribulations to reach a glorious finale.

Brendan O’Neill quotes the London Times’ Minette Marrin:

Boyle’s rise ‘has all the symbolic power of a fairy story’, with the ‘ugly old lady, despised by all’ standing up to ‘the jeering audience of vain young people’. And the audience’s punishment for initially ‘sneering’ at Boyle? ‘To be revealed as they truly are: heartless, thoughtless and superficial; the flotsam and jetsam of the polluted seas of celebrity, likely to sink without trace into toxic foam.’

We’ve seen it before. Even in the same television show, but with a different antagonist: Paul Potts. Anne Midgette writes about him: “like his story, don’t care for his voice.” Artistic quality does not matter when you have the power of story on your side.

Going back to the YouTube Symphony project: the concert could simply not have been good. It takes time to grow a good orchestra. In a comment on Greg Sandow‘s blog, I referred back to a sports analogy: “Just like a thrown together all-star sports team would probably lose against a well-oiled local team.”

So the concert wasn’t all that good, even Tommasini wished that “the concert had been less gimmicky and more substantive.” Did it matter? Not in the slightest. The entire event was a powerful story. The story told us of the power of the Internet, bringing together a hundred or so wonderful young artists from around the world to make glorious music. The story basically dictated that the music was glorious. The fact that it was not, did not alter the audience’s belief in the story.

Greg Sandow blamed over-hyping and writes that the marketing message was perhaps a mistake. But really, the message could not have been different from a happy ending. The story required a happy ending and the world perceived it as such. Perception is reality.

What was the point? Just like the end is not the point of a story, the concert was not the point of the project. You don’t read just the last few pages of a book and you don’t fast forward to the end of a movie. You experience the hero’s journey with the antagonist. In that very same manner, you shouldn’t experience just the YouTube Symphony concert. You should follow the project on its journey.

Anne Midgette seems to agree at her Washington Post blog:

The real point of the YouTube Symphony, it seems to me after spending a few hours talking to players and hearing rehearsals, was what happened before the show: the connections, the conversations, and the excitement happening around Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School, which provided rehearsal space.

Anastasia Tsioulcas puts it in a different perspective on her blog and links it back to toddler development (not the musicians, the process!):

For very little kids, creative activities are about the process, not the result: feeling paint squoosh on your fingers, and seeing what happens when you mix green and red and blue and black and purple together, is much more important than the finished product, as much as you enjoy hanging it up on the fridge and admiring it afterwords.

So to speak of a culmination might be the wrong approach. The concert was never the real final product. The real final product was the story and the hundreds of individual stories as told by the participants. And in that aspect, the YouTube Symphony was a huge success. Just look at the news coverage, the retelling of the story, all across the world.