HAL Replacing Beyoncé for Super Bowl Halftime Show?

We’ll get to HAL in a minute.  First, I want to explain what happened to me in the shower this morning.

I was just standing there, innocently adjusting the water temperature, when my brain started to spin.  One minute I was thinking about how I need to stop procrastinating and write this week’s blog entry; the next thing I knew my thoughts were hurtling off in four different directions!  (That’s what I get for drinking coffee too fast.)

I can also blame it on four stories that I’d come across lately.  Those stories were like the four points on a compass, all pulling at me at once, fighting to take me places I didn’t want to go.  I just wanted to enjoy my shower before facing the inevitable – my computer screen.  But just when the water temperature got perfect, they all more or less merged into one theme:  The Human Heart.

So what does that have to do with HAL?  Well, you’re about to find out.  But first, here are the four stories that led me to my theme:

First, I’d heard rapper/entrepreneur of the Black Eyed Peas talking about the importance of technology, saying that rather than cutting us off from each other, technology is making our world more social, because we’re communicating more.  (I wondered, “Is that true?”)

Next, I’d read a musician-friend’s blog about a new software program that predicts whether or not a song will become a hit.  (I asked myself, “Can a computer really do that?”)

Then, NPR ran a story about new “driverless cars” that will soon be on our roads, making decisions like when to turn and brake, and helping us park.  (“But can they avoid potholes?” I said aloud, while driving into one with a loud thump.)    

Finally, we’ve all heard the story about Beyoncé’s lip syncing controversy, now resolved.  (“Didn’t she sound too perfect?” I whined jealously.)   

Put these four stories together and you’ve got a common question:  Are we better off because of technology?  And are computers able to perform those special human functions like talking, writing songs, singing, and driving, just as well as humans do?  OK, that was two questions.

And here’s another question!  (Yes, two cups of coffee now.)  If a computer writes a melody, sings a song, paints a picture, listens to you on the phone, or wins the Grand Prix, is it art?  These things require finesse, experience, attention to subtle detail, and maybe even primordial intuition, to carry them off with beauty and grace.  And why is this?  I think it has to do with the human heart.   

Whether you call it your feelings, your emotional intelligence, or just simply your heart, it is that human part that “feels stuff” that helps us to be artists.  Maybe not so much when it comes to driving.  But as far as music is concerned, I think it’s definitely true.  Emotion makes all the difference.  No matter what the genre, I love chuckling to a clever lyric, or being thrilled by a strong vibrato.  The other day I had tears spring to my eyes while listening to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Here are some other examples:

-- Frank Sinatra’s heartbreaking rendition of “One For My Baby”

-- John Coltrane's album, "A Love Supreme"

-- Eric Clapton’s lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

-- Billie Holiday’s painfully true, “Strange Fruit”

This week, I’m going to search the internet (and Chuck’s great big CD collection) for examples of emotional music that I don’t think a computer could write … and I’ll list them next week.  But I really need your help.  Please send me YOUR favorite songs – the happy, the sad, the joyful, the ones that best reveal the ticking of a human heart.

So what does all of this have to do with HAL?  Well, our friend the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey may THINK he’s going to be crowned the next American Idol, or – gasp – perform at the Super Bowl just because Beyoncé used a little technology at the inauguration, but he’s dead wrong. 

Can you imagine it?  HAL would drive himself to the game, write and select his own songs, provide computer generated graphics, including backup singers and dancers, lip-sync all of his songs, and even provide the canned applause.  Heck, the whole stadium would be filled with fake people, and even the game would be rigged.  But would it be fun?  Would it be music?  I think not.  The only way HAL will ever be able to be a musician is if he has a heart transplant.

P.S.  Throughout the month of February, we're offering our CD, Earth Tones, for just $4 (that's half price) through cdbaby.  Just go to to order it.  Or, if you live in the Tucson area, meet me for coffee and I'll personally hand you a FREE copy.  How’s that for something a computer can’t do?  Send me a message through this website and we'll socialize!




February 03, 2013 @10:42 pm
Connie, Jim, Terry, and Carlos -- Thanks so much for commenting! Glad you found this interesting. I'm going to try and listen to many of your faves this week. And the coffee offer still stands!
Connie Brannock
February 03, 2013 @09:22 pm
So would you rather spend the night with HAL or George Clooney?.... I loved your article. I suppose I am a closet Luddite who loves Apple products. We are all a collection of contradictions. Okay, songs--Europa, written by Carlos Santana and performed by Gato Barbieri, Everybody is a Star by Sly and the Family Stone, Billy's Blues by Laura Nyro. I guess one of my tunes that is particularly poignant is The Wee Hours. Thank you for your sparking this wonderful conversation!
Jim Bowen
February 03, 2013 @06:12 pm
Dang, Lori - you certainly raised a lot of interesting questions about the nature of art. This will always be debated, but any definition of "art" has to include conscious composition by humans. There's plenty of music "generated" by computers - both the performance and the score - but that's not composition. Ultimately, a computer can only generate the product of what a human tells it to do- a computer cannot be creative. Art is what humans do, and it is a major part of what separates us from non-humans. (Yes, I know about the bowerbird.) There's a difference between art and aesthetics: computer-generated music can be beautiful, and a sunset can overshadow all art, but it's not "art." So you are right about Hal - no heart, no art. Interesting that you would focus on emotions as a measure of music. I don't think many would disagree with you. But the power of music to spark emotions varies with our age, taste and experience, and cultural context. Some music seems to transcend those limitations - I understand that Beethoven's 9th Symphony is quite popular in Japan at Christmastime, and think of it in "A Clockwork Orange." I've certainly been inspired by this work, both young an old. The emotional power of some music derives from its cultural context: I've experienced the power and tears of Italian patriotic pride in Verdi's "Va, pensiero" in the opera Nabucco, and the same emotion with the Finns when they stand for Finlandia (no tears - they're Finns), and when we stand for the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game. I"m deeply moved by Ave Maria in a Catholic church, and Amazing Grace in a Protestant church, and by Mahalia Jackson's gospel recording Dig A Little Deeper. Not much of the music of my youth still moves me, but some does. OK - I still love the Kingsmen's version of Louie Louie. Dylan's One Too Many Mornings still moves me - perhaps because I can't believe that he really understood what he wrote when when he was just 22 years old. I'm moved by Ramblin' Jack Elilot's 912 Greens - because I know he did understand it, and I love Dave Van Ronk's version of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now, for the same reason. The music that moves me the most today is symphonic - Jean Sibelius' Second Symphony, Gustav Mahler's 4th, songs from various operas (mostly Italian): Nessun dorma from Turandot, the famous duet from the Pearfishers, Mimi's famous aria in La Boheme... But you must be moved by some of your own work, no? Which of your songs moves you the most?
February 03, 2013 @09:25 am
now I must say, this was really refreshing for my poor overloaded pea brain. ..One huge Applause my Friend, thanks much....T
February 03, 2013 @08:26 am
Wonderfully written!! I have too many favorite songs, but a couple come to mind from the American standards songbook: Stardust, My Funny Valentine, As Time Goes By ... and one in particular from Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone. I'd like to see HAL write that!!! Thanks for your blog, Lor.i.B

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