Science for Girls: Smart, not Clever

I recently discovered a very cool new music album, produced by a very old friend. It’s called Science for Girls, and, despite the title, it’s not an educational children’s CD. Instead, it’s a collection of songs written and produced by Darren Solomon, a New York-based musician who spent a good deal of time touring with Ray Charles and Barry Manilow and who may now be the finest bassist on the planet. (Remember, John Entwistle is dead.) Darren’s also the guy who long ago taught me how to do armpit farts, but that’s not what makes his music so good.

Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins once famously remarked that there’s a “fine line between clever and stupid.” I think he’s right, but there’s an even finer line between clever and smart. I don’t think that “clever” is necessarily a good characteristic in an artist of any stripe. Being clever always involves showing off and calling attention to yourself at the expense of the work. And one of my biggest problems as an actor and as a writer is my propensity for cleverness.

If you’re reading my novel, then I’d cite a phrase like “paroxysm of panic” as an example of clever writing on my part that’s not really good writing. It’s alliterative; it uses a big word, and it calls attention to how brilliant I think I am, but it’s also clunky. It yanks you out of the story and asks you to applaud the guy writing it. That gets very tiresome very quickly. I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I’ve never been able to get through his detective novel The Long, Dark Tea Time of the Soul, which opens with perhaps the cleverest line I’ve ever read:

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”

That made me laugh. In fact, I’ve used that line on several occasions. But as the Adams book progressed, every line after that tried too hard to be just as funny. Some of them may have been, but I ended up so exhausted trying to keep up after a few pages that I put the book down, never to return to it.

Musical Theatre is filled with Clever. Stephen Sondheim has made a career out of it. I love a lot of Sondheim, but I also recognize why he’s so off-putting to Mrs. Cornell, among others. He dazzles you with odd syncopations and clever rhymes, but he also purposely distances himself from you at the same time. That’s because “clever” almost always ends up being condescending. In order to appreciate the genius of the Clever Artist, you have to be looking up at him to do it.

Where am I going with this re: Science for Girls?

Darren Solomon is a very, very bright man and musician. And very talented. But you never get the sense, in Science for Girls, that he’s showing off. The arrangements and melodies feel simple and effortless, despite the fact that they’re actually quite complex, both in terms of the hardware and the songs themselves. iTunes lists his music as part of the “Electronic” genre, yet the songs feel very intimate and personal. You can listen to four of them on Darren’s MySpace page. I’ve heard the opening track, “14 Days,” a zillion times now, and I never get tired of it. It feels so breezy, but it’s really a stunning piece of work underneath it all, complete with key changes and chord shifts that flow perfectly from beginning to end.

Darren’s not being clever. He’s just being smart. There’s a fine line between the two, and Darren always stays on the right side, armpit farts notwithstanding.

Chapter 6, or Chapter 3.4

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