Maybe you’ve heard of Jonathan Mann. If not, I suspect you will. He’s got a knack for marketing himself – like it or not – plus the good fortune of having something worthwhile to sell. Mann’s been popping up here and there on radio and television shows, on blogs and newspaper sites, mostly for a great little song he wrote about the economist Paul Krugman.
Jonathan Mann, “Hey Paul Krugman (A Song, A Plea)” (2009)
This is hardly his only piece. He’s more prolific than Joyce Carol Oates. Mann’s been writing and posting a new song every day of the year, without fail, for 2009. He’s got a gift for music, you might say, and he’s eager to share it. Now, if you’re the type to roll your eyes at the prospect of some jackass relentlessly posting daily musings to homemade beats, please remember this: Mann’s got real talent. His talent is so wide and so deep that it can sustain the grueling, prolonged assault of daily postings. Many of the songs are good. Some are flat-out great. Most are funny or charming, insightful or moving. All of them are honest.
For all of Mann’s virtues, I come back to his website mostly for its honesty. Honesty is the highest praise one person can give to another’s work. When you say a piece is honest, it doesn’t mean you necessarily like it, only that you think it was created with the purest of intentions. An honest creation is one that says this work is a part of me and I’m offering it to you. Honesty distinguishes the solipsism of a confessional poem about ‘true’ feelings (where the real target is the bleeding self that created it) from a powerful one on the same subject. Honesty is better than brilliance or greatness or complexity. There’s a Hebrew word for ultimate honesty, the ultimate giving: henaini. Here I am. It’s what Abraham said to God when that oft cruel Authority-In-The-Sky asked him to sacrifice his only child. Here I am, said Abraham. For you. The most a person can give.
Now take a look at Mann’s song on Jon Stewart. It’s not his best, musically or lyrically, but it’s an honest response to a good moment on a particularly dishonest CNN talk show. The song, as Mann makes clear in his notes, was written because of Stewart’s plead for civility on Crossfire.
The ‘here’ at the end is what gets me. Henaini, in effect. This here song is my gift to you. The back and forth of gifts like this – of one’s self and one’s talents – are not just the foundation of community, but of all humanity. This song, probably whipped out in a couple of hours, says my existence, my effort, is here, for you. Mann is trying to build a career and have fun with his project, sure, but he’s also building a community on the web, a community that could potentially grow large and powerful.
Here’s another song he wrote on the occasion of his friend’s birthday. It’s not perfect, artistically. He’s certainly written dozens of better ones. But watch the reaction of Shaista Vally when she’s serenaded by her friends. Notice the kindness in her boyfriend’s hug as he sings along. These are nice people. These are good people. They know something about community, about what’s important in life. Watch the joy that emanates from Mann’s honest gift to his friend.
Jonathan Mann, “Shaista Vally Birthday Song” (2009)
Pretty simple stuff, to give an unpretentious gift of one’s self and one’s talents. But not to be underestimated. It’s the foundation of an ethical self.
- Anton Piatigorsky
In case you missed Jon Stewart’s 2004 appearance on Crossfire, here it is:
CNN, “Jon Stewart on Crossfire” (2004)
Finally, here is Jonathan Mann’s wonderful Ryeberg song, recorded for the occasion of Ryeberg Live 2010:
Jonathan Mann, “Song A Day #511: Ryeberg” (2010)