What makes a great collaboration? Are two heads really better than one? In search of the answers to these and other important questions, Bonnaroo.com went looking for an expert. We were lucky enough to find one in author and essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Shenk has achieved widespread acclaim for his writing on topics ranging from the arts and mental health to Abraham Lincoln. Most recently, he has directed his incisive eye toward the world of “Creative Pairs.” In a series for Slate and a forthcoming book on creative partnerships, Shenk explores some of history’s great tandems and examines what makes collaborations work in business and culture. From Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabteh Cady Stanton, Shenk examines the social dynamics that helped shape some of the most productive collaborative efforts of all time.
While he wasn’t able to give us the perfect formula for constructing the ultimate supergroup [insert link to Build Your Own Collaboration article], Shenk was kind enough to offer his insight into the strange and wonderful world of the collaborative process.
You’ve written extensively on a range of topics from Abraham Lincoln to mental health and the arts, what drew you to the creative collaboration and to “creative pairs”?
Personal curiosity, to start. I’m just fascinated with the way people affect each other. More than that, I wanted to learn more about the way that aspects of our selves—often, our best selves—are really ushered into being through exchange with other people. When I started thinking about how to study that, I instantly thought about the epic creative pairs in history, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. What was between them? What was happening in that space between them? That’s the question that got me going.
What makes a great creative collaboration? Is it personality? Skill set? Something else?
Well, in the hundreds of pairs I’ve studied, I do see certain recurring themes. For example, great pairs always seem to have a blend of radical differences and intense similarities. They have as much in common as identical twins and are as weird together as a lizard and a whale. So in my book I dig into this, and a number of other points that pairs have in common. At the same time, though, while you can break down these core elements and see certain elements repeat, it’s crucial to point out that this is not a formula. It’s a human dynamic. It’s a transcendent experience to find the person you’re really in alignment with.
Many of the collaborators you’ve written about have developed a collaboration over a long period of time. How do spontaneous collaborations differ in terms of dynamic and creative potential?
When there’s electricity between people, it tends to show up quickly, and it will often take the people involved by surprise. Sometimes we want to engineer these kinds of moments, like in that TV series Iconoclasts, where they brought together famous people for conversation—like Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson. But I don’t think the real stuff can be forced. And it’s not at all a function of how cool it would be from the audience’s point of view. People would be ecstatic to see Jack White and Paul McCartney play together, but who knows what it would be like for them? A smart curator would probably not program that kind of thing from the outside. Instead, you’d want to set up an environment in which people can naturally feel each other out, and see what emerges.
Do you think there is something about musical performance or songwriting that makes it more suited to collaboration than other artistic endeavors?
Music is one of the places where we are most comfortable and familiar with the idea of people influencing each other. It’s an intensely social art form. High-level empathetic input shows up in all kinds of fields, but in music it’s often most palpable. For instance, when the Grateful Dead spun out those endless jams and then instantly came back in for the next verse of a song, it’s clear that they’re tied together by a thousand invisible strings. Yet, even in music, the mythical idea of the Lone Genius often prevails. People forget the role of the producer, of the co-writer, of the drummer, and constantly lionize the frontman, the star.
How do you think a performer’s interaction with the audience influences their work? Is that a kind of collaboration?
Certainly it’s an illustration of the way we’re connected in ways that go far beyond conscious awareness. Every performer can feel the vibe in a room. Some of them may respond to it more; others may really barrel through their set. I love the shows best where something really gels and you can feel an exchange. There’s a kind of concert where the artist is kinda just doing a live run-through of their greatest hits. And it’s fine. It’s pleasant. You take the stub home and drop it in a box to show your grandchildren. But every once in a while you see a show where you feel that you have entered into something that is larger than you. Every moment shimmers, you know? The kind of show can change your fucking life. And you want every show to feel that way. At the same time, when I think about it from a performer’s perspective, it’s remarkable how hard it must be to stay open to that many people, night after night.
If you had to pick a favorite historical creative collaborative duo who would it be?
Oh, definitely John Lennon and Paul McCartney. There are lots of pairs where I love the story and I love their work, and it speaks to something essential about creative exchange. But with those two guys, every knob is turned up to ten. Their work is as good as anything that anyone has ever done. It’s certainly on any shortlist on any human achievement. And the story is an epic of drama and conflict.
They are two very distinct and brilliant artists for whom a great deal of the mutuality gave them their own distinctions. I think that one thing that people don’t get about collaboration is how much of it depends on being yourself. Of course it depends on surrendering to the collective, but that collective is only sustained and energized to the extent that the two individuals maintain themselves in all their ferocity as individuals.
When I first had the idea for the book, I immediately thought of them—but it took me six months to do any research on them, because I figured someone had already covered this. And there has obviously been an enormous amount of attention devoted to their work, but the essential story of their journey together has not been accounted before.
They’re so many great stories. Of course they’re not all the kind of stories that changed Western civilization like Lennon and McCartney; they could have created a great book of poetry or a useful business. But Lennon and McCartney were—and one still is—up there with the gods.