Invention and Deception

With the return of the critically acclaimed television drama Mad Men upon us, it might be timely to explore one of the ideas that the show has grappled with since its very first episode: the link between creativity and dishonesty, or (put another way) the thin line between the gifted storyteller and manipulative liar.

As Mad Men follows the exploits of sixties ad man Don Draper, creative director at one of Madison Avenue’s most recognized advertising firms and the kind of person who’s both a gifted storyteller and gifted philanderer. Draper’s creativity makes for some eloquent and even persuasive moments throughout the series, although his abilities to think outside the box, construct a convincing narrative, and connect with someone’s emotional core are exactly the same qualities that give the man such a capacity for manipulating the truth.

The link between invention and deception has been pointed out by many throughout history, and one particular interpretation of the phenomenon—that creativity, being the source of deception, is to blame—has had many supporters. Yet it might be more accurate to venture that it’s actually the more pedestrian drive to manipulate the world for food and survival advantages that eventually gave rise to higher-end creative problem solving—whether that problem is how to compose an effective piece of music, think up a catchy jingle, or convince one’s spouse that one is not committing adultery.

There’s a great scene in the first season of Mad Men, where a Korean War-era Don Draper looks out at a military casket and is told to “leave that boy behind” by his superior. Viewers of the series who know exactly who that casket contains will understand why it’s such a poignant moment. In so many words, Draper takes the chance to reinvent himself in a way to which most of us can relate: by turning our backs on our embarrassing, painful, and largely uncontrollable childhoods and adolescence, and then consciously fabricating a new version of ourselves that is (at least superficially) suave, cosmopolitan, and in control.

I’ve found that in music, there’s a similar sense in which we must pretend to be something which we are not, in order to become something different than we are now; that is, the initial creation is (at least in part) a fabrication, something to be aspired to and grown into. A few years ago I was writing a lot of instrumental music for some very fine groups, but nothing for the voice—something that is difficult to remedy once a little bit of initial success starts to carve out a pigeonhole. In retrospect, after doing everything I could to help foster a shift in my composing gigs, I found that it was only through sheer, unfounded belief—pretending to some degree that I already possessed the qualities I sought to acquire—that I was able to make the change happen. After which point the lie became true and the pretense became the new premise.

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