I had never heard of Taylor Mali or Ronnie Bruce, until their creative marriage of text and spoken word came my way in the form of this tremendous piece on Vimeo. Ronnie Bruce claims he knew nothing about typography when he created the animated type for Mali's poem "Totally like whatever, you know?" for a class two years ago. If this is the case then it is a rare example of ignorance leading to elegance. Ronnie, please, do more! Taylor Mali I discovered, is famous to everyone but me, and I am just catching up.
Click here to see the video
The poem itself is a critique of the "valley-speak" language epidemic among those between 2 years old and now reaching into the 40's. It is easy to make fun of the shallow upward arcing phrasing of the "please like me no matter what I say" generation. But it becomes a serious cultural problem when the generation expands upward and people show no sign of growing out of it. In contrast, I think of the street protestors in Egypt demanding removal of their president. I hear no equivocation, no need to be liked. How differently it would play if the crowds spoke in the tone of the entitled American forever-20-something: "Hey Hosni, could you like sort of step aside? Hey like so we could have maybe more equal distribution of resources, water, food, jobs, not that we really care that much?" (Of course that brings up the other question, can language supress revolution? What if they gave a revolution but the populace, so accustomed to a different kind of language, had no idea how to add an exclamation point to their demands?)
And yet, as one critic on Vimeo noted, recognizing the fallibility of one's own opinions is an important and often missing piece of contemporary dialogue. Extremists on all sides shout loudly and with no admission of gray zones, introspection or ambiguity. The tone set by ideology never allows for actual exchange of world views or what we think of as conversation. We seem to have lost the middle zone of thoughtful and considered opinion, delivered in the kind of tone of voice that takes responsibility and asks for the same in return. This voice doesn't ask for praise or try through the sleight of hand of syntax to avoid conflict, it asks for connection.
Taylor's poem takes on this issue beautifully. Although it is sly and bitingly funny, it works as far more than entertainment: it is a call to linguistic arms. Interestingly, when I read the poem in its simple "print" version it did not hold up as a work of art. It is Taylor's timing and twists of tone, amplified by the intuitive typography, which bring it alive. The message is dramatized by the tension between the authoritative believability embedded in "set type" and the helplessly noncomittal voiceover. The text moves from simple declarative sans serif, which continually undermines itself by turning upside down, sliding sideways or flirtatiously winking, to a more stately serif font as it makes its final point:
"I entreat, I implore you, I exhort you, I challenge you: To speak with conviction."