The Winning Band

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, October 21, 2005

The MBC music program broadcast live from KAIST on Saturday, 15 Oct 05, may have been a seminal event in the Einstein Centennial: the moment when the technical university stepped confidently into the information age.

The show was much more than the usual tiresome advertisement for science and technology. It was a world-class display of showmanship and ultrasophisticated communication skills---completely divorced from propaganda and focused like a laser on market demand. The benefit to us was incalculable. Millions of people across Korea saw KAIST as an institution with its head screwed on properly. We have a long way to go before becoming a Mecca of hipness, but I believe a key door toward that end just opened for us.

I am really proud that one of our bands made it into the finals. My judgment is always objective and harsh, so when I say I'm proud of them, it means something. They did not win the Grand Prize, but this misses the point. The competition in this show was world-class---not fake world-class defined by government but the real world-class defined by market demand. If you aren't world-class in this business, people don't scold you. They turn off their televisions and go to bed! In real world-class competition, you accept that whatever you do won't be perfect, play with all the strength in your body anyway, learn from your mistakes, and do better the next time. In real world-class competition, you can't trust exams, your school, or your family to protect you. You can only trust yourself.

What the winning band did to beat us was communicate better. This is important, so let me explain:

Their lead singer was a woman with extraordinary charisma. The flash and motion of her eyes, the arch of her body, the textures of her voice, the timing of her statements weren't singing so much as interacting with you the way a girl might do at a party. Her message was: you are interesting, and I want you to like me. I'm working hard at being interesting too. I am incredibly intelligent. I love life and am passionate about many things, notably you.

The rhythm guitarist, by contrast, was ultra New York. His message was: I don't care about anything, especially you. His playing was very techno, like someone answering a calculus question with a purposely confusing blizzard of information, then stopping dead, then repeating the blizzard again because you were too stupid to understand the first time. It was intentionally obnoxious. His orange hair, squinty glasses, red tie and red coat telegraphed gender ambiguity. Everything about his image was a question mark.

The bass player also transmitted gender ambiguity. She had a cute face and pigtails, like a rag doll, but the sounds coming out of her instrument were masculine, authoritative, and shockingly sexual. Her message was: I may look cute, but don't be fooled.

The drummer in this band had no message. Sometimes drummers have messages, but it wasn't appropriate in this case because it would have weakened the lead. So he deliberately faded into the background, like a heartbeat.

The keyboardist had the most interesting function of all. He played only a 4-note riff as an "answer" to the lead singer. His message was: I heard her. But, of course, he was actually a voice inside our own heads saying that WE heard her. In other words, he spoke to us through our subconscious.

It is well known that I make new music myself and have been urging KAIST people to do the same. I am not in the same league as the performers we saw on Saturday, but I know I could be if I set my mind to it and allocated enough time. The point is not that we should all become become musicians but that we should all become purposefully creative. Putting your own ideas out in public is scary and exposes you to criticism, but it is critically important to do because it sends you down the long and difficult road of learning to communicate brilliantly, something all of us in advanced countries must do to survive.

Saturday's show demonstrated with brutal clarity that the Confucian practice of hiding yourself has been rendered obsolete by the march of history. Those who continue to practice it will be passed by. Those who modernize will prosper. The wise course of action would be go through the door that just opened for us and not look back.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]