Beyoncé, the Beatles and how to be creative today



  • What we can learn about collaboration and remote work from two pandemic hits

Beyoncé recently came out with her first studio album in six years, an exuberant hour of music called “Renaissance" that I’ve had on repeat in the days since it was released, and there is something unusual about this record: Before listening to Beyoncé, it’s worth reading Beyoncé.

“This three-act project was recorded over three years during the pandemic," the pop star wrote on her website. “A time to be still, but also a time I found to be the most creative."

That statement was a useful reminder that stuff coming out now wasn’t just made during the pandemic. It was made possible by the pandemic.

For Beyoncé, that means the escapist quality of the work itself sounds like a product of the era. For those of us who aren’t Beyoncé, it’s not just what we produce but how we produce it.

Never before has so much changed so quickly for so many people. The fundamental question in creative fields right now is when it makes sense to be with each other physically and when we can be effective working virtually. To put it another, catchier way: Are we more like Beyoncé or the Beatles?

The Beatles exemplified the magic and the misery of being around other people. Beyoncé can make her music without necessarily being around other people.

In that way the most anticipated record of the summer reminded me of a paper that Melanie Brucks of Columbia University and Jonathan Levav at Stanford recently published in the journal Nature. It was by sheer coincidence they set out before the pandemic to study a topic that would soon be highly topical: They wanted to look at the relationship between creativity and remote collaboration.

The scholars ran a lab experiment and field study in which two sets of teams—half in the same location, half separated by a screen—brainstormed innovations and selected their best to be scored by judges. Their results might have been intuitive when they designed a study about videoconferencing in 2016, but they were almost counterintuitive by the time they published in 2022.

“We found that people are less creative when they’re not in the same physical space," said Dr. Brucks. “But there seem to be tasks that people can perform similarly online as in person—and maybe even a little better."

We may be worse at generating ideas remotely, but not at selecting ideas or executing those ideas.

And few projects have illuminated both parts of the creative process so clearly as one featuring a group of people as famous as Beyoncé.

Peter Jackson’s documentary “The Beatles: Get Back" was announced on March 11, 2020, the same day the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, which turned a feature-length film meant to be released in theaters into a streaming miniseries three times as long. The most daunting part was figuring out how the whole thing would come together.

But sifting through hours of previously unseen footage turned out to be a fantastic pandemic undertaking.

Mr. Jackson and his crew in New Zealand had been focused on the documentary for more than a year when they found themselves in a strict lockdown. It was a fortunate break that they were past the idea-generation stage. They continued their work from their homes without missing a beat.

A team of Oxford University economists studying the discovery of breakthrough scientific ideas recently analyzed millions of scholarly papers over seven decades and showed that we learned how to be productive through remote collaboration over the past 10 years. Technology we have come to know, love and hate during the pandemic gave us the tools to simulate working in person.

Writing music was a team sport in which most of the players never met one another even before the pandemic. The collaborators making remote contributions to Beyoncé’s latest album included Jameil Aossey and Larry Griffin Jr., who worked on two tracks from Ohio and Texas, respectively. They didn’t have to be with Beyoncé. They didn’t even have to be with each other.

After her long nights in the studio, engineers sent files of those sessions to these producers with an intriguing sound, and they dropped everything for their chance to work on a Beyoncé album. She selected ideas. They executed. (A spokeswoman for Beyoncé said she is “the only one who could honestly speak of her process" and she was unavailable for interviews.)

This is how collaboration happens these days. But what’s typical now was close to impossible not long ago.

“If you weren’t in the room," Mr. Aossey said of the way things used to be, “the door was closed on you."

The team on “Get Back" eventually opened that door again and found themselves back in 1969 hanging out with the Beatles.

There was something wonderfully ironic about their experience reliving the making of “Let It Be," the Beatles’ final studio album. The filmmakers had the pleasure of watching four people crammed in a room pursuing creative greatness—riffing and noodling and experimenting and refining until, suddenly, almost inexplicably, the band had a masterpiece. The documentary team was trying to do the same thing.

Mr. Jackson and the film’s editor, Jabez Olssen, worked together in a bubble so they could build on their remote collaboration and put the finishing touches on the documentary in person. They didn’t have to read Dr. Brucks’s research to understand they wanted to be in the same room. That proximity wasn’t just valuable but essential when generating ideas in the beginning of a project and polishing them at the end. It’s hard to imagine the final product without it, Mr. Olssen told me.

“We would’ve lost all that personal interaction that’s so important when you’re trying to be creative," he said.

That sentiment wasn’t just a theme of the documentary but also happened to be the animating spirit of the most striking two minutes in the nearly eight hours.

It begins when John Lennon is late to rehearsal and Paul McCartney is fiddling on his bass as he waits with George Harrison and Ringo Starr. He’s toying around, playing with sounds, grasping for… something. He’s got nothing and he’s going nowhere, but he doesn’t give up. He keeps tinkering. And then it happens. Something. You hear it. You see it. You feel it. Before long George is reaching for his guitar, Ringo is clapping a drumbeat and Paul is singing: “Get back! Get back! Get back to where you once belonged." By the time John walks into the studio, the Beatles have the makings of a hit.

“They took something they had and they worked it and worked it again and kept iterating and changing it and improving little bits of it and telling each other what they liked and didn’t like," said Mr. Olssen. “It really shows you that creative genius is a process."

John, Paul, George and Ringo had to be in the same room to bring their ideas to life. Beyoncé and her collaborators didn’t.

Neither did the people who made “Get Back." They learned during the making of their documentary about the Beatles that they preferred to be. “It does help to be in the same room," Mr. Olssen told me via Zoom from the other side of the world. “It’s maybe not as necessary as we used to think it was."

Another lesson of the Beatles and “Get Back" is that one day we might be in the same room as Beyoncé as she made this pandemic album. It would make for a great documentary in 50 years.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text


Catch all the Industry News, Banking News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.



Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App