In an era plagued by cynicism and division, David Byrne’s exuberant, theatrical Broadway concert, American Utopia, brought an unapologetic appeal for optimism and unity earlier this year—personified by its diverse lineup of international musicians and the relentlessly reassuring onstage presence of Byrne himself. Couched within its unbridled exuberance was a serious message of civic duty: If you want an American utopia, you have to vote. To drive the point home, Byrne teamed up with the nonprofit HeadCount to register people during the show’s limited run. (A more extended run had been planned for the fall; a filmed version will air on HBO later this year.) In the meantime, Byrne launched a solutions-based online magazine, Reasons to Be Cheerful, to offer up a much-needed escape from our horrific news cycle. Readership exploded during the pandemic, tripling since the beginning of the year.
Fast Company: American Utopia explores a number of themes. What message would you like people to take away?
David Byrne: Other than the voting message—which is definitely a call to action—it’s more about an awareness rather than telling people what they should be doing. I think a lot of what people take away from the show is not what I’m saying. It’s what they’re seeing. They see and experience this joyous community, this band. There’s a real democratic aspect to it. Everybody gets a turn. Everybody gets to be in front. It’s a diverse group. And they see it all working together and everybody totally enjoying themselves, and it’s like, “Why can’t we all be like that?”
FC: Reasons to Be Cheerful puts an optimistic spin on the dark news cycle. How did the idea for the website come about?
DB: I’d get up every morning and read the news for like an hour and a half—in bed with coffee and whatever—and feel anxious or worried, sort of despondent about the state of the world and humanity. So I would save articles that gave me a sense that not everything is sliding downhill . . . I did it first for myself and eventually decided to make it into more of a formal organization.
FC: You’re covering topics such as green energy, civic engagement, and even coronavirus success stories. How do you choose what’s important?
DB: There’s a real thirst for stories that give people a sense of hope and possibility. And not just empty hope. Things like, whatever, a billionaire built a hospital wing—I mean, that’s wonderful, but it’s not going to really change how we do things. When people see that somebody’s found a way to solve something we didn’t know was solvable, they really get it.