Geek, Art

The Power of Performing with Words

Do me a favor and take a look at this screen for a second. No tricks, promise. What do you see? A fancy banner for the site, a couple other linked articles, maybe a picture. Ok, fair enough. But what else do you see, covering most of the page?


Sometimes it’s hard to stop and notice them. A stop sign is recognized by the red octagon, a company by its mascot, a bar by the neon and cigarette smoke. Words often get overlooked, even when their presence is important. Lyrics are drowned out by a song’s overpowering beat, a book gets adapted into a movie. An artist’s signature is disregarded in favor of the larger piece. Words are so often lost among their accompanying media. It’s a bit of a shame.

But what about when the words themselves are the art form? When they take centerstage and force the audience to pay attention to them? They themselves can be just as impactful, if viewed from a slightly different angle. Performance, stylization, and isolation of a particular speech can often deliver much more than simple writing. The words become living things, powerful in their own right.

Let’s look at a few different ways that simple words can become art.

Kinetic Typography: When Words Comes Alive

I’m going to confess something. I’ve wanted to talk about kinetic typography for a while but never really got the right opening for it. It’s one of those things that’s cool in the moment but sounds really weird when brought up in conversation. Short summary, it’s a quote, song, or performance animated and brought to life onscreen in an oddly satisfying way. A snippet of speech isolated and bringing a scene to life through moving words. With only words and simple images replacing green screens and explosions, KT puts the focus on those pieces of dialogue.

Sometimes they’re monologues from a film like Lord of the Rings that struck the animator in a special way. It’s a stripped-down showcase of Sam speaking to Frodo, urging him to continue his quest. It puts the emphasis entirely on his words, not his face or actions. A sweeping shot of a map of Middle Earth shows just how much there is left to fight for. Another example is Taylor Mali’s poem “What Teachers Make“, a powerful speech about the impact of educators. His face and gestures aren’t seen; only his voice is heard. The moving text dictation gives a sense of rapidity, passion, and emotion, echoed by how he speaks giving the performance. It’s a loud, incisive piece that drives home his point of educators being the most impactful people in the world.

Whether the words are spoken or performed, kinetic typography brings words to life. And speaking of Taylor Mali…

Come on and Slam (Poetry)

Probably one of the more widely-known but less-explored areas of nerdery is poetry. Shoutout to the English Majors in the back, because poetry is pretty great. But the usual connotation attached to poetry isn’t always appealing: dusty books and smoky rooms in a stuffy English pub. Pretty words to be skimmed over for a test and forgotten. Sometimes digging deeper unearths the bebop beatnik, black berets and bongos and weird facial hair. Snooty and condescending, probably not the most fun at a party. But the great thing about poetry is that sometimes performers, like the medium itself, like to mess with the rules.

This is where we get to slam, or spoken word. Passionate, sometimes political, usually personal. It’s a field as diverse as any other literary genre, with performers showcasing their own style and focus. Some performers go the comedic route such as Omar Holmon with “Jesus Christ Super Toaster” or “An Open Letter to Snapple“. Others can be more serious, like Denise Frohman’s “Dear Straight People” or Javon Johnson’s “Malcom X“. And still more can be a mix of both like Neil Hilborn’s “The Future” or Michael Lee’s “Waking Up Naked“. Spoken word covers a spectrum of emotions, blending performance, speechcraft, and catharsis. Unlike kinetic typography, both the visual and the vocal can be integral parts of the performance. Spoken word is inherently emotional, to those who write and perform it as well as those who listen.

Slam and spoken word are often maligned as pretentious hipster nonsense, but a little digging can unearth gold. It’s music with no backing track, performed with passion and emotion; definitely worth a look.

Standup Comedy: Laugh, Think, Laugh Again

Ok, here’s a more contentious statement: standup comedy can be artistic.

Truly a divisive claim.

But in keeping tone with the previous examples, it really isn’t too far of a stretch. Similar to spoken word poetry, standup comedy can be one of the more powerful mediums of expressing emotion through words. It’s more performance than slam or KT, but fluid and everchanging when live on stage. When done properly, a comedian makes an audience laugh, gasp, cry, and in the best cases, think.

Comedians like Bo Burnham, with his piece “Art is Dead“, are self-referential and profane while trying to say something. Burnham’s song can be taken as silly, but it speaks about the hidden mindset of many entertainers. It showcases the idea of someone suddenly becoming famous while not feeling as though they deserve it. Imposter syndrome brought to light and set to a bouncy tune, meant as entertainment as well as a thinkpiece.

Of course not every comedian relies on overtly introspective pieces. Russell Howard, a personal favorite, uses words to try and bring joy into any situation, no matter how dark. Absurdity and commonality blend into funny stories of the everyday, but the real gems can come from heavy topics. A perfect, yet crude, example came at the end of his Wonderbox tour. Howard begins by talking about a young boy he met battling terminal illness, and how the young boy’s “fighting fear with funny” inspired him. At the end of the bit, he tells the audience the boy is in remission and brings him onstage to close out the show. Howard has proven to be a fantastic speaker, packaging philosophy inside comedy. He’s worth a look, in my opinion, just mind the swearing and mature topics.

Closing Words

Are there any other word-centric mediums we missed? Have any of these topics piqued your interest? Or do you have words for me, positive or negative? Please be sure to leave them in the comments.

As always, this has been Crab, and I invite you to consider the potential power of words.


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