Overfocusing and immersion

In 1965, a year after Sinatra’s iconic recording of “Fly Me to the Moon,” Tony Bennett released his own version which was also a hit. What can the dueling tunes teach us about immersion today?

By Brad Berens

The point of optical illusions like “Duck-Rabbit” and “Young Woman or Old Woman” isn’t that one of the options is correct. Instead, the point is that both are right even if you have to toggle back and forth, taking turns, to see each separately.

I have yet to find a good term to describe this phenomenon where the thing we’re talking about is actually two things that orbit each other and never occupy the same space at the same time. It’s neither satire nor parody because one isn’t making fun of the other. It’s not interpretation because both comment on each other; with interpretation one interprets while the other gets interpreted.

The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin talked about dialogic ideas, which is close, but it misses the invisible extraness of what I’m talking about. You can live your life without penalty if you only see Bugs or Daffy. Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif” (no spoilers; go read it) is a powerful version of this phenomenon: once you see the extra context, your head explodes, and you can never unsee it, but it’s still a terrific story if you never notice the extra layer.

If I can’t say precisely what this phenomenon is, I can at least identify that it’s related to the bigger issue of overfocusing where we exclude context in order to make thinking easier, but in the process we miss a bigger picture. This can have implications in business where an organization focuses too much on a direct competitor and misses a threat from a blind spot (see Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”), but it’s hardly limited to business.

For example: If somebody mentions the song, “Fly Me to the Moon,” then like me you’ll immediately think of the iconic 1964 Frank Sinatra version that he recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra. Quincy Jones was the arranger. NASA adopted this song around the Moon landing, and the astronauts played it during the Apollo 10 mission. This is the version that other artists have covered ever since in a variety of beautiful ways. (Here’s one well-curated sample.)

Since the Sinatra version is so famous and pervasive, when I first heard a very different version sung by Tony Bennett in 1965 my thought was, “huh, Tony Bennett is covering Sinatra… who would have thought it? And he added a prologue…”

Poets often use many words
To say a simple thing
It takes thought and time and rhyme
To make a poem sing
With music and words I’ve been playing
For you I have written a song
To make sure you know what I’m saying
I’ll translate as I go along…

(Micro-digression: If you haven’t heard the Tony Bennett version (or somehow haven’t heard the Sinatra version), then I beg you to take a quick break and listen before continuing.)

Which version is better is an unanswerable question of taste. The Sinatra/Basie/Jones version is the Platonic ideal of a swinging tune, but comparing it to the Bennett brings its limitations as a love song into focus. Sinatra is demanding, charming, macho: “fly me to the moon!” is in the imperative voice, a command. Bennett is wooing, seductive, empathetic. When he sings the word “fly” his voice soars, but when he turns to ask for a kiss it lands in a whispered plea. Sinatra sings, “Baby, kiss me.” “Baby” is a word that suggests he might not remember the woman’s name. Bennett says, “Darling, kiss me.” His use of “Darling” conveys vulnerability and a focus on the woman. The only downside to the Bennett version is a background chorus that bleeds focus from the lead singer.

The most immersive experiences aren’t the result of an arms race between different sorts of hardware. Instead, the most immersive experiences integrate different things into our awareness and then refuse to let us choose among them.

Personally, I prefer Bennett, but the point isn’t that one is better than the other; the point is that once you know both versions you can never think about just one. The other will always haunt you.

Not a cover in the usual way

When I dug into the song’s history, I learned that Bennett wasn’t covering Sinatra: instead he was going back to an earlier version made popular by Peggy Lee on the Ed Sullivan show in 1960 and later covered by Nat King Cole in 1962. It was already a well-known song when Peggy Lee did it. Bart Howard composed “In Other Words” in 1954, and it was a success for Kaye Ballard. By the time the Sinatra version became a big hit in 1964 (after which Howard retitled the song “Fly Me to the Moon”) there had already been over 100 different recordings, including an odd one with a different prologue by Paul Anka.

I asked my jazz pianist father, Steve Berens, what he remembered about the song from the 1960s. He wrote:

I first started playing this great song after the Nat Cole version was released. It was a hit. The Sinatra version with Count Basie was a big hit. We played it like that since it was a jazz feel with a “swing” rhythm feel, great for gigs and dancing. The Tony Bennett recording was a dreamy romantic version and was [also] a big hit.

In 1964, the Sinatra version of “Fly Me to the Moon” revised a recent classic, changed the tempo, and was in dialog with the earlier version. Listeners couldn’t listen to Sinatra without remembering the earlier renditions: upbeat, muscular rhythms juxtaposed with slow romance. A year later, Bennett reversed the dialog, putting the muscular Sinatra version in the background and reasserting the romance.

So what?

Aside from an interesting side note to musical history, does this have any bigger implications? I think so because it helps us to see that there’s a different kind of immersion at play with this sort of dialogic phenomenon.

These days, when we talk about immersion, we’re usually having a technological conversation where more technology leads to more immersion. Virtual Reality is the logical end point of these conversations where the viewer is a tourist visiting a new world that excludes the everyday world.

With things like the dialogic versions of “Fly Me to the Moon,” immersion is part of the everyday world. Instead of leaving our lives for VR, we are creatively comparing different parts of our lives.

The most immersive experiences aren’t the result of an arms race between different sorts of hardware. Instead, the most immersive experiences integrate different things into our awareness and then refuse to let us choose among them.

In 1871, writing to his brother about Shakespeare, the Romantic poet John Keats talked about this sort of refusal as Shakespeare’s “Negative Capability,” when a creator “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability is a migraine-producing double negative if you think about it too long, but it’s as close as I can get to the thing we lose by overfocusing.

Because that illustration is both a duck and a rabbit.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow, and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. Learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com.



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February 17, 2021