T Bone Burnett tells Communication graduates: "You are the ones"

By Anne Bergman

T Bone Burnett’s message to graduates of the USC Annenberg School of Communication was simple, yet powerful: “Knock ‘em alive,” he urged.

The iconoclastic music producer and songwriter spoke on May 16 as part of the University of Southern California’s 131st Commencement Ceremonies. In all, 660 degrees were conferred: 321 Bachelors, 320 Masters and 19 doctoral.

Families and friends of the soon-to-be graduates filled 4000 seats under a tent in McCarthy Quad, fending off the 91 degree heat with official Annenberg hand fans. Burnett’s music set the celebratory mood, as songs he produced for artists such as Los Lobos and Roy Orbison wafted in the background.

Once he took the stage, Burnett’s overall message to these new graduates remained upbeat, as he told the audience, “I have chosen to be optimistic because I believe that people can-- and even might-- make the smart decisions about the epic challenges we face.  If people are going to do that, it is going to be done through communication and with conscience. And I’m going to tell you this. I’m not kidding about this….You are the ones.”

USC Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III reflected on how Annenberg graduates are prepared for those epic challenges that Burnett described. “Here at Annenberg, you have learned both the time-honored fundamentals as well as the experimental concepts of the future,” he said.

The Dean went on to describe the meetings he’s held throughout the past two years with high-level executives and industry leaders inquiring about what they need to be successful in their organizations . “They didn’t answer that they needed more technology or money,” he said. “Rather, they answered that their missing ingredient is ‘extraordinary talent.’ And there’s a particular kind of talent that we really need: Communication skills. We are looking for people who know how to communicate.”

Concluding his remarks, Burnett told the new graduates that he wasn’t going to give them a lot of advice, but that he would “speak with you briefly from my experience of 50 years in the Arts.” Here is a list of what he shared:

·         In a mercantile society, the only control an artist has is negative control. Don’t be afraid to say no.

·         Keep your eyes open. Don’t avert your gaze.

·         Don’t tell people what they already know.

·         Don’t follow trends.

·         Make the most beautiful thing you possibly can.

·         Set strong boundaries.

For his part, Dean Wilson urged the new graduates to adhere to the words of philanthropist Walter Annenberg, who established the Annenberg School at USC: “‘Be of service to all people.’ As you go forth into the future, please carry that message for us.”

Dean Wilson also noted that by commencement 2015, the new Wallis Annenberg Hall will have debuted, along with new curriculum and programs, all “cutting-edge.”

Annenberg Vice Dean Larry Gross presided over the ceremony for the final time as director of the School of Communication. Next year, this duty will go to Sarah Banet-Weiser, as she takes the directorship this July.

“We are transitioning seamlessly from one star to another star,” Dean Wilson said. “Sarah’s a renowned scholar, award-winning author, and beloved teacher who will build on the foundation built by her predecessor. Larry has set my own standards, for he’s been an extraordinary leader and mentor.”