Neal Viemeister, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, can’t pinpoint exactly what prompted him to hire the Greek undergrad as a research assistant back in the 1970s. He searched his memory—“Well, John knocked at my door looking for research experience, which impressed me, that an undergraduate would be that motivated and courageous. He was a real nice guy and very bright. He somehow learned to program this ancient IBM 160 computer that was the size of a desk. He was intense, worked very hard. Yeah, he had a nice smile and the long hair, but so did everyone back then. About halfway through the year, he decided to go by his Greek name, Yanni, instead of John.”
Yanni, that mono-monikered musician/composer superstar whose multi-platinum recordings and videos (Live at the Acropolis is the second best-selling video of all time, you know) spell success in any language, is also the biggest enigma since Ed Sullivan. Can you hum a Yanni song? Can you name a Yanni song? Nope. You can’t even categorize his music, which seems like it should be some kind of standard for success (which award show to attend?). The half of the human race that isn’t out feverishly buying his CDs and wall calendars are collectively scratching their heads about how this guy got so darn popular. Yanni was here in Minnesota from 1972 until the mid 1980s at a budding stage of his life and, what, no one noticed early glimmerings of greatness? Wasn’t he turning heads and knocking people back with his star quality? Wouldn’t you think the other dishwashers at the Campus Club would have noticed Yanni Chryssomallis’s exquisite hair? That’s because he didn’t have that certain something yet. He acquired it in Psych 1001.
Now that he has wrapped up his winter tour, I feel prepared to offer my theory: Yanni, a naturally gifted musician, uses his undergraduate psychology degree to get into the vast prairies of the Minnesota collective mind. He memorizes the bucolic, nonoffensive terrain, and translates that metaphysical state into music. He synthesizes Minnesota, minus the slush, and makes millions.
First off, why go into psychology rather than music? Yes, Yanni is self-taught and never took formal lessons because that might have crushed his unique gift. Whatever. Psychology seems like a pretty good tool for getting at the Minnesota psyche. Of course, Auto Tech III is likely, too, but it doesn’t look as good on your résumé. Let’s review what his former teachers remember about Yanni: nice, nice, real nice, nice smile, and hardworking. Notice, not hot or charismatic or artistic or fantastically top-shelf talented or flamboyant. No. Nice.
Tom Paske, Yanni’s business manager from way back in the eighties hair-band days, says he is probably Yanni’s best friend. I wondered aloud why Yanni has struck pay dirt with electronic music when others haven’t. Many of his bandmates from Chameleon, a second-tier Twin Cities bar band, are still playing, some even in the new-age genre. They haven’t played the Taj Mahal or the Forbidden City. They haven’t been the official composer of the last two Olympic Games. How to account for this divergence of fortunes?
“No one does what Yanni does, that’s why,” said Paske. “No one creates the sound he does. No one puts world, classical, and rock elements together. He’s very very smart, very creative and absolutely unique.”
A couple weeks ago, the Xcel Center was packed for Yanni’s adoptive-hometown concert. The fans, averaging white and about forty-five years old, were orderly but rapt. A starship captain at the bridge, Yanni pushed buttons with much feeling. He flipped his mane, conducting the first-class crew as they took the audience on a breathless flight of classical violin, a rocking harp blast (you heard me), and a funky digideroo trip down under, to name just a few of his musical wanderings. These fans would not be found at the Minnesota Orchestra or the 400 Bar or the Blue Nile, but they’ve been lining up for Yanni for fifteen years. Like the Minnesota State Fair, there’s something for everyone at a Yanni concert.
Unscientifically, I fished for support for my Yanni-Minnesota theory, but evidence was circumstantial at best. Everyone was having a good time, but that occasionally happens outside Minnesota, too. No one vomited on me, but again maybe this is normal outside of Cheap Trick concerts. A moment of self-assessment revealed that I was enjoying myself and, like discovering a taste for Cheez Whiz, that worried me. I cast around for reasons for this “enjoyment.” A series of small strokes can never be discounted, but I was looking for something more sinister, more insidious. I turned to ask my friend, Barb, if she thought the haunting vocals and tribal rhythms reminded her at all of tater-tot casserole, but her eyes were all glazed over and she was smiling rosy-cheeked and clapping along. She appeared to be brainwashed. That’s all the proof I needed. That Yanni, he’s pretty darn good.—Sarah Barker