Yesterday I watched Weird Al Yankovic’s video parody of Lady Gaga, and I ended up reading a lot of posts criticizing her. The usual stuff. How her music is "superficial crap," how she is nothing more than a Madonna clone, and how her weirdness was carefully crafted for marketing purposes and is not who she really is.
First, I want to say that I’m not the biggest Lady Gaga fan, but whenever millions of people are responding positively to something, I pay attention. I pay attention for the simple reason that I don't believe they can all be wrong. Plus, I don't want to miss out on the fun! Is her music superficial crap? I don't know, but I happen to like some of it, and I like some of her outrageous videos as well.
Second, yes, of course the woman has influences! She is an artist. She acknowledges that Madonna is one of her sources of inspiration. She also cites Queen and David Bowie. If you look at her work, you can clearly see the mark of all those superstars. In turn, if you study Madonna and Queen and David Bowie, you will see their influences, too. And so on, all the way back to the beginning of music.
But third—the accusation that her weirdness is not genuine—well, this brings me to the subject this post.
The Paradox of Weirdness
One of the most interesting things about success—and I’m talking about success in any field, not just the music business—is that being weird or different is ultimately the most important factor. Yet, ironically, when you first set out to be successful at something, it seems everyone you encounter pressures you to be like those ahead of you who have already established themselves, to conform to the formula that results from studying the already-successful group as a whole. If you succumb to this pressure, you will inevitably be lost in the sea of other wanna-bees who are following the same formula.
Two perfect examples are Cindy Crawford and Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Cindy Crawford began her modeling career, she was repeatedly told by agency owners to have the “unsightly” birthmark removed over her upper lip or she would never make it as a model. Yet that “unsightly” facial feature became her trademark, the characteristic that set her apart from every other model she was competing against. It played a significant role in her rise to stardom.
Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger was repeatedly told that he would never be successful in Hollywood unless he lost his Austrian accent—“American audiences don’t like foreign accents” was the mantra. Yet who can ever forget those famous words, “Hasta la vista, baby!” that made motion picture history. Had they not been uttered in that deadpan, self-assured accent that is pure Arnold, would they have had the same impact? I think not.
I’ve personally run up against this paradox over and over again in my own work. It started with my very first novel, Wild Child, which the big NY publishers said was too short. But I tend to write short books, it’s my style and a way I’m different from many other writers, especially the long-winded ones. I tried lengthening the book to please the industry experts, but it slowed down the pace. I eventually published the novel myself, and it went on to be a very successful book. What is one of the most common praises? “Wild Child is a short, super fast-paced read!”
The same type of thing happened with my book Lust, Money & Murder—the publishers said the protagonist, Elaine Brogan, was “too plain,” that she needed to be more of a superhero. But that was the whole point! This is a thriller about an ordinary young woman who goes on to do extraordinary things, butts heads with one of the most dangerous criminals in the world. She's able to do this not because she’s a superwoman, but out of sheer tenacity and determination, simple qualities that are within everyone's reach. I withdrew the book and published it myself. Readers love this story, and one of the main reasons is that Elaine Brogan is an ordinary person that everyone can identify with.
Similarly, I was told by the big publishers that readers would find an “evil” baby offensive. And later: no female readers are interested in the romantic affairs of a New Age playboy. Yet my novels Baby Talk and Cosmic Casanova are both receiving outstanding reviews.
Odd, isn’t it?
The very elements the experts criticize and want changed always turn out to be the strongest elements of my books.
It takes courage to fly in the face of all that criticism and advice (well-meaning, I'm sure) and stick to your guns, to maintain your uniqueness. At times you really wonder if you're shooting yourself in the foot by not conforming.
So, back to Lady Gaga, and the third criticism I mentioned. Is her weirdness natural, or is it part of her act?
The answer is, it doesn't matter. The fact that she's different is a major factor in her success, there's no doubt about that. It took a lot of guts to do what she's done.
Lady Gaga, even though I know you will never read my words on my little blog, I thank you for the inspiration.
You dare to be different.
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