Let’s talk about generational relevance. I’ll begin with music. During the TV broadcast of the 2009 Grammy Awards, I watched as Whitney Houston mounted the stage in a magnificent dress to do the first presentation. As I considered the frown lines on her beautiful aging visage and her slightly incoherent presentation, two things occurred to me:
I was much older than I realised
Whitney Houston had lost generational relevance
You see, I grew up on Whitney, Michael, Bobby, Anita, Mariah and Teddy (Riley not Pendergrass). A few years ago, music industry executives would have said that the core music audience was the MTV demographic – 16 to 25 years old. This has changed. With the rise of the internet and by extension – instantaneous access, that demographic is getting younger and younger. Music appeals to all age groups and many music videos, no matter how raunchy, still merit a Universal rating and can be viewed by children.
The neo-generation wasn’t born at the height of Whitney’s fame. They didn’t watch Bodyguard or for that matter Thriller. As they never saw Michael do the Moonwalk, who is he to define dance?
In music history parlance, this is the age of “tweens” – made popular by the historical rise of Taylor Swift. Tweens are the new role models and pop stars. Music is getting younger folks and it’s been that way since the rise of 90s boy bands and record label group creations. Presidents may celebrate Stevie Wonder but the public adores and buys the younger generation!
Remember, Britney Spears peaked at 26. Beyoncé and John Mayer lived the entire career of established rockers in a single decade. An average 30-year old pop star has been married & divorced, has had 2 kids, won 4 Grammys & an Oscar, performed across 4 continents, bought a Lamborghini & a summer home in Provence, served a jail term, been to rehab & back, posed for explicit photos, starred in a movie, been photographed doing drugs, gotten born again, come out of the closet, become a UN Ambassador, been charged with Assault & Battery…..all in one decade.
I often wonder about the immense pressure that must be on stars. They literally live entire lives in a short time.
Now back to Whitney. The other night, I listened to her “come-back” song…you know, the duet with Akon that was as tepid as Mase’s own comeback tune. Then it hit me…it’s no longer Whitney’s time. I admit that some people have successfully reinvented themselves – Madonna did it – but she is a singularity, a unique individual who carved out a space and then dominated it. R.Kelly, before his sexuality issues also tried. He was a masterful innovator, transitioning from New Jack Swing to a more mature Soul reminiscent of Marvin Gaye. He metamorphosed into a storyteller and Pied Piper. Reinvention bought him some time.
Innovation and reinvention sustain careers and help artists to mine tremendous value from their talents. But few Nigerian artists take a strategic approach to their career. It’s still a hit-or-miss affair and a game of luck. Careers are rarely “deliberately created”.
Now, let’s discuss IT…Mark Zuckerberg was uniquely positioned to create Facebook when he was 19. But today, Bill Gates no longer plays the role of IT whiz kid. He’s shifted priorities to focus on healthcare in the 3rd World. Steve Jobs had his moment in the sun as well as the Google boys. Jerry Yang has been eased into oblivion.
The thing is, at some point, in every field, the baton must be handed over to the next generation. You have a short while to enjoy the fleeting nature of fame and then you must give way to others. You must take stock, refocus, restrategise and find new platforms of generational relevance in your older years. You cannot sell old stuff to new kids. A person always exists within a context. For instance, student politics is the domain of youths.
Whichever generation you belong to, there is a specific role for you to play. Do it quickly before your time is up. Perhaps if you fulfill your task well enough, the impact will spill over to other generations. For instance, I will buy a Marvin Gaye CD if it moves me, although I do not belong to his generation. His estate will own a share of my mind and money but I am not their primary market. So, it is possible to influence other generations when you are excellent at what you do.
Let’s go back to the 2009 Grammys. Four hip hop stars – Kanye West, T.I, Lil’ Wayne and Jay Z performed Swagger Like Us. Once upon a time, Jay Z would have been the high point of the performance. Amazingly, he barely registered against the backdrop of brilliant and fresh talents like Kanye West or even Lil’ Wayne. However, today, Jay Z is back on top. Hone your craft to remain relevant.
Finally, you know it’s time to reinvent yourself when you used to be the smartest person in the room, or the best singer or the best entertainer and then one day you wake up to realise that other people are. But, there are still talents deep within you. Stop bemoaning the good old days and consider how you can be relevant now.
Like King Solomon once said, “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”.
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Subomi Plumptre is a leading African strategist, investor and social entrepreneur. She is an Executive Director at Alder Consulting and Volition Capital Investments and can be reached at [email protected].