The Rock & Roll Show

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I'm not a huge fan of reality TV. As a matter of fact, I can't stand reality TV. After season one of just about most shows I had been lured by, I stop watching and move on.

The Real World. The Osbornes. Survivor. Queer Eye. The Apprentice. The list goes on. They're fresh, the first time around. By season two, when everyone is watching them, I lose interest. They lose their edge. Because everyone has jumped on the bandwaggon, because they're making a bigger splash, because they draw the attention of bigger advertisers, they become facsimilies of the edgy, orgininal shows they were when they first aired.

In most cases, they get dumber and louder. Think "gimmicks" instead of "clever." Think "stunts" instead of "wow." All of the originality of the first season is gone. Now, we're just serving up yesterday's cool new dish to the masses. ("Holy crap! We're back for a second season... what do we do now?")

Most shows are this way. Most products. Most companies. When they get started, they're so courageous. So unique and inventive and unapologetic. But as they get big, they start losing the things that made them so unique and appealing to begin with. They start catering to the big fat soft safe middle. (Most. Not all.)

Most people are that way too. They settle down. Or worse yet, they just settle.

They settle for work they may like but don't love. They settle into routines. They settle into compromises. They settle into safety. They settle until they start looking, acting, sounding and thinking like everyone else.

But back to my TV. Sometimes, it takes a whole season for a show to mature into something great. Blowout was one. Project Runway was another. A third was an instant winner with me. It's season 2 of what started out as "Rock Star" - the rock & roll version of American Idol.

Now... you have to understand that I despise American Idol. I really do. It isn't that the contestants aren't talented. They are. And the formula is brilliant from a commercial standpoint. But... it's just a talent show. When I see the dude who won this year's contest sing for Chevy or Ford or whatever car manufacturer it is he signed a deal with, I instantly turn the channel. (See? I can't even remember what cars his crappy song is selling.) There's no appeal for me there. He's my next door neighbour on an annoying two-year super Karaoke tour.

But Supernova is different. First, the music isn't an insipid, watered-down version of safe clap-along Top 40 songs. The contestants there are singing and playing rock & roll. Second, they aren't joes and janes. They're already in bands. They're living this. They're rockers. It's just what they are. For the most part, they're good. So good, in fact, that watching the show is a lot like watching a revved-up version of MTV Unplugged. Third, the more real they are, the more gutsy they are, the more honest and fearless, the more exciting their performance is. The better the judges like them.

The safer they play it (their choice of songs to cover says it all), the more they bomb. (And the more they make me wonder why they're here instead of on Idol.)

And in this case, the judges aren't tools. They're the superband members themselves: Tommy Lee (Motley Crue), Jason Newsted (Metallica), and Gilby Clarke (GNR), with Dave Navarro hosting... err... presiding. There's enough ink on these guys' bodies to write a couple of Chuck Palahniuk novels, and enough gold records on their walls to fill at least one or two vaults at Fort Knox. They don't just know Rock. They are Rock. And they're actually getting genuinely excited watching some of these contestants, which is refreshing.

We're about to leave the whole TV show thing behind, so let me say this is one thing: Supernova is of the rare shows that really wasn't all that great the first time around, but found itself in its second season. The difference? Season 1: Irrelevant, canned, uninteresting. Season 2: Raw, specific, fearless. The show works because it's real. The producers are working with a group that people will actually be curious about. (Not INXS.) They booked contestants who are all amazing. (Okay, maybe with a couple of posers, but they can be fun too.) For the most part, these people could all be major stars... and may very well be in a couple of years. This isn't a talent show. It's a serious audition.

American Idol's gray haired guy in the really bad car commercial, whatever his name is, can sing, but he's no star. Sorry. No sale. And his first gig is a pointless car commercial. (Hey, it's that dude from Idol! Quick, let's go buy a truck!") How about writing or performing a song that's going to change my life or make me want to go ride my bike. I'd settle for something cool to listen to in my car. Something I'd want to listen to before a race or with friends or at a party. Anything with substance.

And that's where we finally get to the point: This post isn't really about TV shows. What we're really talking about is original vs. not. Relevant vs. not. Innovative vs. not. Gutsy vs. not.

Rock & roll vs. easy listening.

A work of art vs. wallpaper.

A JFK speech vs. a radio car commercial.

Supernova is the quintessential microcosm for the marketplace: Those who play it safe get yawns. Those who take chances and show something unique and real rock. Literally. They get people who watch them excited about what they're doing. They first get our attention. Then they get us excited. The path to turning us into fans gets pretty short after that.

There's a lesson in this for innovators. Leaders. Artists. Trendsetters. Chefs. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Advertisers. Writers. Producers. Engineers. Designers. Bartenders. Product managers: The edges rock. The edges are where innovation and excitement happen. It's where enduring brands come to drink from the waters of the inspiration well.

On the other hand, no matter how commercially successful the soft, safe center may be for a few years, it still sucks because it is nothing more than generic.

Generic requires loads of advertising. Generic is a revolving door. Every year, you have to throw more gimmicks at it to keep people from moving on. Discounts. 2-for-1. Special guest stars. Shocking revelations. Cliffhangers. Guys from popular TV talent shows singing in your TV ads.

Shows and just everything else out there with a pricetag on it gets stale once they become mainstream. Just about everything loses its flavor when it becomes a franchise: Music. Movies. TV shows. Brands. Recipes. Companies. Writers. It isn't so much that it's inevitable. On the contrary. But it seems to be the trap that's easiest to fall into. The most obvious path leads straight to it.

The death of originality.

Nothing kills authenticity faster than fear. Fear of looking bad. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of rejection. Fear of making your mark - which is what a brand does, by the way. It isn't just a logo on the door. It's a flag you firmly plant atop every hill you concquer.

Better yet, it's the flag your fans plant for you atop every hill they claim as theirs.

Here's a little something I found on fellow Corantonaut Chris Carfi's blog (and what follows is not his opinion. Quite the contrary):

"It is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally." If you go with the group and are wrong, you can easily say "that's what everyone was doing" and protect reputation." - Keynes.

You want a hit? Don't copy what's already been done. We don't need another talent show. We don't need another boy band. We don't need another Superman movie. Or another Starbucks, or another light beer, or another T-shirt. Another chinese-made faucet or $25 TV.

This week, you'll get at least one opportunity to voice your opinion on a project. Maybe you're a venture capitalist. Maybe you're a creative director. Maybe you're a marketing VP or a studio executive. Maybe you're a football coach or an image consultant. Maybe you're an artist or a chef, or both. Don't settle for average. Don't play it safe. Don't fear the outcome.

Get on stage. Shake off the squares. Have a blast. Give us something to actually sink our teeth into. Create something great.

Anything short of that is a waste of time.

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