Generational Irrelevance


During the TV broadcast of the 2009 Grammy Awards (the world’s most prestigious industry award for music), 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 (and I must add, over-dramatic) presentation, 2 things suddenly occurred to me:

1. I am much older than I realise
2. Whitney Houston is no longer very relevant to this generation of music buyers and listeners

You see, I grew up on Whitney, Micheal, Bobby, Anita, Mariah and Teddy (Riley not Pendergrass). A few years ago, music industry executives would have told you that the traditional music buying and MTV demographic spanned the 16-25 yr age range. This is changing. With the rise of the internet and by extension –instantaneous global information access and file sharing, that demographic is getting younger and younger. Music appeals to all age groups and music videos, no matter how raunchy still merit a Universal rating and can be viewed by children.

This neo-generation wasn’t born at the height of Whitney’s fame. They didn’t watch Bodyguard or for that matter Thriller. Any wonder that Michael Jackson is considered a living legend or freak show? They never saw him do the Moonwalk at Motown 25, so who the hell is he to define dance?

In musical history parlance, this is the age of the “tweens” – Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and The Jonas Brothers define the era. They are the new role models and pop stars. Music is getting younger folks and it’s been that way since the rise of the 90s boy bands and record label group creations. Presidents may fete Stevie Wonder but the public adores and buys Miley Cyrus!

In an age where Britney Spears reached her peak at 26(!), something is definitely shifting. Think about it, people like Britney, Beyonce and John Mayer have lived the entire career of established rockers. An average 26-year old pop star has been married, divorced, had 2 kids, won 4 Grammies, an Oscar, performed across all 4 continents, bought a Lamborghini, a summer home in Provence, served a jail term, been to rehab and back, posed for Playboy/girl, directed and starred in a R-music video, been photographed doing drugs, gotten born again, came out of the closet, been a UN Ambassador, been charged with Assault and Battery…..you catch my drift.

I often wonder about the immense pressure that must be on these stars. They have literally lived entire lives in a quarter of a lifetime.

Back to Whitney. The other night, I also listened to her “come-back” song…you know, the duet with Akon that was as tepid to a musical perfectionist as Mase’s come-back song was uninspiring. It hit me then…that Whitney really can no longer be relevant to this neo-generation. It is no longer her time. I admit that some people have tried to reinvent themselves over and over…Madonna did it…R.Kelly is still doing it…but my argument is that Madonna is a singularity, a unique individual who carved out a space – she created it and then dominated it. R.Kelly became a masterful innovator…transiting from New Jack Swing and youthful R “n” B to a more mature “Soul” reminiscent of Marvin Gaye. He has now metamorphosed into a storyteller and Pied Piper. Innovation and reinvention has bought him some time…but ultimately we will begin to get that nagging feeling that something’s off if he does one more duet with someone who’s young enough to be his son (Usher in Same Girl).

Innovation should not be underemphasised…it sustains careers and helps artists mine tremendous value from their talents. But I have never met an artist in Nigeria who took a strategic approach to their career. As I began to catalogue what it took to succeed as an artist in Nigeria, I was amazed (and saddened) that for many, it’s still a hit-or-miss affair…It seems artists succeed by stroke of luck or fate or whatever…it’s rarely “deliberately created”. Because the artiste doesn’t know how he succeeded, he also doesn’t know how to sustain or reinvent it.

Why did Styl Plus’ 3rd album stink? Why did Tuface even bother with his latest effort? What created D’Banj? What is creating M.I? Why is Modenine not as relevant as he used to be? Why did we barely notice his last album? And why are artistes not paying any attention to the lessons of history? Sigh.

Now, let’s discuss some IT…Mark Zuckerberg (now 24 yrs old), was uniquely positioned to create Facebook at the time he did. He was 19 at the time, and in the thick of youth culture on a Harvard campus. Today, Bill Gates no longer plays the role of IT whizzkid…he’s shifted priorities to focus on healthcare in the 3rd World. Steve Jobs is ill and getting old and tired. Jerry Yang has been eased into oblivion. The Google boys are enjoying their moment in the sun for a while before being replaced by 20-something year olds.

The thing is, at some point, in every field , the baton must be handed over…indeed you only have a short whilee to enjoy the fleeting nature of fame and then you must slide into generational irrelevance…or more precisely…you then need to take stock, refocus, restrategise and find new relevance in matters that concern an older generation. You cannot sell old stuff to new kids. A person always exists within a generational context. National politics is best played by a generation that has achieved professional and financial clout. But student politics is the domain of youths.

The truth is, whichever generation you belong to, there is a specific role for to be played. Do it quickly before your time is up. Perhaps if you fulfill your role well enough, the impact will spill over to other generations. For instance, I will buy a Jonas Brothers CD if it moves me, although I do not belong to their generation. They will own a share of my mind and money simply by being the best at what they do. But I am not their primary market. So, it is true that you can influence other generations when you successfully focus on yours. I am reminded of the words of the Biblical Chronicler…“David served God in his generation”. There are things that a man is uniquely gifted to do, but if he doesn’t do it soon, it will become irrelevant.

Again, during the 2009 Grammies, 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 highpoint of the performance. Amazingly, he barely registered against the backdrop of brilliant and fresh talent like Kanye West’s or even Lil’ Wayne. Perhaps, it’s time for Jay Z to reinvent himself.

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 find that other people are. There are talents deep within you. And those talents are for your generation. Perhaps it’s time to grow up, stop bemoaning the good old days and consider how you can be relevant now.

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. King Solomon, 967 B.C



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