✏️ The notes ✏️
As I mentioned above, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking about reinvention. It started with an awards submission for our agency, and slowly I became more and more fascinated with the idea of what it means, how reinventions work, and why reinvention is important. On a basic level, the alternative to reinvention is a slow decline into irrelevance and, eventually, oblivion. So there’s an underlying imperative that would apply to an artist, a culture, an agency, or an individual. No one wants to lose their way, and the result (and in some cases the process) of a reinvention can be a really powerful elixir.
There are countless examples of reinventions in culture – the most obvious reference is Madonna. Over the course of nearly four decades, Madonna has tirelessly reinvented herself. There’s been disco, latin, r’n’b, rock, hip-hop, trance, ‘EDM’ – with every new album, there’s been a reinvention. Usually those reinventions have been tied to a different emerging subculture – she’s spotted something interesting happening, found someone to work with that has equity in that emerging culture (either producer or artist), and ‘borrowed’ that equity to remain relevant. It has undoubtedly worked for her, and she has played an instrumental role in modern culture as a result, but I do think that Madonna lacks a sense of authenticity. Like a magpie, she’s found something from the edges of culture and turned it into something palatable for the mainstream. In many ways, Madonna is a gateway from the edges to the mainstream, but the lack of investment in the cultures she borrows from means that it’s an asymmetrical relationship. Shetakes from the subculture, and gives to the mainstream.
These types of reinvention exist on a spectrum – at one end you have someone like Madonna, Calvin Harris, or Ed Sheeran (who’s new album features ‘collaborations’ with so many different types of artists, it’s difficult to justify the album being anything other than stealing equity to appear relevant), and at the other end, you have artists like Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Bowie, and Damon Albarn.
I would argue that Miles, Herbie, and Bowie all worked with different producers to create something new – and in many cases, the new stuff they created / create demonstrates the idea of ‘Most Advanced Yet Acceptable’ really well. They took their own equity, and lent it to new artists, rather than the other way around. Albarn is probably a weird one to mention, but one that immediately leapt to mind. For me, each Blur album felt like a mini-reinvention, and his subsequent solo work, work with Jamie Hewlett as Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen, and work with Africa Express took him deeper and deeper into interesting subcultures. He chose to work with people where their partnership created something greater than the sum of the parts – and rather than take all those disparate collaborations and put them into a single ‘solo’ album, he chose to keep them separate and gave them time to grow. This, for me, has created a much deeper and more authentic sense of reinvention.
I’ve talked about this a lot in the past, but investing time in the culture or subculture that you’re interested in being part of is incredibly important. A framework that I’ve used a lot at work breaks cultural involvement into three different phases; there’s understanding the language, signs, and symbols (which enables you to signal involvement), there’s understanding the history of the culture (which enables you to be a credible part of it), and finally there’s helping to build the future of the culture (which gives you an authenticity beyond the previous two phases). This framework is really helpful for work, but equally I instinctively use it to think about artists and different cultures too. Madonna is phase one. Albarn is phase three.
On a personal level, I think I’ve always been drawn to underdogs and stories of reinvention, and the more I’ve spent thinking about it over the last few weeks, the more I’ve spotted personal reinventions that I hadn’t really considered before. The best way of me explaining this is through a yellow sweatshirt. In the last three agencies that I’ve worked in, at some point the same picture of me has done the rounds. It’s a terrible (and hilarious) picture. I’m in my early 20s, posing with a laptop, in a boardroom, looking very fresh faced, and wearing a canary-yellow sweatshirt and purple polo top. It. Is. Horrific. There’s a whole backstory to the photo (which I’ll spare you), but what’s interesting is the conversation that this always prompts. Once the initial laughter has died down, people usually say that it looks like a totally different person. Then (usually) they look through old Facebook photoswhich just reinforces the idea that I’ve been about ten different people. I think, inadvertently, I’ve ‘reinvented’ myself more than a handful of times. Part of this is definitely about growing up, but on reflection, I think each reinvention has been driven by a desire to find where I belong. A few weeks ago I read a fairly terrifying article in the Guardian about whether or not anyone is ever the ‘real them’ – the writer talks about how we construct our own personal, internal narratives and how those narratives are informed by our context and culture. For each reinvention, I think we’re driven by a desire to change that internal narrative – who am I, and who do I want to be.Reinventions are incredibly important to our evolution as individuals, and building our sense of self – but the best reinventions are authentic, considered, and build something new.
I’ll leave you with one final shocking revelation; I used to be a big football fan. I grew up obsessed with Manchester United, and at the time it was really the glory years – the Ferguson years, the class of ’92. The team that went on to one of the greatest comebacks of all time; the 1999 Champions League final. This was a team that was built from the youth academy – sure, there were imported players, but the core of the team was a group of six or seven players that played together in the academy. Ferguson created a really tightknit culture. I remember thinking at the time about the comparison between United and Real Madrid. At this point in time, football was on the tip of becoming driven by crazy money, and Real Madrid’s Galactico’s (in my opinion) kick started that trend, but at that point, Real Madrid couldn’t buy a trophy. The team they put together were disparate stars, who couldn’t play together, and that attempt to buy a reinvention, without any commitment to the culture of the team, was the reason seven lads from Manchester could run rings around them. Ferguson built a team that went on to change the way other teams thought about player development, and in the process created a school of footballers that went on to enormous success. Ultimately, you can’t buy cultural impact and authenticity – you have to earn in by investing, and reinvention is the same – you have to mean it, earn it, and only then can you become part of culture and move it forwards.
Anyway, on that sports-related bombshell, I’ll let you get on 🖤