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‘Work,’ overexposure and establishing legacies

There are two types of people in the world right now. The first type, when Rihanna’s single “Work” comes on, will cheer and excitedly mumble the chorus while occasionally yelling iterations of “I love this song!” and “Rihanna is flawless!” The other type, upon hearing the song yet again, will roll their eyes, complain about hearing it again and 100 percent will say that “Work” isn’t even the best song on Anti. I consider myself both.

Rihanna’s album Anti was released on the collaborative streaming service Tidal at the end of January of 2016. As of now, the song “Work” has been out for eight weeks.

Eight weeks.

I could give you all the stats of how insanely successful the song was/is, and how many records Rihanna broke through the success of this song, but it’ll probably bore you. So if you’re into that stuff, check out the Wikipedia page here. Long story short, “Work” was extremely successful worldwide.

But if it’s such a good song, why are we already so tired of it? It seems as if in these past eight weeks, we’ve been barraged by remixes and covers by young aspiring YouTubers, dance videos by professional dancers and 13-year-old girls alike, jokes and parodies by Ariana Grande (here I’m referencing her “cover” of “Work” on SNL) and endless airtime by radio stations, whoever is controlling the Spotify playlist at parties and — let’s be real — even our own Spotify accounts. As a culture, we fell in love with Rihanna’s new relaxed sound and the influence of dance-hall and reggae-pop in the superstar’s work. We loved it so much that we interacted with it in any and every way that modern technology allows, and we surrounded ourselves in her music. But then, in a matter of weeks, the same song that we so enjoyed became irritating, basic and too mainstream. Now, when listening to Anti, we skip from the classic rock-infused “Kiss It Better” to my personal favorite, “Desperado.”

But that’s just how it goes.

The problem is that the life cycle of “Work” is characteristic of everything in pop culture today. We overexpose ourselves to everything we love until we can’t stand it anymore, usually within a span of weeks. This extends beyond music, or even beyond the television shows we binge watch for hours at a time, to the point that we do this with people’s lives. Remember Alex from Target? Or, to throw it way back, Chris Crocker, the “Leave Britney alone!” guy? We gorge ourselves on content, whether intentionally produced or organically grown, to the point that content struggles to remain in pop culture’s favor past a few weeks.

What does this mean for us as Stanford students who are trying to produce something new and groundbreaking?

Many of us are wholly dedicated towards developing the next best app or constructing the new Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram. If we’re not in CS, we’re looking to create new and successful art, novels, music, robots, cars, medicines, movies, social/legal policies — the list goes on. Yet, we are faced with the problem of creating something that will be able to last in a pop-culture market that cycles through everything in a few weeks: of accomplishing the seemingly impossible.

We compare ourselves to Mark Zuckerberg and J.K. Rowling, both of whom have remained relevant for over a decade or even several generations. Rihanna herself has stayed in the public eye since 2005. We seem to think that following in their footsteps will help us to achieve ultimate success. But that’s not fair to ourselves for two reasons.

First, many of the successes of those we look up to were achieved during a time when society didn’t cycle through content so quickly. What did Zuckerberg have to compete with? MySpace. There wasn’t a constant turnover of social networks at the time, which allowed Zuckerberg a space to create something new and different that would last; today, it feels as if there are millions of social networks to compete against, and the few that gain popularity eventually fade out of mind’s eye. If Zuckerberg were to try and compete with today’s social media platform market, who knows if he would have made it? The same goes for more “fuzzy” content production. The reason that certain figures have maintained their success for a decade or longer is because they were able to produce their content in a time before society’s constant overexposure and extremely competitive market for content. Today, you can become a blip in the radar, but it seems impossible to break through to become a lasting presence in pop culture despite immense talent or dedication.

Second, the success of Rihanna and other current pop culture icons during this time of mass production and mass consumption is just that — a result of mass production. In the 11 years that Rihanna’s been on the music scene, she has produced eight albums. That is actually insane. For an even more recent example, there’s Ariana Grande. Whether you love her, like her or hate her, it feels like she’s constantly releasing a new song, music video or appearance. She releases new content in a systematic way that allows her to remain in the public and consumer eye, which cements her place as someone that we care about. Even Kim Kardashian is able to constantly produce content that keeps her fans engaged: From her app “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” to her “Kimojis” and her selfie books, her maintained success suggests that the only answer to the problem of overexposure is to just keep producing. Their model of success is based on a constant production of material, which seems to ignore the importance of quality content.

This may be disheartening to us. Either way, it seems almost impossible to create something that lasts. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the truth. I think the answer is innovation. Which I understand sounds pretty vague, cliché and falsely motivational, but stay with me. Instead of following other people’s creative processes, we can make our own. When you think about it, each content creator that we so highly revere created in their own way, whether it was in a garage or on a napkin in a sandwich shop. They didn’t follow other people’s paths to creating lasting content, and we shouldn’t try to follow theirs. I realize this is easier said than done. As a writer, I completely understand the struggle of trying to do something that nobody has ever done before. But when we are truly innovative, we can create content that isn’t aimed to sell or succeed, but instead content that we care about. When we shift our focus from following the trends or merging apps that already exist, we’ll be able to create in a space that will be entirely our own. We will be able to pioneer something that will be new, different and lasting. And then, we won’t have to trip over ourselves trying to catch up and overtake everyone else. We’ll be able to do what we all really came to Stanford for — to do our own thing.

 

Contact Arianna Lombard at ariannal ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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