I watch Mad Men for a lot of reasons: the writing, the clothes, the glimpse into 1960s New York City, and especially the pantheon of mysterious characters. Last night’s episode contained a subplot in which Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency, was trying to sell a diet cola vis-a-vis a re-creation of Ann-Margret’s iconic opening scene in Bye Bye Birdie.
The Sterling Cooper creative team found an Ann-Margret look-alike, wrote a catchy Bye Bye Birdie sound-alike jingle, and painstakingly reproduced every camera angle of the famous scene. The executives from the diet cola company had been explicit in their request for an imitation of Ann-Margret’s star turn. Yet, as they watched the carbon-copy commercial, uneasy glances were exchanged.
The soda executives were finally forced to admit that, while they couldn’t put their fingers on it, something just wasn’t right about the commercial. The ad executives at Sterling Cooper agreed, although they were also unable to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.
The soda executives and the ad men shook their heads, shook hands, and parted company. A young ad exec, still puzzled, remarked that he didn’t understand what had gone wrong; the ad men had done exactly what the client requested, so what was the problem? Why had the commercial bombed?
Roger Sterling, one of Sterling Cooper’s partners, had been silent the entire meeting. Now, with the soda executives gone, he shrugged his shoulders and said with utter certainty: “She’s not Ann-Margret.”
When we’re trying to find our way as artists, regardless of our medium, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imitating successful artists in our genre. The temptation to compare ourselves to artists we admire is great–and very dangerous. You see, the trouble with imitation and comparison, as Mad Men so brilliantly illustrated, is this: an imitation will always invite comparison, and will always–always–fall short of the “real thing.”
Oh, the entertainment business will never stop trying to clone the big success stories. Watch an episode of American Idol (if you can stomach it): every single singer is trying to emulate somebody else who has already “made it big.” But at the end of the day, who would you rather listen to, Aretha Franklin, or an Aretha Franklin imitator?
There is no one else on the planet who can be you. No one can look just like you, no one can write, act, sing, dance, or speak exactly like you. So it stands to reason, you’ll never be able to exactly reproduce the qualities that make someone else unique. And that’s okay! In fact, that’s the whole point. Instead of trying to fit yourself into a mold created by someone else, celebrate your voice, your gift, your message. The world is waiting.