I’m going to teach you how to get people to love your work. But first, let me talk to you about The Streets.
No, not the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen, where I often imagine I’m a silent, acrobatic protector, defending the city from the creeping tendrils of a criminal underworld until Audrey at Whole Foods yells at me to stop pretending those zucchinis are combat batons and get the fuck out.
No, you guys. You guys. I’m talking about The Streets.
I’m begging you; don’t read any further until you’ve watched at least the first 30 seconds of that. As a millennial, I understand that committing to an entire YouTube video is a lot to ask. Working six unpaid internships and selling your bone marrow to a black market organ dealer behind Jack-In-The-Box just to pay your student loans means you don’t have a lot of free time. But, please, just give me 30 seconds. And don’t just listen.
This is an English rap group called The Streets, and they are professionally, and completely unintentionally, the worst. They sing out of tune, they clearly show up to their music videos in whatever they were wearing that day, and I love them.
Oh, what’s that? You want another? Despite the fact that you’re vigorously and definitively shaking your head “no,” I can see your heart, reader. You need this. No, no, don’t get up.
In this video, he rhymes “yeah, yeah, I do want it” with “chips and drinks.” He’s got a stack of polaroids as thick as a fresh ream of printer paper despite the fact that this song came out in 2004. At one point, he stops to accuse an investment banker who bumps into him on the street if he’s “smoking crack or something” and it has so little to do with the rest of the song that I’m convinced it actually happened during filming and the editor was so bombed on Four Locos that it got left in.
So why have I gifted this incredible cultural treasure to you? Because this week, I want to talk to you about recognition, self-worth, and believing in your work, and through a hilarious cosmic joke, it turns out this band is the perfect example.
As creative people, we all crave recognition for what we do. Whether it’s from friends or family, our professional peers, fans, or just a few anonymous likes on Twitter, recognition is often the fuel that keeps us going, keeps us moving on to the next project. It’s certainly not the only reason we make stuff, but it can often be the thing that gives us the drive to soldier on when we miss out on that great gig, or when writer’s block has been hounding us for days.
The problem is, a lot of creators seek recognition from others first. They freeze before they hit “publish” on that next article, before going out on stage, before submitting that next big track to a client. The tense up and wonder “Will other people like this?”
They crazy thing? It totally doesn’t matter.
Agonizing over whether or not an amorphous, non-defined group of strangers will like a thing you’re working on doesn’t bring fans. It doesn’t bring recognition. Even if you successfully managed to tweak and twist your work into something that has massive appeal, now you’re stuck with a group of people who love a fake version of yourself that you only made up to make them happy. And what’s worse, you probably hate the thing you made for them now.
If you want recognition, and the financial and spiritual success that comes with it, the only question you should be asking about your work is not “Will this make them happy?” but “Does this make me happy?”
Look at The Streets again. Do you think they gave two shits about what other people were going to think when they made an entire concept album about losing a stack of drug money down the vent on the back of a TV? Do you think they stopped to consider how the masses would respond when they were writing sick rhymes like “yes yes oh yay” and “we didn’t order chicken, not a problem, we’ll pick it out”?
Absolutely not. They did all of those things because they thought it was cool. And yet both the videos above have over a million views. They’ve sold out shows, have numerous hit singles in the UK, and throngs of adoring fans who legitimately like them for the stuff they wanted to make anyway!
This is what happens when you work to please yourself first, and stop worrying about how to make a bunch of made up strangers happy. Your fanbase will grow, you’ll gain that recognition, and it’ll be because of work you truly believe in. Is it a harder, longer path than simply trying to pander to the largest, most bland crowd possible? Totally. But if that was all you wanted out of life, you’d be Michael Bay. And no one wants to be Michael Bay, not even Michael Bay!
This tactic of putting your own creative desires first can even win over people who don’t like what you’re making. When I was in high school, me and some of my friends listened to The Streets ironically. And rural Minnesotans don’t even know what irony is, so this was some advanced, theoretical-physics level poop behavior we were working with. “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we actually listened to this stuff?” we’d say as it blared out of our stereo on one of our many runs down to Dairy Queen before meth addicts eventually turned it into a molten hole in the ground, filled with used “cookin’ spoons” and flaming popsicle sticks.
But Here’s The Thing: The Streets are so genuine in what they’re doing, so 100% behind whatever baffling musical decision they’ve just made, that I actually just like them now. They have a song called “Hotel Expressionism” that’s about being so good at utterly brutalizing a platinum suite at Holiday Inn that you’ve elevated its destruction to an art form, and I get it stuck in my head ALL THE TIME.
So please, the next time you catch yourself wondering if you’re making something that will appeal to others, something that’s “proper” or “right” or “acceptable,” stop yourself and, instead, ask if you’re making something that appeals to you. When you eventually start getting that recognition, and you will, it’ll be for something you actually don’t hate.
Your turn! What projects are you working on right now, and what do you like about them? Was there a time when you changed your work at the last minute to make others happy, and how did it go? Which Streets song is your favorite, and why is it “Sharp Darts?” Reply below and let me know!