Post Malone, Nirvana, and You: The Element of Surprise

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Anyone else catch Post Malone’s set of Nirvana songs on YouTube that benefited the World Health Organization? It was pretty great. Powerful, entertaining, loose, fun, imperfect. Very surprising and unexpected.

Admittedly, I’m a Nirvana guy. I’m right there in it with Post Malone. Granted, I don’t have a Nirvana song title tattooed on my face, but I share in his love and passion for the music.  

I still connect with Nirvana’s music in ways typically reserved for those moments when I discover something new that I really like. As with the other handful of artists and bands that have stood the test of time, Nirvana still sounds fresh and meaningful to me. Sadly, they didn’t last long enough to put out a large enough body of work for my liking. I want more!

And Post Malone delivered.

Although my knowledge of Post Malone is relegated mainly to what I’ve heard and played on the radio, I’ve heard and seen enough to know that he is an artist and musician more than he is a pop star.  That said, he is arguably one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now. That should tell you a bit about his reputation as an artist and a musician.

Pop stars come and go, artists and musicians have a shot at lasting forever. There’s a difference. 

For example, Michael Jackson and Prince were giant pop stars, but most of us see them for what they are–truly talented artists and musicians. Now, why is that the case? It’s not based on record sales. Most folks don’t know or care how many records someone has sold. It doesn’t matter. It can’t be concert tickets sold. After all, most people don’t tally box office receipts and keep track of a tour’s gross revenue.

I’d argue that it’s because Prince and Michael Jackson showed you that they are more than just one sound. 

Let’s look at Prince. Everyone knows how many hits he had. It’s also public knowledge that he often played all the instruments on his records and demos. Although initially viewed as a pop star, we’ve seen him shred on his electric guitar on TV multiple times. Eric Clapton, as have other guitar gods and members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, publicly declared him the best guitarist of all time. You put him in a rock band, he’s gonna throw down. Put him in a funk band and hand him a bass guitar, he’s gonna throw down. He’s done it. You’ve seen it. 

In order to earn that next level of respect, people have to see it. It has to be proven. They won’t assume it. It has to be revealed.

For a moment, let’s go back to Post Malone. He live-streamed this set of Nirvana songs and it was awesome. Is that my opinion? Yes. Would it be easy for you to assume that I am only saying this because I love Nirvana too? Maybe. Was it slick and polished? Absolutely not. Still, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic himself thought it was great and sent out several tweets saying as much. Courtney Love placed her stamp of approval on it. The YouTube video has millions of views and the stream has raised millions of dollars for Covid-19 research.

More than being a blast to watch, it shocked me to see him in a dress fronting a rock band. It was a shock to see him as a fan, not the one being adored. I couldn’t help but cheer for him and his band mates. It pulled me in. I probably watched it 5 times over the weekend, and I was on the edge of my seat for much of it.

Now, let’s consider that most of today’s pop stars have full-time publicists working around the clock in the background managing reputations, killing stories, planting stories, airbrushing photos, and negotiating and arranging photo ops. Narratives are fabricated. Egos are managed. Alliances are formed.

Meanwhile, Post Malone grabs some buds, puts on a house dress, cracks open a few beers, plugs in his guitar, and enthusiastically rips through a set of Nirvana tracks in an effort to raise badly-needed funds for a cause that matters to everyone. He opens with a song that was never a radio single and he leaves “Smells Like Teen Spirit” out of the set completely. Any Nirvana fan would tell you that Kurt would have loved that Post Malone left out Nirvana’s biggest chart hit. I ate it up.

He swears throughout, guzzles Bud Light throughout, chain-smokes cigarettes throughout. He often takes his ball cap off to let his matted, long “Coronavirus hair” cool down a bit. When he messes up, he apologizes. He apologizes for his house being a mess. You’ll find him laughing at himself often.

Ultimately, he reveals himself to be a human being. No handlers, no “makeup and hair” on standby. The layers you’d expect to exist between a pop star and a fan vanish.

It was the exact opposite of the way things typically work and it was refreshing and endearing.

Great. Good for him. Why should we care?

Because you and I can learn a valuable lesson from it. 

As I watched the show (several times), I kept an eye on the scrolling comments. I saw as many complaints as compliments. Some of his fans didn’t get it. They wanted to hear his hits, so they left some negative comments. 

Fortunately, those comments were ignored, and, honestly, that made the performance even more credible and meaningful. Trying to please everyone would have ruined everything. Sometimes it’s OK to make your core fans scratch their heads a bit. You often have more to gain than you stand to lose.

How many times have you been told that, in order to be a success, you need to to pick one thing you are good at and focus on that? “Be the best (blank) you can be” and always reinforce it. After all, you are a brand and that’s how brands thrive, right? McDonald’s doesn’t make pizza. They are known for burgers and fries. Know your role, own your lane, repeat.

And, that’s probably pretty good advice for someone that doesn’t want to do anything deeply meaningful.

But legends take risks.

Legends reveal themselves to you, consequences be damned. They have good moments and bad moments. Wins and losses. 

Legends don’t always listen to advice or do what is expected. That’s why we identify with them. That’s why we respect them. They don’t rely on outer beauty and perfection. 

So now let’s talk about you. You start a podcast. Your podcast has a subject. It has a lane. It has a format. Structure. Your content has been carefully edited and your show notes have been proofread twice. Your website and socials share a consistent look. You’re building your credibility as a voice of authority. You’re following best practices. Everything appears as it should.

You’ve repeated the formula so many times that you could do your podcast in your sleep. You’ve got it figured out. It’s efficient. You’re making money.

Then what? Is that all you want?

Because there’s another level of achievement available to you. If you can surprise or shock someone, you’ll completely change the way you are seen and thought of. The way people feel about you will change forever.

Do you want people to consume or care? How you answer that question says much about whether or not you’re worthy of either.

To make a lasting impression, you have to give people more than they expect from you. You have to give them another look when it makes sense.

But, in order to do it, you’re going to have to be willing to take risks. People think of you as an “of the moment” pop star and a one-trick-pony? Whip out your guitar, crack a beer and show them you’re really a musician. There’s more to you than what you’ve shown previously. You’ve got to give it up.

In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton was one of several candidates for the Democratic nomination and, at the time, not the favorite to win. He put on sunglasses, whipped out his saxophone, and played a thoroughly pedestrian version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Arsenio Hall show. He humbled himself, took a big risk, and, next thing you know, he’s an icon. People never looked at him the same way again. 

In case you’re wondering, that move worked out for him. He was elected President of the United States. Twice.

I’ll also share this personal story.

In the early 2000’s, I hosted a morning show in Arizona on a popular alternative rock radio station with a buddy of mine. We were a couple 20-something year old single dudes with a fun job and not a ton of supervision. Fart jokes, stunts, comedy bits, guy humor and maybe some music if we got around to it. We were good at it, but we weren’t doing anything new and we weren’t doing anything profound. However, we owned that lane and we dominated in the ratings.

Then 9/11 happened while we were on the air. 

My partner and I had to shift to breaking and then reporting on the devastating news, to cooperating with local authorities in an effort to communicate important information to our community, and to keeping people calm at an extremely intense moment in time. It was a moment that we were forced into. We didn’t train for it. We weren’t expecting it, but, while other radio stations gave up on local programming in favor of simulcasting the national news, we stayed on the air and did it all ourselves.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was the right thing to do in that moment.  

Our show typically aired from 6am to 10am, but we stayed on the air that day until almost 2pm that day. Listeners brought food to us because they appreciated what we were doing and they were concerned we hadn’t eaten. Sponsors called their account reps to see if we needed anything from them. 

Once it became apparent to the world what was happening that day, we knew matters had settled down enough for us to resume “normal” programming. We handed control of the station over to the afternoon DJ and walked out of the studio into the office. People were patting us on the back and congratulating us after the show and we weren’t entirely sure why. The back pats and compliments weren’t joyful, as you might assume. It was sincere appreciation. It was obvious that people were looking at us in a different light that they previously had.

We knew we did a capable job under the circumstances, but, at the time, we didn’t think it warranted the reaction we were getting. Probably because we were in shock. I figured they were just being polite.

To our surprise, when we left the station that day, we got the same overwhelming positive reaction from our listeners. These compliments continued for days, weeks, months, years. People asked if they could hug me. Sometimes they didn’t ask. Sometimes they would tell me how they used to think that we were obnoxious punks until that day, but now they never miss a show. We had earned their respect.

The way we were thought of and talked about changed forever.

We went from being a couple funny but disposable shock jocks to being a couple valued and beloved members of the community. 

It wasn’t because we did an amazing job. During the broadcast, we were just as stunned and confused as to what was happening around the country as the rest of the world. 

At the end of the day, the public heard a side of us that they weren’t expecting. They heard a couple of confused and scared guys step up and act responsibly. No one expected us to spring into action. They felt the concern for our country, our city, our community. We proved to them that, if something goes wrong, they could count on us to help them navigate it. 

People were surprised to find that we were capable of far more than what was expected of us.

More from John Michael: Why I Left Radio for Podcasting

I could say the same for Post Malone. Maybe someone previously only saw a tattooed white kid in designer clothes and dreadlocks driving around in a Bentley and singing songs you hear every hour on the radio. Now they see this Nirvana performance, and everything has changed. 

Now, they see the sweet, sensitive, awkward kid that grew up listening to and finding comfort and inspiration in Nirvana songs. They see a capable musician. Diversity. Humility. They see a guy that cares about his fellow man and woman because he did this fundraiser without it seeming like a well-polished, meticulously-planned photo op. 

His words were genuine. He opened up about his love, respect, and deep appreciation for the music that Nirvana made. No bling. No posturing. 

To use a baseball reference, Post Malone threw us a changeup. And it was nasty (in the best possible way).

You might consider doing the same thing.

There’s more to you than your podcast. There’s more to you than the image you portray on your website, your socials. Are you willing to reveal it to your audience once in a while? You should be. 

There’s tremendous value in showing people another side that they don’t expect. Shock and awe. Surprise and delight. Call it what you want.

Sometimes you make a conscious decision to do it. Sometimes it is forced on you and you have to adapt. Either way, you should always be open to stepping out of your lane when it makes sense.

Something to consider in an age where you get bombarded with “best practices”.

Don’t confine yourself to the box you’ve built for yourself. Maybe what cements your status isn’t what you’re most known for.

When they are looking for you to bring that fastball, hit ‘em with that nasty changeup. They’ll remember you forever.

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