Five Things I Learned This Year from Celebrity Deaths

By Egotist / /

By Tristan Graham—Associate Creative Director, Goodby Silverstein & Partners
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Controversy: The Prince Lesson

Sign “O” the times indeed. This year took so many of the good ones.

Prince taught me one big lesson: If you want your message to be heard, make it controversial.

He renamed himself an unpronounceable symbol as a way to protest (and break) his record contract. He gave away an entire album in the Sunday newspaper and pulled his music from streaming services. He used his album art to position himself, in the words of Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow, “as an androgynous sexoholic.” In a conservative era, he gave his songs names like “Soft and Wet.” And pushed America out of its comfort zone with lyrics like “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”

Many of Prince’s “stunts” took place before Twitter even existed. But I’m sure they’d make great tweets. The lesson I learned from him is a simple one. If your idea, expressed as a headline, doesn’t raise eyebrows, how good is it really?

Uncomfortable Truths: The Muhammad Ali Lesson

I’ve never been into boxing, but I don’t need to be a fan of the sport to appreciate Muhammad Ali’s impact on the world. He was a champion in the fight against racism, a crusader in the antiwar movement, and one of the leading heavyweight boxers of the 20th century.

For me, that’s the marker of a legend: when your record-breaking sports career is merely the “and” at the end of a long list of other achievements.

Muhammad Ali unapologetically acknowledged the uncomfortable truths in the world. Instead of taking the easy road and smiling politely for the cameras, he used his spotlight to illuminate the unspeakable darkness of social injustice in the 1960s.

About the Vietnam War, he questioned, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

I’m sure many people were thinking it. But he said it.

Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, explaining that the latter was his “slave name.” If the Washington Redskins acknowledged the uncomfortable truth in their team name, they’d polarize people too. But I bet they’d gain two new fans for every one they might lose. And I suspect history would look on them favorably.

From Ali I learned to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths that need to be heard. It may upset some people, but you don’t want those people as friends (or fans or customers) anyway.

Reinvention: The Glenn Frey Lesson

Glenn Frey was the lead singer of legendary band the Eagles, makers of mellow, easy-listening albums such as Hotel California—the perfect accoutrements for a weekend on a houseboat with middle-aged men in polo shirts. You know their stuff. Here’s “Take It Easy”:

And then Glenn discovered the 1980s. And wrote the catchy banger “The Heat Is On”:

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Eagles. And I’ve always loved the high-energy theme song to Beverly Hills Cop. But never in my wildest dreams could I have guessed that “The Heat Is On” was the bloke from the Eagles. I mean, for starters, I thought it was performed by a woman.

Whatever you think of his music, Glenn Frey was indisputably brave in reinventing himself. And it paid off: he went on to have 12 Hot 100 hits. Which is 12 more than you or I have.

Glenn taught me that any person, group or company can reinvent themselves. It just takes balls. And conviction. And Eddie Murphy.

Simplicity: The Fidel Castro Lesson

Coming from the far away island of Australia, I had a fairly limited knowledge of Fidel Castro before his death. (In truth, I still do.) Yet I’m confident that even a few years ago I could’ve drawn my way to an easy win if his name were to appear on a Pictionary card.

This is because Castro, whatever you think of him, was, in my opinion—a marketing genius. He had one message that he stuck to for over half a century, turning an incredibly complex geopolitical situation into a simple idea attractive to a lot of people: fight U.S. imperialism.

This idea that can now be distilled down to a face on a T-shirt in a Balinese tourist market—his face.

From Castro, I learned that my understanding of American politics has a long way to go.
But I also learned that if you want people to listen to you, or at least to know what you stand for, then simplify your message. And stick to it.

Collaboration and Generosity: The David Bowie Lesson

What was 2016 thinking? In taking David Bowie from us we lost more than a musician. Or an actor. Or an activist. What 2016 stole from us was the originator of a guiding philosophy: be collaborative and be generous.

Ironically, given the lesson I’m claiming to have learned from him, I mourn artists like Bowie somewhat selfishly. In that, I mean the people whose deaths upset me most are the ones who, in their own small way, were steering the world in a direction that benefited me.

The world I want to live in is Bowie’s world. A world of collaboration and generosity.
Bowie used collaboration not just to elevate his own profile but also to make the world a better place.

Hilton Als summarized this beautifully in The New Yorker. “Early on, Bowie realized he was more himself—had more of himself—when he built bridges between different worlds.”

Bowie’s collaborations selflessly launched the careers of musicians such as Iggy Pop, who stated to an interviewer in 1990, “Had [Bowie] not come along … I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

He was also incredibly generous in every way possible. By blurring the lines of gender and sexual identity, one could argue he empowered millions of people to be themselves too.

He challenged MTV’s whitewashed programming and subsequently used his “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” music videos to make, as he called it, a “very simple, very direct statement against racism.”

The German Foreign Office even thanked Bowie for his part in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
From Bowie, I learned that if you want people to like you, to support your ideas and love your work, then help them make their work great first. A concept that perhaps doesn’t come all that naturally in creative departments, where collaboration and supporting the work of others are ideas about as well received as creative ideas from clients.