It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, let’s just say that there is a lot of flattery going around these days. Every new shiny thing imitates something that came right before it. I watched this year’s Grammy Awards. Billy Ellish was a huge Grammy winner last year. This year, 19-year-old Olivia Rodrigo has taken the world by storm. And a large segment of her music smacks of Billy Ellish’ style. Justin Bieber dances like Michael Jackson. BTS, a Korean rock group, takes one back to the glory days of n ’Sync. Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr. echo shades of Frank Sinatra.
Shakespeare scholars claim that Shakespeare stole whole plot lines from other authors and wove them into his plays. In his case, he did so so ingeniously that they have lasted for hundreds of years. And how many writers imitate Hemingway’s style? J. D. Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver come to mind—the list goes on. Some of these writers have authored wonderful novels. Other novels are poor imitations.
Picasso once said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And it is easy to recognize similarities among works by Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Degas, Gauguin, and Picasso. Yet each of them provides a valuable variation on a theme. I attended an art auction last week. And much of the art for sale imitated Andy Warhol’s style and took the “soup can” to the next level—Banksy, Lichtenstein, Penley.
Musicians build on another’s work—Beethoven, then Brahms, then Mahler. None of this is bad per se. I suppose it is an evolutionary process. And many successors deepen and enhance their mentors’ works. Yet somehow, I feel the originator should be given more credit. Let’s face it. The movie Clueless does not come close to capturing the charm and nuance of Jane Austen’s wonderful novel Emma.
Sometimes we witness the result of too much innovation—the DeLorean, the Corvair, the Edsel—cases in point. Perhaps the manufacturers’ of these cars tried a bit too hard to be innovative with less than stellar results. Yet, with perseverance, innovation is its own reward. The progress with electric cars in the past few years —driven so much by Tesla—is utterly amazing.
The greatest inventions of all time are said to be the wheel, the automobile, the airplane, the printing press, the light bulb, penicillin, the steam engine, the bicycle, the camera, and the telegram. More recent seminal inventions include X-rays, the internet, the PC, the smart phone, and GPS.
The French author Andre Gide once said, “Everything has been said before, but since no one listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”
My issue is that I have become weary of the all-pervasive propensity of “clones.” How many singing, dancing, dating and overall talent reality shows do we really need? Yet another NCIS? Seriously?
In the grocery store, there are clones of Oreos, Cheez-Its, corn flakes, Pringles. You can select from dozens of healthy breads made by the same company—12 grain, 18 grain, whole wheat, multi-grain oat, thin-sliced, thick sliced, etc.
This year, you can choose from nine different models of Ford SUVs and more than seven different models of Mercedes SUVs. With so many different models, we lose the benefits of economies of scale and, therefore, prices rise. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say have three different models—small, medium, and large–and focus on making them as high a quality as possible? If that were the case, there would be far fewer recalls. (The total number of car recalls has nearly doubled in the last two decades.)
Have you been to the liquor store lately? The variety of assorted flavors of vodka is crazy—lemon, mint, cucumber, raspberry, grapefruit, and more. Here’s a concept. Why not just squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice into your cocktail? Then you can be sure you are getting the real thing.
Nora Roberts, the romance novelist, has written more than 220 novels. James Patterson has written more than 200 mystery/thriller novels. He writes an average of 10 books per year. How is that even possible? How much time and thought goes into each one?
The U.S. has taken consumerism—or conspicuous consumption– to new levels. The success of the economies of some Asian countries lies in their recognition that in the U.S consumers will gladly sacrifice quality for quantity and are eager to buy foreign manufactured products that are of lower quality and at a lower price point. In contrast, many find the simplicity of less developed countries appealing. There is beauty in the loaf of homemade bread, pasta, and wine not served before its time.
Sometimes less really is more. Going back to basics. Stripping down facades to their bare essence makes sense. I have come to find beauty in the unadorned simple gown, a beautifully honed simple piece of furniture carved to perfection. Samuel Johnson said, “No man is evermore great by imitation.” Henry David Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify!” America, take heart. A focus on quality rather than quantity is a beautiful thing.
Maria Grant was principal-in-charge of a federal human capital practice at an international consulting firm. While on the Eastern Shore, she focuses on writing, reading, piano, gardening, and nature.