Madonna And The Engineering Of Success

I’m currently in Santa Monica for some work travel, which has given me some unique and valuable time to hop out of my daily routine. I’ve been to LA a few times for various reasons but this is my first time in Santa Monica, and I’m just blown away at nice the waterfront is, to the extent that I’ve found myself each day excusing myself to take a walk along the beach just to take it all in.

On my walk today, I was listening to Pandora, mostly because I’m at the age where I can no longer reasonably keep up with modern music and thus I’m beginning to exhaust the music I’m already familiar with. I was in an upbeat mood, so I chose the 1980s as the guide, letting Pandora do the rest as I upvoted and downvoted.

Three or four songs in: Madonna, “Dress You Up”.

Now, I’m not a Madonna fan, insofar as I don’t see her as any different than nearly any other artist of that period, apart from an acknowledgement of her success and unique brashness in achieving it. I’m not an expert in her music by any stretch of the imagination. As I listened to the song – and it’s actually quite good, in that 1980s neon sort of way – I noticed several obvious things.

First, the percussion in the song is full of syncopated hand claps on the off-beat, a signature drum pattern popularized by then-superstar Prince. It is literally all over his music at the time. I was amazed I hadn’t noticed it earlier.

Second, the countermelody to the synthesizer is a funky rhythm guitar line very similar in style to the one in the chorus and bridge of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. It’s a line melodic enough to be a hook on it’s own, but played against the synthesizer and mechanical drum beat, it works even more effectively.

This pattern of “inspiration” follows throughout the song: background vocals straight out of any 1960s Motown hit, a guitar solo straight of out any 1970s-era FM radio rock tune, and a basic Cm-Bf-G7 chord structure, an extremely common progression in pop music.

This is not to say that Madonna or Nile Rodgers of Chic (who actually wrote the music and produced the song) are thieves. If anything, they show a very fundamental understanding of the etymology of success. What they did in collaging together things that worked is structurally no different than a successful startup that capitalizes on new markets with an X of Y product strategy, or one that simply looks historically at the traits of successful companies and emulates them.

We certainly took that approach at numberFire. We modeled our initial seed pitch deck after Next Big Sound. We modeled our initial front-end engineering architecture off of Hunch. We algorithmically turned structured data into editorial content like Automated Insights, leveraged user-generated content like Bleacher Report, and bolstered a consumer-facing media site with a high LTV subscription business model like ESPN Insider.

There’s a common maxim that good artists copy, and that great artists steal. While obviously the maxim is meant to be flippant and provocative, it glosses over what is really the key message: stealing is a fruitless endeavor if you don’t have the capacity to understand what is valuable to steal. You have to be able to internally curate good ideas from bad.

Nile Rodgers clearly not only knew what elements to build from, but he intuitively knew how they would work together in concert and not as a disparate soup of independent elements. I think a lot of companies, particularly when they’re battling uphill, either don’t have that intuition or simply override it in a panic to figure things out as quickly as possible. That is a certain spiral to failure.

Are there companies (and musicians!) who ignore everything, and completely do it themselves, free of any inspiration, be it organic or curated? Sure. But they’re far fewer than you would think, and I certainly don’t hold it against any one who has the good sense to be a careful study of the past in order to create a more promising future.

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