It can legitimately be said that Elvis Presley probably made more terrible records than any other artist in history.
The appalling ‘There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car’ - from the soundtrack of 1963’s ‘Fun In Acapulco’ - is certainly one.
But also true is that he also made more truly great records than just about anyone else.
The vast majority of the horrible Elvis records were made during his bad movie period of 1960 – 67, immediately following his stint in the army.
But the pivotal moment for Elvis was what has become known as the ‘68 Comeback Special’.
The show, simply titled ‘Elvis’, went out on December 3, 1968 on the NBC television network.
The back-to-basics and black leather clad Elvis hooked up with some old bandmates from the 56-58 vintage years period in a stripped down rock’n’roll jam session, interspersed with a nod to the ‘future’ grown-up Elvis oeuvre via bigger soulful numbers like ‘In The Ghetto’ and the epic ‘If I Can Dream’.
But here’s the question.
Was it, in fact, a necessary process for Elvis to go through that period of creative failure during 60-67 in order to come out the other side bigger bolder and stronger?
In The Origins of Genius the psychologist Dean Simonton argues that creativity can best be understood as a Darwinian process of variation and selection.
The successful artist generates a ton of ideas, and then subjects these ideas to some sort of judging criteria, then lets loose only those that appear to have the best chance to survive and reproduce.
Then some do and some don’t.
The true test of genius is the ability to bequeath an impressive and influential body of work to future generations.
Simonten argues that ‘Quality, is a probabilistic function of quantity.”
Taking up this argument then, it may indeed follow that the simple difference between Elvis and the thousands of one-hit-wonders or wannabe rock’n’rollers that amounted to nothing much in the fifties and sixties isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses.
The difference is that the mediocre might have a few half-decent ideas, whereas Elvis was exponentially more prolific in his output.
Because Elvis put out such a vast number of ‘experiments’ it was almost inevitable that some would end up being great.
Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity.
‘The more successes there are, the more failures there are as well’.
The creative person who can pump out more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too. But, critically, they will probably also have more good ideas.
Fluctuation in fortune is ‘regression to the mean’.
In the case of Elvis, the 60-67 mediocrity blip, was indeed a blip.
A strange outcome is usually followed by something much more ordinary.
Unpredictable events (ie Army service) disrupted the average quality of output, then in ’68 normal service resumed.
It’s popular to talk about ‘vulnerability’ in advertising – this notion that campaigns could go either way and total disaster is but a whisker away from outrageous success.
This is somewhat true, INDIVIDUAL successes are hard - perhaps impossibly hard - to predict.
It’s only after-the-fact that it seems TO BE CLEAR why something took off.
To look at a more recent pop example when South Korean rapper/producer Psy and his mates were in the studio cranking out 'Gangnam Style' in 2012, NO WAY were they strategizing for a global phenomenon.
They were hoping for another hit in South Korea, where he was already huge.
If it had flopped globally then it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.
Similarly, PSY knows that his chances repeating the unprecedented phenomenon of ‘Gangnam Style’ is extremely unlikely because of regression to the mean.
It’s important that we understand this in advertising, embracing unpredictability, not getting carried away with huge successes and not worry too much about the odd flop.
But for an advertiser or agency who have the working practices in place that allow them to continually produce quality, they should expect to be able continue to produce quality, if they stay on their game.
In one creative department I worked in – perhaps the most successful in Australia in recent years – operated on this principle (perhaps intuitively, or perhaps there were unspoken Darwinian philosophies at play).
At the end of each day creative teams would file in to present their work to the creative leadership.
They might well have been presenting the greatest idea in the history of advertising but would almost inevitably be sent away to improve it or come back with further ideas the next day. Nothing got by on first (or even second) pass.
If there was time then the work could always be made better.
If there wasn’t time, the suits would make it their business to buy time.
In this spirit, the '68 Special highpoint, ‘If I Can Dream’ was actually written overnight (at the request of Elvis himself) the night before the recording of the show, by Walter Earl Brown.
The number was a last-minute replacement for a schmaltzy Christmas number that Elvis’s manager, Colonel Parker, had originally wanted.
But the King put his foot down, and ‘…Dream’ became effectively Elvis' post-rock'n'roll career defining moment.
Mediocrity produces fewer ideas, every now and again one may get lucky, but regression to the mean would indicate that the hits will be few and the majority will be like ‘Rhumba in a Sports Car’.
A Darwinian creative approach means producing more ideas, more often knowing the best of them will survive and reproduce.
There must be lights burning brighter somewhere.
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue.
Quality, is a probabilistic function of quantity.