One Trick (or Song) Ponies

Take two singers.  One is a talented all-around musician, with a full grasp of her craft, pleasantly attractive, but not beauty pageant class.  The other is beauty pageant class, with a good natural singing voice, and one knock-out classical song, and not much else.  Do you want to guess which one wins singing contests that involve an audition of only one song?  There are also certain singers who win or place highly in competitions, but never have a career because the only thing they’re really good at is winning competitions, just like those pleasing personalities who are so good at interviews and much less competent at doing the job.

Take the CEOs of large companies.  There are the competent-looking tall ones with a commanding presence… and then there are the others – except a number of studies over the years have shown that while there is a far higher percentage of  tall and competent-looking CEOs at larger companies (who get paid significantly more, on average), there’s absolutely no correlation between appearance and their performance as CEOs.

It’s a bit different with authors, but there are more than a few who publish one book and nothing more. Possibly the most famous authors who only wrote a single book are Harper Lee  [To Kill a Mockingbird] and Margaret Mitchell [Gone with the Wind].  The music industry is filled with singers and musicians who had only one hit song in their entire career. It’s no different in politics, and it would be hard to count the members of Congress who served exactly one term… and who are now long forgotten.

The problem with all too many of these one-hit wonders and one-trick ponies is that, all too often, their one trick overshadows others who are actually far better at whatever field it may be.  The least glamorous CEOs are generally far better than the ones who merely look good, and a great many executives who don’t have the height and “look” likely never get the chance because their talents are deeper but less obvious. There are significant numbers of authors who have produced large numbers of good, and sometimes great, books who’ve never made the big best-seller lists, but whose total sales have been respectable if not substantial over a long period. And there are authors who didn’t have the “flash” or trick to impress agents or publishers who self-published and later made the best-seller lists.  In this, Richard Paul Evans comes to mind.

There are good character actors who are far better at their craft than many big name stars, and whose careers have lasted far longer, and, unhappily, there are younger actors with the same kinds of talent and determination who will never get the chance because they’re solid, dependable… and don’t have a flashy trick… or gimmick, as the old song says.

7 thoughts on “One Trick (or Song) Ponies”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    While I certainly agree that there are people who are mistakenly accorded career status based on a single work, my first reaction was to wonder about the examples.

    Looking at the Wikipedia page on Harper Lee, I saw:
    === begin quote ===
    In a 2011 interview with an Australian newspaper, Lee’s close friend, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, said Lee now lives in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again, “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
    === end quote ===

    Perhaps some who deliver one-hit wonders actually have only one work that consumes them, and are not seeking a career, or, having attained notoriety, find that they don’t wish all that comes with it.

    I would not question their talent. But perhaps your argument points to two distinct (if sometimes overlapping) situations:
    the logical fallacy in conflating the magnitude of a particular expression of a talent with its sustainability; and the possibility of a specialized accomplishment getting someone a position requiring broader talents that they don’t have.

    I suspect “The Peter Principle” also applies.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      To put it another way, perhaps talent has multiple dimensions, not all of which may have comparable extents. I propose at least the following dimensions:

      * subject of talent (what specific work does it enable?)
      * magnitude of talent applied to its subject
      * relatedness of talent to areas not directly centered on its subject

      The latter two together may determine duration (assuming a normal lifespan). A world-class heart transplant surgeon does not need to be able to carry a tune; but as you’ve shown with one of your series, an author that has some acquaintance with the realm of professional singing can incorporate that knowledge into a story. Either the top level of a narrow specialty, or a broad range of experiences with the means to express them, can provide for a sustainable career…the ability to respond to a situation where demand will exceed supply. In another discussion forum, someone pointed out the results of lazy imaging (the guns on the Millennium Falcon reciprocating and having nontrivial recoil, even though they were energy weapons – which goes further than the “whoosh” sound often used for a passing spacecraft despite vacuum, the latter being also inaccurate but at least contributing to the illusion).

      Authors should incorporate as much as possible of what they have some knowledge (and preferably experience) of…or should do thorough research (the lack of the latter being a particular pitfall in historical novels, where it’s now not that hard to find out what the phase of the moon really was on a certain day…and not _that_ hard to find out which calendars were in use by the participants at that time – as an example, the Julian to Gregorian changeover didn’t happen everywhere at once, and AFAIK some Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar for liturgical purposes.

      You have the advantage of broad experience; those who don’t, need to make the extra effort on research, and keep “artistic license” down to a level that does not impact credibility.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    This goes back to the old argument of ‘Which is more important, luck or competence?’

    And one-offs, like a singing contest, if the more attractive but less talented performer can sing the hell out of a song and she does it well (and presumably better) than the well-rounded, more competent singer… then why shouldn’t she win? If she was better. Most competitions are not about how good you are overall, but how good you are on that particular day.

    Or, if the main thrust is about looks getting more doors opened for a person… this is true, up to a point. But don’t assume that the good looking person in a particular position isn’t good at their job. My wife gets that a lot: and then the condescending person gets their ass handed to them by a woman with a mind focused to a diamond -point.

  3. Most serious non-pageant song competitions require contestants to sing more than one song for just that reason, and the major ones often require a submission of a repertoire list, from which the judges can request the singer to sing part or all of any song on the list.

    Appearance discrimination in business and employment actually works differently for men and women. Beautiful women are generally thought to be less competent, and handsome men more so. My point — and that of the studies — is that there is very little relation between a competent appearance or the lack of one in the performance of duties on the executive level, but there’s a definite bias toward hiring competent-looking and taller men and paying them more.

  4. Tom says:

    In “The One-Eyed Man” there is an observation about what art, and the use of that art in a society, indicate about that society.
    What do your observations say about our, and, unfortunately via the spread of the US culture world wide, our planet’s present society and its level of quality? Poor assessment criteria? Inappropriate usage demeaning the able and the capable?
    Which brings up the, perhaps more important, question of why is this happening? Again, from your book – too much, too quickly, invokes thoughtlessness and carelessness of choice?

    1. My personal belief is that one of the underlying reasons for the decline of culture in the United States is the appeal of money — the lower the common denominator, and the easier something is to understand and enjoy without much thought, the greater the number of people who appear to be willing to pay for it. Great art — especially good literature, music, and painting — takes more knowledge, intelligence, effort, and understanding to fully appreciate. Those also require time. As a society, we’re short of all of those.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    I will confess my ignorance to performance singing competitions – though I’m not sure why I thought they would be terribly different from the fiddle competitions, which it sounds like they are not (except perhaps in atmosphere).

    Not all ‘great’ art has to be serious: Appalachian/Old Time Fiddle fiddle has a fun, grace, and intricacy that is immediately approachable to even an inexperienced listener… but it takes time to learn. And dedication to the practice of the skill.

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