Why getting told no spurs creativity

Remember this story the next time one of your bright ideas gets nixed by the bosses.

It comes from the low point in the career of a music legend. Yes, I’m sending you a PR newsletter about a lesson I learned from Weird Al Yankovic. You might associate him first with “White and Nerdy” or maybe “Amish Paradise.”

Or if you’re in my generation, you remember when his parodies of Michael Jackson’s megahits ran in heavy rotation on MTV. First “Eat It,” then “Fat.”

But wary of being pigeon-holed, Al charted a course beyond food-based parodies of Michael Jackson songs. He poured his energy into writing and starring in a major-studio feature film, UHF. Despite testing extremely well, the movie bombed at the box office.

Other opportunities dried up, and Al drifted, distraught. A couple years after his failed movie, Jackson released a new album. Al listened to the lead single “Black or White” and couldn’t help himself.

Then and now, Al always gets the original artist’s permission before releasing a parody of their work, even though that’s not required by copyright law. Desperate for a comeback hit, he proposed a parody to Jackson called “Snack All Night.”

But this time Jackson said no. No more food parodies of his songs.

And that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Al. Soon after, Nirvana’s Nevermind album blew up. Al turned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into “Smells Live Nirvana,” and Kurt Cobain loved it. The parody video even features the same guy playing the janitor as in the original.

Al was back in the Top 40. The song introduced him to a new generation of fans and re-energized his career.

Constraints don’t quash creativity, they catalyze it.

When we’re totally free, we tend to gravitate to our safe zones, things that have worked for us before. It takes someone putting up boundaries – usually in the form of budget or messaging – that forces us to dig deeper and find something truly original.

I remember once my organization installed a new executive who insisted on adding a layer of strategic review to virtually all of our media outreach. I threw a fit.

My boss was patient but firm. She made clear that we would honor the executive’s decree, and she also encouraged my team to find a way to thrive regardless.

We did – We landed more placements in bigger outlets than ever, and thanks to the executive’s decree, those placements were more focused on our key messages and moved our organization closer to our core objectives than we would have done otherwise.

So next time someone tells you no, listen to “Smells Like Nirvana” and then get to work. 🙂

P.S. If you’d like to hear Al tell this story himself, it starts at about 30:14 in this interview on The Great Creators.


This article was originally published on February 9, 2023

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