Anybody Else Tired of Personal Branding?

One of my favorite lines of poetry is from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, where he writes:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) 

This guy: sweaty-toothed madman,
hates branding.

As artists and human beings, we should probably be trying to embrace diversity, and what better place to start than with ourselves? But right now, we’re running in the opposite direction.

When I was studying public relations back in the long, long ago of the final decade of the last century, nobody was talking much about “branding.” We talked about “positioning,” which is sort of the grandfather of what we’re seeing today with personal brands. The idea of a personal brand is that everything you put your name on has a certain flavor. Celebrities have done this forever. Think Alfred Hitchcock (movies, TV, books, all tense and mysterious) or J-Lo (she’ll sing you a song AND sell you a handbag at Kohl’s!). But now everybody seems to be doing it. Professionals, academics, journalists, bloggers, and artists of all stripes.

Authors have written different genres under different pseudonyms forever — so if you want to read a serious, literary book by Evan Hunter, you’ll buy a book with his name on it. If you want to read crime fiction by Evan Hunter, you’ll buy a book that says it was written by Ed McBain. Makes it easy to know what you’re getting. I get that. And I understand that as artists trying to break through to larger audiences, we’re advised to make things as easy as possible for the consumer. If you want to write horror fiction, make sure your Twitter feed is about horror fiction, because you don’t want people getting confused.

Sounds familiar, right?

The first time she said “off the chain”
I thought I was going to blow chunks.

This was probably good advice back when we were still talking about “positioning.” But you know how any hip new phrase (like “hip”!) loses all credibility when you hear your mom say it? By the time everybody knows about it, it’s no longer relevant. Well, now everybody knows about branding. I think with our heavily mediated public existences these days, the old wisdom is just that…old. Evan Hunter got that advice in 1953 and rode it to great success. It’s a different world now. I think it’s now okay to admit we have diverse interests and influences.

And I worry about packaging human beings, let alone volunteering to be packaged. Our public discourse has eroded to a level I’ve certainly never seen in my lifetime. “Branding,” or “brand thinking,” makes it easier to turn human beings into straw men (and women) that we can brush aside or put in a box or dismiss as idiots because we disagree on a particular point. It makes it easier for us to attack each other on the internet and forget human decency.

It’s sticky for artists, because we need people to keep coming back if we want to make a living, and conventional wisdom says they keep coming back if they feel comfortable and know what to expect. But if we try to compartmentalize creativity too much, we run the risk of producing stilted work that doesn’t draw on our total experience as individuals.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m finishing a book that has nothing to do with how most people know me, which is as a musician. But I am large, I contain multitudes. So here’s what I’d like my “brand” to be: Good, and honest. Whatever genre, whatever medium. If you want good, and honest, alt-folk music, you can go here. If you want good, and honest, reviews of obscure and cult movies, you can go here. If you want good, and honest, writing that is sometimes funny and sometimes scary and sometimes sad, you can go here. I won’t bore people with it if I make something and I don’t firmly believe it’s good, and honest. Not a bad standard to shoot for, right?

But mainly, I’m just tired of hearing people talk about their “personal brands.” Maybe I’m wrong. Let me know in the comments.

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