“Why did he do that?”
“How could she?”
“What was she thinking?”
We’re living in an age where we cheer the eccentric and boo the erratic, in equal measure. Same as it ever was.
I was prompted to write a post for today’s Word-of-the-day challenge about Erratic. I immediately reflected on the past couple of weeks. Elon Musk and the joint. Serena pointing at the ref. Madonna, always controversial. What do they all have in common? Success, you motorscooters! Success, despite their seeming erratic behavior. Success which comes from their innovation, talent, and unpredictability.
The Erratic 85.49% Winner
Serena is the greatest tennis player in history. Winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, she now competes against teenage athletes who grew up idolizing her. About to turn 37 years old, with an infant at home, she blazed into the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. Although she lost both finals, her power and presence were remarkable given her recent circumstances.
She yelled at the umpire, who apparently is known for harshly judging players. She broke a racket. She then criticized the perceived unequal treatment for receiving penalties that she felt men had not been assessed in similar situations. The fickle public saw her both as underdog and as sore loser, and the controversy overshadowed the tennis, the play, and the win by 20-year-old up-and-coming Naomi Osaka. Williams has lost matches before, in part, due to emotional reactions. Tennis is a game fueled by emotion.
Williams has also won Grand Slam singles tournaments. Twenty-three of them, more than any other woman or man since tennis went to the open (“professional”) era. Roger Federer, listed by some as the greatest player, cedes that title to Serena; Federer’s won 20 Grand Slams. Williams also has four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam doubles wins (Federer has one gold, one silver and no Slam doubles). Serena Williams: Greatest Of All Time.
By the time little Alexis is saying “mama badass,” Williams will have won another Final. I hope it’s in the catsuit.
Express Yourself as Erratically as You Want
Another figure lambasted for “bizarre” behavior is Madonna, who turned 60 this month. She’s always been controversial because she sets trends rather than follows them. Madonna’s been a full-employment vehicle for spin doctors who love to critique her fashion sense, singing voice, marriages, divorces, public speeches, political views, vegetarian diet, religious practices… all while wanting to know every intimate detail about what she’s wearing, eating, doing, praying, and saying.
At the recent Video Music Awards, scheduled to present Video of the Year, Madonna was asked before going on stage to share a memory about Aretha Franklin. She told a story about being inspired by Franklin and even sang a little before then presenting the award to Camilla Cabello.
However, VMA chose to put a huge photo of Franklin up on the screen as if the award presentation was always intended to be a tribute. Naturally, the Twittersphere and blog-o-universe was shocked! shocked! at how Madonna’s tribute to such a legend turned out to be self-centered. No doubt Madonna sighed and called her publicist, likely on speed dial.
Madonna also chose an outfit highlighting the beauty of Morocco’s Imazighen people, including a horned headdress, silver necklace, and colorful robes. She was criticized for “appropriating the culture” rather than extolled for presenting it to a broader audience. When she was younger, critics whined about what she wore in similar measure. Then, Target and Macy’s started doing a brisk business selling knock-off Madonna outfits.
As she gets older, critics whine about how she looks older. I like what Fiona Sturges said:
When she is told she should slow down, step back and act her age, she protests in the only way that she knows: in the public gaze… All hail to Our Lady, still fighting, still hacking away at the undergrowth, still clearing a path and changing the world for the rest of us.
—Fiona Sturges in The Guardian
Erratic to the Moon
Some of this type of criticism at Serena and Madonna is sexist. Some is also aimed simply at those who are different and refuse to conform. Innovation drives the world forward, but often innovators have to pay a stiff price for any choice they make which doesn’t fit social norms. Take another giant on the cutting edge: Elon Musk.
Musk has been torn apart recently by the wolves in business journalism, most recently for appearing on a podcast smoking a joint. The Washington Post speculated about his mental instability in an article that suggested that “people are speculating about his mental instability.” Fortune complained that the military might have to rethink the SpaceX contracts. Because there are so many other companies that make rockets which successfully take payloads to the International Space Station that the Air Force can just pick somebody else… Oh, I forgot, there aren’t.
Elon Musk started a payments business that turned into Paypal and, when it was bought by eBay, he retired at age 30. He began SpaceX out of his desire to work on the colonization of Mars. He joined the board of Tesla, then helped press it into practical production. It’s been a twenty-year slog to figure out all the gory details–sourcing large-scale battery productions, bringing the cars into mainstream, and advancing large scale solar cell production at the same time.
His bio includes a stream of start-ups and flare-ups with his boards, arguing about whether PayPal should stay on Unix or go to Windows and clashing with the business community about whether Tesla should stay private or go public. But the car company started from nowhere with ideas that were deemed impractical and impossible and now the Model 3s, which will sell for nearly the price of a Toyota, are going into production this year.
Elon Musk is brash, outspoken, impulsive, a horrible role model, a great role model, a human being, and he’s made at least three companies successful by creating products that didn’t successfully exist. If we’re lucky, he’ll stay interested in combating climate change.
When thinking about what the press says about these innovators, who live on the cutting edge, I always go back to Bette Midler.
F’ em if they can’t take a joke.