Inspiration vs. Mimicry
I got a lot of interesting feedback from my recent story about the Guess Jeans debacle in junior high. There were varying interpretations and questions about the intention of the allegory itself; namely, what was the actual message? Labels are always bad? Designer brands are sometimes good? People are stupid? Kids are cruel? What was the point? I think the point was just to make you think. Maybe something similar has happened to you in your past; something that made your question your own intentions in life.
I just got back from watching the Stephen Hawking bio-pic, The Theory of Everything, and viewing it helped to clarify some of these questions. There's a particular scene were Hawking goes in for his PhD review and his professors critique his graduate work. SPOILER ALERT: Part of it ends up being called sheer mimicry and the other part utterly inspiring. These are exactly the two poles that I'm trying to distinguish between. Inspiration being what drives us to work harder, participate, hope, and strive towards a better day. Mimicry being what happens when we're not actually inspired by life or art, but rather the results that certain actions might possibly bring to us.
Was I inspired by Guess Jeans as a kid—their beautiful form and classic fit—or did I just want to wear them because I thought doing so would make me popular? Definitely the latter. Desiring a label for the sake of fitting in is not inspiration. It's an unhealthy (although perhaps healthy at that age) obsession with self-perception and a ruinous reliance on the approval of others. It's what happens when people simply memorize and parrot the words of others—for the sake of repeating them later—rather than actually attempt to understand the meaning within them. It's what happens when big international liquor brands start making labels that look like they came from small, crafty, down-home distilleries because that's what's cool right now. It's what happens when people without any sense of who they are try and convince you—to no end—that they are the person they wish they could be.
I tend to find inspiration in stories about people overcoming insurmountable odds (like Professor Hawking) and usually it fills my heart with joy and hope. However, I know a few people who, when they hear an inspirational story, it seems to fill them with anger—a feeling of displeasure that someone besides themselves could be an inspiration to others. Inspiration happens when you take a sip of delicious whisky and ask, "Wow! I wonder how they made that?" Mimicry happens when the person sitting next you says, "Hey! I bet we could make something that tastes just like that and get rich!" True inspiration makes you want to work harder to be a better person. Mimicry is what happens when you're inspired by the idea of people thinking you're a better person. Not every case is this clear cut, however. Sometimes we see a little bit of both. Hawking's final graduate paper borrowed heavily from other professors in some parts, but expanded upon their work and broke new ground in others. Look at Lady Gaga as another example. She is clearly a very artistic person who has been inspired by Madonna, yet every now and then we see a little uninspired mimicry. Madonna herself once said that Gaga's song "Born This Way" sounded "reductive" (a little bit too much like Madonna's own "Express Yourself"), yet songs like "Paparazzi" and "Poker Face" are—in my opinion—two of the best pop songs of the last decade. There are definitely shades of grey on the spectrum between these two poles, and there is definitely room for debate over where certain phenomena fall on this line.
Stephen Hawking once said, "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." I could say a similar thing about the enjoyment of wine and spirits. The greatest enemy of the wine and spirits industry is not pedantry, it's the illusion that mimicking the pedantry of others will therein increase your enjoyment. We all follow the crowd to a certain extent. Who doesn't want to be exposed to new ideas and new inspiration? I know I do. Ultimately, however, I attempt to bring my own interpretations to these experiences. I still might be inspired by a pair of Guess Jeans today, but hopefully it will be because I truly enjoy wearing them.
ADDITION: After posting this I spent some time playing around on the Internet and found this interview with Jarvis Cocker from the UK band Pulp. He says a number of very astute things about the internet and inspiration in this conversation.