- Michael Thompson
Pharrell Williams, Maggie Rogers, and what it takes to stand out from the crowd
You’ve probably seen the video. A group of music students walk into a class to find legendary rapper-producer Pharrell Williams sitting there. He’s been invited by the teacher to critique their work. Listening to a couple of the demos, he gives notes like, “I would try stacking that lead vocal on the chorus,” and, “The second verse doesn’t communicate as confidently as the first one.”
And then Maggie Rogers is called up and shares her song “Alaska.” As the track plays through the speakers, Williams eyes widen. His face wriggles. He looks visibly shaken. He glances at the young woman in disbelief. “I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” he finally says. “And I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re doing your own thing. It’s singular.”
Since this encounter in 2017, captured in a video that’s now viral, Rogers has soared. She scored a #1 album on a Billboard chart. Last week, she sold out New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.
An argument can be made that Rogers got lucky with Williams. She happened to be in the right class at NYU. The timing was perfect. But the stronger argument — and one that gives me a great sense of comfort — is that regardless of whether she had met Williams that day or not, her time was coming.
Everywhere we turn, people are trying to influence us. If what we’ve been doing for two minutes isn’t working, we’re told we need to change. If what we’re doing is too different, we’re told to reel it in. Even if what we’re doing is working, some people will try to hold us back.
But those who make the biggest impact in the world don’t deliver their work signed with an apology. Instead, they plant their flag and let the world know that, for better or worse: “This is me.”
Some of those people immediately reap rewards for having the courage to do this. They’re told what they’re doing holds value. New fans ask, “Where have you been?” Other times, it takes years for the world to catch on.
If you’re giving your curiosity the last word, this doesn’t make you or your work any less valuable. Betting on yourself and having the patience to stay the course, through thick and thin, makes you even more admirable.
Prior to her tipping point, Rogers had the courage to let the world in. While studying in France, during her hiatus from writing folk songs, she felt a strong attraction to dance music — something that had always felt artificial to her. When she started to write songs again, her decision to step out of her life and into the world proved useful. She couldn’t stop creating. Ultimately, this new love of dance music, combined with her old love of folk, led Rogers to meld the two genres, the result of which Williams heard that day.
Burying herself in her work wasn’t her answer. Life experiences were the missing key. Rogers didn’t set out to be different from everybody else. She set out into the world to make herself available to influences.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what it takes to stand out from the crowd. I want their secret recipe, her hidden trick. What makes Rogers and those like her so special?
I’ve come to this conclusion: They don’t have a hidden trick. They simply have the courage to say to the world, “Here I am.” That’s the trick.
If you’re doing this already — standing on your own two feet while opening yourself up to join the conversation — you’re doing everything right. The world might just need a little bit of time to catch on, but you’re already successful.