Oh the humanity: On the business community’s annoying abuse of the term “rock star”
This is a rock star:
These are not rock stars:
Here’s the difference: The first guy, Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong, plays the electric guitar, frequently favoring A5 chord swells and occasionally exhuming the musical remains of Robert Johnson, the originating wild-child who pretty much started it all. Mr. Armstrong sings loud songs crackling with defiance. He affects a look of calculated dishevelment (torn pants, tousled hair, filthy shoes) at the workplace. And in certain moments of live performance he is wont to become airborne.
The second individuals are purely archetypes, drawn from a stock photograph meant to convey the notion of Serious Business People at Work. I have no idea who these people actually are in real life. But the point is, there is a very good chance the people in this photo are not rock stars, and this is where you should start to pay close attention because there is a possibility you have been badly misled.
For example, you and I do not wear the type of clothing donned on stage by Billie Joe Armstrong to our day jobs, and it would be rare, and possibly career-threatening, to see us jumping about and shaking our bodies violently within an office or cubicle environment.
Even so, far too frequently we hear people in the workplace described as “rock stars” of their trade. Like a particular media industry investment analyst I’m familiar with. I admire the guy. But every time I see him or read him quoted I cannot help but channel back to a particularly painful email in which a work colleague who had once snagged him as a speaker at a company event gushingly described him as “a rock star” of the investment analyst world, and the analogy made my heart sink. Seriously. Such that my heart is now closer to my spleen than it ought to be and is now in danger of breaching the Superior Mesenteric area altogether so please for the love of God stop it.
The last thing we ought to call an investment analyst, or a Chief Marketing Officer, or a physician’s assistant or a graphic designer or a really, really super-efficient accountant is a rock star.
It’s a term that should be reserved exclusively for — I’m just thinking out loud here — rock stars. So Billie Joe Armstrong gets the okay. Taylor Momsen, absolutely. Tom Petty? Are you kidding me? Of course Tom Petty. But: Your top sales performer who just got selected for the President’s Club and gets to spend a week in April with other top sales performers at the Four Seasons in Maui enjoying Mai Tais through a straw after a day in which she was awarded a complimentary hardcover copy of “Good to Great” and made to endure the annual speech by the CEO? I’m thinking no. I’m thinking she’s probably really good at closing deals and getting contracts. But no. Even if in private life — and this is a big stretch — she’s appearing 2x a week on stage at a tiny club producing menacing bass lines for an all-girl post-punk-thrash-metal trio it doesn’t count, because although she may qualify as a “rock” musician the “star” part is lacking, which is self-evident from the fact that she’s playing at this little club place and not, for example, taking the stage during prime time at Coachella, which if she did would signify that she really was a star and if that’s the case she wouldn’t be at your company’s budget-sapping Hawaiian President’s Club meeting in the first place, she’d be blowing off steam backstage with somebody like Louis The Child.
The misappropriation is everywhere. On LinkedIn, a pharmaceutical industry executive offers this thoughtful koan: “Rather than just resolving to become a better Product Manager,” he wonders, “why not aim to become a Rock Star of your Business Unit?” Exactly. Like, there could be a special club or possibly a labor union. Business Unit Rock Stars of the world, unite.
Similarly, here, a website for dentists offers advice on how to become “a rock star dental team member.” Because, dental.
There’s more. A consulting business in Arizona is called Rock Star Training. Except it does not train singers or musicians; it trains salespeople. A similar personal-development company called Industry Rockstar encourages its clients to become “a highly paid, high-profile person in your industry.”
I’m sorry. I just…can’t. The rock star community ought not to be sullied by this cheap thievery from the business community. At the least there needs to be an identification system. A card, like a driver’s license. Or a medical marijuana certificate. You have to have qualifications to get one: jammed with Neil Young and Crazy Horse at an after-party. Opened for The Killers. Had a text returned within the hour by Jimmy Iovine. If the world was fair, labeling a brand manager or ad agency CMO or workaholic who now runs a non-profit a “rock star” would net you a fine. Or an entire day where you have to listen to Foreigner songs over and over.
My plea: Devise some alternative description. Call a businessperson you admire a “star performer.” Dust off “paradigm-changer” or fall back on “industry leader” or default to “really smart guy.” But “rock star?” No. Not unless Steven Tyler is performing at your next all-hands employee meeting. Then you can proclaim a real rock star is in your business midst. But only then.