The Mimic and the Maestro: How Mimics become Top Performers

In the summer of 2013, Robin Thicke released his seminal album and song of the same name Blurred Lines. The industry veteran had crafted and released five previous albums, developing something of a cult following. At the age of 16, Thicke had secured a record deal with Interscope, and many in the industry saw him as a prodigy of sorts.

A year later Thicke, working under his mentor Brian McKnight, received his first writing credit on McKnight’s second album, I Remember You. From then on friends would jokingly call him “Brian McWhite.” Thicke’s first few albums had a soulful sound that swooned over melodies about his marriage instead of fleeting promiscuity. And in a field full of black artists, he stood out.

“Blurred Lines” was different than Thicke’s previous recordings. The song was more poppy, overtly sexual, and, with a Pharrell co-sign, catapulted Thicke to the forefront of music. Overnight, Thicke became one of the biggest acts in the industry. But just as quickly as he struck stardom did his celebrity light dim. His last album’s biggest hit amounted to a paltry #82 on the Billboard Top 100. Arguably, it wasn’t the aggressive sexuality, public divorce, or even claims of misogyny that sank his rising tide. Rather, it was the appearance of imitation.

Seemingly as quickly as he became famous the lawsuits poured in, suggesting that Thicke’s music was largely the result of copying Marvin Gaye. From the onset, Thicke denied the allegations, stating that “it comes right down to knowing the difference between being inspired and stealing.” Over the next few years, Thicke’s story would change as he claimed the inspiration came from prescription drugs to Pharrell being the primary innovator behind the song. Regardless, the court battles ensued and were eventually settled, but the damage had been done. Thicke was labelled a clone, a cultural appropriator, an imitator.

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Thicke serves as an interesting study on imitation, but not because of any deep fascination I have with the artist or the song “Blurred Lines.” To the contrary — like most listeners, I moved onto the next hit after the summer of 2013. If imitation is a part of the story of achievement, Thicke seemed to be an interesting starting point for those who tread the line between imitation and plagiarism.

However, culturally we reserve a special distrust for the imitator. Fans online quickly put together historical backlogs of obvious inspirations and eerily similar pieces of artwork for any artist suspected of imitation. Everyone from Jony Ive of Apple to Jay-Z has been at the mercy of these claims — the charge of mimicking cuts across all lines.

Creatives can be inflammatory, and boring but someone that appears to mimic another artist is a quickly sinking ship. Innovators are expected to always have been innovative; they are supposed to spend 10,000 hours doing the same activity and get lucky somewhere along the line. Copying isn’t supposed to fit into that storyline.

However, scientists paint a different portrait of imitation. Fields from evolutionary biology to psychology portray imitation as an obscured, much maligned element of excellence. Ironically, imitation wasn’t always viewed with such disdain and was even embraced in the music industry.

The delicate relationship between mastery and imitation is perhaps best seen in the most unlikely of places — improvisational jazz. Typically thought of as an art form of pure self-expression, teaching improvisational jazz starts with imitation. Innovators like John Coltrane have talked at length about how old masters dominated their early learning:
“Johnny Hodges became my first main influence on alto, and he still kills me. I stayed with alto through 1947, and by then I’d come under the influence of Charlie Parker. The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes. Before I switched from alto in that year, it had been strictly a Bird thing with me.”

Coltrane makes a subtle but important distinction when discussing the greats like Hodges and Parker. While Coltrane acknowledges imitation, he also points to the concern of being too enamored with any one artist. This theme would come up repeatedly, with Coltrane as the student asking, “Am I just an imitator?”

“The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.” -John Coltrane

Coltrane is a clear case of early imitation; critics have routinely pointed out that his early music is heavily influenced by studying under Charlie “Bird” Parker and Miles Davis. But Coltrane doesn’t provide anything truly empirical — he could be the rare case of imitation leading to mastery, the sole genius who imitated his way into the pantheon. The difficulty in understanding top performers starts with the curse of dimensionality. Although many studies blindly ignore the phenomenon, its implications are daunting.

The phenomena simply states that an increase in dimensions, or inputs, makes it exponentially harder to make sound conclusions about data. Coltrane could have been born with the right hearing, good schooling, quality teachers, and a nurturing environment, but it’s almost impossible to look back and confidently state that imitation was the primary reason for his success. Suddenly, looking at highly successful people in an open environment becomes nearly impossible to determine.

Improvisational Jazz and Imitation

Guro Gravem Johansen, a social scientist, took a different approach. Rather than trying to examine artists at their pinnacles, where a multitude of reasons could be the cause for success, she looked at the opposite end of the spectrum, the amateur. In her qualitative study, Johansen followed improvisational jazz students at elite Swedish and Norwegian schools as they progressed through their first three years of graduate learning. From the onset, most of the participants admitted to copying. Not only did they acknowledge it, they strongly encouraged it.

One participant in the study, Kristian, described copying as “getting inside another person´s solo, how he builds phrases and stuff.” The theme of understanding phrases through listening came up repeatedly. The group is privy to a set of phrases and structures that outsiders are glass-eyed about. Talk with a group of statisticians and much of the discussion will focus on bootstrapping, sample size, p values, and terminology outside typical circles — the same principle applies to music. The students were able to gain access to the musical phrases that usually only experienced practitioners were accustomed to.

The advantages extended beyond the terms to the details that only masters knew. For the participants who engaged in detail-oriented copying, they were able to pick up on harmonic structures and scales that they’d previously been unable to recognize. These were the students who would copy down the details and replay specific chords. Emma, a piano player and singer, described her dance with Bill Evans, the acclaimed jazz pianist of the 50s and 60s.

As the pianist for Miles Davis’s bestselling Kind of Blue, Evans holds a special place in improvisational jazz history. “[I have to] have the solo in my ears, and my fingers, you know….And then, the next time I come across an altered chord, it lies there, as an experience in my body.”

Imitating had the effect of internalizing complexity that would otherwise have to be learned through repeated action. Even when students were imitating other artists, they were actually practicing improvisation. A similar study on improvisational jazz corroborated that finding. A look at violinists performing classical music found that even when the students tried to match the beats and tempo, they were almost always subtly practicing their own derivations.

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If the benefits of imitation extended to providing a shortcut to group language, offering insights into knowledge acquired through deep thought, and subconsciously teaching students improvisational skills, its merit would seem obvious. But there was an elephant in the room even in this small study. The students were echoing Coltrane’s ideas as a pupil, that, although they copied their idols, they were keenly aware of the dangers of never developing their own voices. Simply put, you can’t copy your way to excellence.

Students were unknowingly experiencing what’s known in probability as the “multi-armed bandit theory.” The multi-armed bandit theory explores exploitative vs. explorational approaches to learning. Think of repeated actions as exploitative and more improvisational actions as explorational.

Exploitive vs Explorational

The bandit, albeit a poor substitute for the student, faces a similar dilemma: a row of slot machines. The bandit has the option to play the same machine and, through repetition, exploit the known odds, the exploitive approach. If the jazz bandit chose the behavior of repeated actions, they would blatantly be choosing the exploitive approach by practicing the same behavior repeatedly.

Or they can take the explorational approach and try out the unknown slot machines, thereby exposing themselves to uncertain risks. The jazz students were unconsciously picking the explorational style in the way that appeared least explorational through imitation. With the small variations that imitation inevitably provides they would in fact be exploring a new style.

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A large-scale study that examined hundreds of thousands of players learning a video game confirmed the benefits of the explorational style. Participants played as a neuron that tried to expand quickly by connecting with more neurons. Simultaneously, a computer competed against the player by trying to snatch away the same neurons — a simple enough game that anyone could pick up.
The exploitative and explorational styles appeared almost instantly. Players who took the exploitative approach of doing the same behavior and exploiting the knowledge they already had with little variation performed worse than those who took an explorational approach throughout the entire dataset. A player couldn’t simply do the same behavior and expect to be a top performer.

For Robin Thicke, the label of plagiarism and the stigma around him was definitive, or at least as definitive as something online can be. The lawsuit against Thicke amounted to over 7 million dollars. But for many other artists, the charge of imitation has been far more nuanced. Artists like Jony Ive, the longtime lead designer of Apple, have been accused of artistic theft in the past. As a young designer for Apple in the early 2000s, Ive was heavily “inspired” by Dieter Rams.

Apple’s emphasis on minimalism and its sparse use of color were pioneered by Rams in the early 60s at the German consumer electronics company Braun. Ive has publicly stated his admiration for Rams frequently and even wrote the foreword to a book about him. But when Rams was questioned by other designers about Apple’s similarities, rather than being insulted he replied, “I don’t feel so, and for me it’s a compliment.”

“I don’t feel so, and for me it’s a compliment.” -Dieter Rams

The absurdity of Ive’s situation continued a few years later when Apple sued Samsung for design theft. Dieter Rams was one of many top designers that cosigned a letter citing the damage theft does to the design community. Ive’s relationship with Rams clearly helped smooth over a situation and serves as a forewarning for other artists looking to mimic — make nice with the maestro. But the question remains: Where’s the line between imitation and inspiration?

Artists like Picasso have gone as far as to say that there is no line. He once infamously stated, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” The attention on early artists that the internet provides makes it harder for artists today, perhaps more than any time before, to acknowledge the necessity of imitation. But with a trail of creatives who’ve used imitative learning, the question for an aspiring artist shouldn’t be whether to mimic, but rather who they have chosen to imitate.

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