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“You Don't Have to Try,” and Other Smash Hit Lies

Cropped image by Mick O via Flickr. Cropped image by Mick O via Flickr.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.


If you’re doing it right, college is hard. Between classes, homework, and mapping out your future career goals, you probably have a lot on your mind. And you should.

You might envy the lucky ones who skipped the hard work and became superstars. If only you knew the secrets of their success, maybe you could follow your dreams and live the high life like them.

But if you get to know the singers behind these five hits, you’ll be surprised. They work just as hard as you do . . . even if they won’t admit it.

1. “Imagine” by John Lennon
In this utopian anthem from 1971, John Lennon encouraged us to hope for a lazy, dreamy Marxist paradise where there is “nothing to kill or die for.” In the song, Lennon presents himself as an easygoing “dreamer” who just wants to live in peace, perhaps sharing his wealth with “the brotherhood of man.”

But in fact, Lennon was a multimillionaire capitalist. He had a talent for negotiating the very highest music royalties possible, and he left the Beatles in part over a money dispute. Though an atheist, Lennon couldn’t really claim he had “nothing to kill or die for.” He was shot dead by a delusional conservative Christian who couldn’t stand to see a “communist” become “more popular than Jesus.” Lennon died for his beliefs and, in a way, for his success.

2. “Naughty Girl” by Beyoncé
For this hit song, the Queen Bey acts the part of a bubbly girl (literally—in the music video she sloshes around in a giant, sudsy glass of champagne) who goes out clubbing and brings a random stranger home for a one-night stand.

A registered Republican, the real Beyoncé is widely criticized for her conservative lifestyle. To the outrage of “liberated” feminists, she insisted on taking the name “Mrs. Carter” when she married. Her work ethic and business savvy placed her at #1 in the Forbes Celebrity 100 list by the age of thirty-three. Far from a “Naughty Girl,” Beyoncé was more true to herself in the ’90s hit “Bills, Bills, Bills,” in which she berates her man for being a “good-for-nothing type of brother,” neglecting to pay the bills and spending all his money on fun.

3. “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha
Judging from this song, you’d expect Ke$ha to be a drug-addled nitwit. “Tik Tok” describes her life as one never-ending party. Even if she passes out, it isn’t long before she comes to again, brushes her teeth “with a bottle of Jack,” and parties on.

Studious and unpopular in high school (she recalls scoring in the ninetieth percentile on the SAT), Ke$ha spent years as a humble backup singer before she became a star. She waited tables to make ends meet.

Soon after she hit the bigtime, she entered a rehabilitation program. Most of us thought she had partied herself out, but in fact she had developed an eating disorder. The reason? Being skinny “was part of my job,” she later wrote. “My dirty little secret is that I’m actually incredibly responsible.” If the life of this supposed party animal is a case of “too much of a good thing,” then that good thing is work, not partying.

4. “The Lazy Song” by Bruno Mars
In this song, the moronic protagonist spends his time “loungin’ on the couch just chillin’ in my snuggie” and somehow feels justified in declaring “I’m the freakin’ man!” while putting off work. If you close your eyes, “The Lazy Song” sounds like it’s coming from a soft, entitled kid like the “Pajama Boy” of Obamacare infamy.

But Bruno Mars doesn’t fit that description at all. He was performing onstage in his native Hawaii by the age of three. When he moved to Los Angeles he worked as a writer and producer for numerous other artists before he finally established himself as a front man. Mars is best known for his energetic, painstakingly rehearsed live performances, which he can pull off without the aid of studio recordings.

5. “Try” by Colbie Caillat
The refrain “You don’t have to try” just about sums up this song. “You don’t need to change a single thing” about yourself.

How did Colbie Caillat become a superb singer? Well, she’s been “trying” since the age of six. When she first told her father she wanted to sing, he didn’t respond with hugs and compliments about her voice. Instead, he arranged voice lessons. Today she’s not only an incredible (and professionally trained) singer but also an athlete who’s regularly featured in health magazines for her grueling daily workout routine.

Next time you find yourself wishing you could live like a superstar, don’t be discouraged. Just work hard at what you do, whether you’re studying to become a lawyer, a statesman, an academic, a journalist, or even a singer/songwriter.

The secrets to these celebrities’ success aren’t secret at all. They’re the time-tested customs that were once handed down from generation to generation in the average American home. Despite the nonsense these pop stars sing about, they probably have more in common with your great-grandparents than they do with their own immature stage personas. And you should too.


Stephen Herreid is a regional director of student programs and outreach at ISI.

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