This post was originally published on Forbes.com on October 30, 2016.
When Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles released her album A Seat At The Table on September 30, the internet exploded. Between Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, almost everyone I know was talking about this album in high honorifics. They loved it, and apparently, so did a lot of other people: The album went to number one on the Billboard charts the following week, beating out Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.
The only problem: I didn’t get it. On Facebook, I wrote:
In fact, it took 4-5 more listens before I could really “hear” the album and get onboard the Solange train. In the meantime, leave it to my friend and astute cultural critic Greg Tate to frame things up:
And he added:
Now, this raises a couple of issues. One, the sonic frame has shifted: There’s an entire generation whose ears are tuned to a different (or expanded) set of musical and rhythmic expectations.
Second, and much more troubling for me, is this: Why didn’t I hear it?
I tend to process shifts in contemporary culture through music. I especially look to what’s happening in left-of-center, progressive black music for cues. When I couldn’t contextualize Solange’s work, that worried me because it meant I’d lost touch. And it was especially problematic for me, a guy who since 2007, has championed “alternative Black music,” i.e., Black rock and Afropunk via my online magazine Bold As Love. Solange clearly operates in that space. I expected to immediately find her work accessible. It wasn’t. Something changed and I couldn’t process it.
How often do other marketers feel this way?
Marketers age. And this is something that we have to be aware of and compensate for. Research shows that, while we continue to gain knowledge of the world as we age, our brains’ processing speed does begin to slow, and this impacts things like pattern comparison and recognition. The twin forces of our moving up the corporate ladder and our growing families tend to pull us away the epicenters of cultural change. We’re hitting the hot events less frequently. We’re less often at the music venues listening to emerging bands, or meeting up-and-coming visual artists, as examples.
Meanwhile, the world continues to evolve. Sensibilities shift.
I find myself on the edge of 50 and slightly disconnected from an aspect of the zeitgeist. Yet, it’s still our jobs to advise clients and guide brands on how to stay current and relevant. What’s a marketer to do? It’s an especially pertinent question in this age of needing to create value around all consumer touchpoints, as Wharton’s Jerry Wind and Catharine Hays point out in their book, Beyond Advertising. One of the five key forces they identify as a driver of complexity is “disruptive cultural, social and geo-political environments.” More to the point, it’s critical to be know where your brand sits not only in a business and marketing context, but also a cultural one. As I’ve said before, culture is a now a competitive advantage. And not to put too fine a point on it, but a recent MarketingProfs article noted that marketers now have to be creative AND analytical. It’s not just about data. Guess how you fuel your creativity? By being attuned to the world outside your company’s wall.
Here are things I’m trying to keep in mind moving forward:
- Push yourself. This is the part where someone says, “Stay curious. Keep an open mind.” Yeah, yeah. But what’s more important is being aware of both your biases and when you’re retreating into your comfort zone.
Sometimes the “their old albums were better” argument is true, but often we’re being lazy. Worse, we’re dismissive without giving this new thing full consideration. It’s a great recipe for getting blindsided.
- Look to your peer group. When you see people you respect supporting a piece of creative expression it is, at the very least, a signal that there’s something there there worth reviewing. Typically, people you respect have a similar value system as you do, so you can at least be assured that they’re looking down the road with similar aesthetic sensibilities. Of course, it’s all relative. When enough of these types of people have a reaction opposite to yours, that a definite signal to return to step #1 above.
- Try this: “Did I miss something?” Go ahead: Say it. A few years ago, I wrote about the one question marketers should never be afraid to ask: Did I miss something? At that time, it wasn’t Solange, but Drake. I hated the guy’s voice. Couldn’t stand him. However, he had a #1 album in Nothing Was The Same that sold 685,000 at the time, no small thing in the age of illegal downloads. More importantly, the New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica turned in a big piece on the incredible influence Drake had on a coterie of rappers. The answer to my question above: Apparently, so. Happily, my lack of understanding the significance of Drake didn’t cost me or my clients any market share or sales. But if I were working on a brand that was aligning with music and/or pop culture, it certainly could have.
- Look for ways to enter. Whether it’s music, visual art, film, or any form of creative expression, use what you know and what’s familiar as a point of entry. Make connections. Sometimes more information is helpful. Years ago, i remember talking to a woman about Black rock music, and she said, ” I hear what you’re saying, but I’m never going to listen to it. I listen to jazz.” Then I told her that Living Colour’s guitarist Vernon Reid came out of the harmolodics tradition and played with the master himself, Ornette Coleman. Her attitude changed immediately. Can’t say she became a big fan, but it certainly showed her that there was a connection between the things she liked and this new genre that she was originally happy to dismiss.
- Find a sherpa, someone or some thing that makes culture accessible and interesting for you. I mentioned the NY Times critic Jon Caramanica. Long before that Drake article came out, the Times was producing its Music Popcast podcast, regular conversations between its music critics and contributors on various topics around artists, music and cultural trends. I just listened to the recent one that contextualized the DJ duo The Chainsmokers (“Selfie,” “Don’t Let Me Down”) and other nu-dance artists in their cohort. I hear the enthusiasm which with everyone on the podcast discusses this trend, and I’m reminded, again, that I’ve missed something. Not that it makes me want to go out and buy every Chainsmokers release, but I understand that they’re part of a trend that’s worth considering, that their popularity is part of this moment’s cultural aesthetic. Similarly, you can bridge knowledge gaps by finding other podcasts or newsletters that cover other topics.
- Get out regularly. As difficult as it may be, schedule time for cultural outings. Pick a concert, an art opening, a new piece of theater, and go experience it. At the very least, you’ll be exposed to fresh perspectives, even if you don’t immediately discover some new “trend”. For example, pair writer JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy with Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage‘s new play currently running at NYC’s Public Theater, Sweat, and you have a complex portrait of working class lives upended by globalization. Both works humanize many of those who would eventually become Trump voters. The point here is to continually create personal datapoints that help you interpret the world.
Repeat after me: There are no gaps in culture, just gaps in our understanding of it. Your lens is shaped by your life experiences (where and when you were born, key moments in your life, your interests, your network, etc.), you can build the muscle that helps you escape your comfort zone and remove your ego from the equation. When asked on long-running hip hop podcast The Combat Jack Show how it is that he and the Wu-Tang Clan stay relevant 20+ years in, Raekwon explained how he kept things in perspective: “It ain’t what you want, it’s what it is.”
Yes, build on your knowledge and experience. But take the world as it is, not as you want it to be. Remember this, and you’ll maintain your connection to contemporary culture and build stronger, more resilient brands.
1. Denise Park and Angela Gutchess, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging and Culture, The Association for Psychological Science, 2006. http://www.brandeis.edu/gutchess/publications/the_cog_neuroscience_of_aging.pdf