I’ve referenced the new book Pendulum by Roy H. Williams and Michael R. Drew a few times before on this blog.
Their premise is game-changing for business communications. They theorize that western society moves in a pendulum over the course of 40 years, cycling between a civic-minded society on one side (a “we” cycle”) and an individual-minded society on the other side (a “me” cycle). In a “we” cycle, we value the greater good over the needs of the individual. Conversely, in a “me” cycle we value the desires of the individual over the common good. These values are reflected not so much in politics or economic cycles, but in popular culture, like music, movies, and books.
In order for your marketing to connect with people and inspire actions, your message needs to reflect the values of your customer. That means you need to understand where we are on the 40-year pendulum ride.
Read Pendulum and understand it. You won’t regret it.
The career of one of America’s greatest musical minds reflects the swinging of the pendulum. Follow along, because this gets spooky.
Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough came in 1975 with the song “Born To Run”. Eight years before the pinnacle of a “me” cycle, Springsteen was riding the new wave of individualism, singing about breaking away from the confines of growing up in Freehold, New Jersey and escaping off into the night with the girl of his dreams. The song captured the imagination of the growing “me” generation and made Bruce famous.
“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy, we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when we’re going to get to that place
Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun
But until then tramps like us, baby we were born to run“
But Bruce’s reflection of the “me” cycle was just beginning. Five years later he would release “Hungry Heart”, an anthem for those on a personal quest to satisfy their individual soul.
“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart”
Voted as best song of the year by Rolling Stone magazine, “Hungry Heart” celebrates leaving behind a wife and kids in order to head out on a personal quest to find meaning in one’s life. Individual enough for ya’?
Remember, in 1980 we were three years away from the pinnacle of a “me” cycle. We were all looking to sooth our hungry hearts, even if it meant deserting your family.
As the “me” cycle reached it’s pinnacle in 1983, Springsteen reached a career pinnacle with the album, Born In The USA. The first single from that album was another direct expression of the individual. “Dancing In The Dark” was about a man frustrated by his situation and on a mission to connect with someone, even if only for a one night stand.
“I get up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning, I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired, man I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help“
Springsteen’s marriage fell apart as he was working on the 1987 album Tunnel of Love. At the same time, society was four years into the shift away from the “me” peak of 1983. The values of the individual were fading, and some “alpha voices” were starting to speak a new more civic minded language. Was Springsteen one of the those alpha voices? The song “Brilliant Disguise” reveals a man who starts to question his wealth and his independence and senses that there is more out there than what he as acquired.
“I’m just a lonely pilgrim, I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust cause I damn sure don’t trust myself”
And this is where it gets really freaky. Springsteen nearly disappeared in the early 1990s. He broke up the E Street Band and moved to California with new wife Patti Scialfa. He returned in 1995, recording an acoustic album called The Ghost Of Tom Joad, based on the Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath was the story of the Joad family from Oklahoma. Amidst the dust bowl of the Great Depression, the Joads and thousands of other Okies ventured west to California in search of a better life. The book, labeled by many as communist propaganda for its sympathetic treatment of the lower-class and negative attitude towards farm owners, came out in 1939… four years before the peak of a “we” cycle in 1943.
Wow. Springsteen’s musical channeling of Tom Joad in 1995 was an alpha voice speaking ahead of the swinging pendulum, telling us where society was headed in the decade to come.
But it gets even spookier.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on America were a galvanizing moment for the nation, and as the pendulum continued to move toward a civic “we” cycle, Springsteen once again reflected this. His 2002 album The Rising fostered the coming-together of the nation amidst a growing sense of civic mindedness. The song “The Rising” was a church-choir invitation to hold hands, commune, and make each other stronger together.
Come on up for the rising
Com on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
From that same album, and equally civic-minded, was Springsteen’s tribute to his hometown, “My City of Ruins”.
Young men on the corner
like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees
In the ensuing years, Springsteen became more politically active, performing on behalf of Democratic presidential candidates, Amnesty International, and other human interest causes. He recorded the anti-corporate album Devils and Dust in 2005 and followed that with a tribute album to Pete Seeger, one of the most popular folk artists of the 1940s… the last peak of a “we” cycle.
In 2007 came the album Magic with the song “Radio Nowhere”, a clear plea for greater social connectedness. Remember… we are now four years into the rise of civic “we” cycle and Bruce Springsteen is searching for “a million different voices speaking in tongues”.
I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues
After campaigning on behalf of Barack Obama and recording the optimistic album Working on a Dream, Springsteen returned in 2012 with Wrecking Ball. Now, with society in full swing up towards the 2023 peak of a civic “we” cycle, Bruce is even more angry at corporate America and more inspired to bring us together for the common good. Witness the lyrics of “We Take Care of Our Own”:
From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own
In “Wrecking Ball”, Bruce stands arm-in-arm with his Jersey neighbors, issuing a challenge to those who want to bring them down.
Now my home’s here in these Meadowlands where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes
Here where the blood is spilled, the arena’s filled, and giants played their games
So raise up your glasses and let me hear your voices call
Because tonight all the dead are here, so bring on your wrecking ball
A quick recap:
Springsteen emerged in the decade preceding the pinnacle of a “me” cycle. It peaked in 1983, just as Springsteen’s career reached it’s first peak with Born In The USA.
In the late 1980s he appeared to be confused about his place in the world, and in the early 1990s he faded away.
Just as the “me” cycle softened, Springsteen musically channeled the best-selling novel of the last “we” cycle, The Grapes of Wrath.
When the pendulum finally crossed the fulcrum and began to move toward a civic-minded “we” cycle, Bruce held hands with America on The Rising.
And now, with the pendulum just a decade away from the 2013 peak of a “we” cycle, he sings “We Take Care of Our Own” and reminds us that we are stronger together.
Not every song on every album reflects the pendulum in action. I’m looking at key songs from Bruce’s career and measuring the overall tone and texture of his music, and overlaying that with the evidence put forth by Roy Williams and Michael Drew.
But if you’ve ever wondered how Bruce Springsteen has been able to so adeptly tap into the psyche of America year after year, read Pendulum.
Without ever consciously knowing it, Springsteen absolutely intuitively understands it.
If you want your marketing to connect with people tomorrow and in years to come, you need to understand it as well.