When the late Aretha Franklin, José Feliciano, and the late Marvin Gaye performed the national anthems in front of national TV audience, some people were quite uncomfortable with those artists’ renditions. What is it about the national anthem that got some people so upset?
There are three kinds of people in every community. Or three kinds of people in every area of interest. One kind of person does not want things to change. The second kind of person is the masses, who want to do what everybody else is doing. The third kind of person the early adopter, or the neophiliacs who are looking for something that is new. One way we can identify a cultural touchstone is by the percentage of the three types of people.
This idea that people are clumped together certainly affects organizations that produce media. One example is the Reader’s Digest, which is a magazine published for people who do not want things to change. Every year, the average age of the Reader’s Digest reader goes up by one, until there are potentially no leaders left. There are other media publications that were designed for neophiliacs. But keeping up with the neophiliacs and leaping at the right moment can be fraught with challenges.
There are three takeaways. The first one is that if we desire to make a change, it is much easier to go to the neophiliacs. Those people want to hear our idea and enroll in the journey. They are eagerly looking for a change to happen.
The second takeaway is that, if we made a mistake and we are in the wrong place, it is entirely appropriate to say “No, thank you”, and move on.
The third takeaway is that, if we are trying to spread a big idea far and wide, doing it around something that is surrounded by people who do not want change is a really good way to get on the cultural radar. This can be a heroic act, and it can start a long process of change. Leveraging the super traditional, with the urgency to create a ruckus that will be heard by many people, takes real guts. It took real gut for Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano and to do what they did, which enabled Marvin Gaye to do what he did.
To make an impact that will have long-lasting change on the culture, it always feels too soon culturally. But those changes were often not too soon, morally or ethically. The work of persuading the neophiliacs, person by person, in the beginning to change the culture and moving the idea to the masses, is hard work. But that hard work must get done. The culture always changes, not from the bottom, but from the roots. Eventually the laggards, the ones with the anthems and the pledges, cannot help but hear the message.
Those who had the bravery and the audacity in standing up against injustice, raised the bar for the rest of us to figure out the work that matters. Our turn is to do those work, to do it at the grassroots, to do it quietly, to do it consistently, and to establish what it means for people like us. All culture starts and ends with us, the people in the front lines.