I witnessed the fourth show of Bruce Springsteen’s new Wrecking Ball tour last night.
“Witnessed” is a carefully chosen word because it conjures the fervor of his concerts. He performs, yes, but he also testifies, and his adoring, faithful congregation (ranging from teens to octogenerians) responds in kind. It’s something to behold: a single hand movement from Springsteen yields an instant, intended response.
The dozen or so times I’ve seen him, I’ve marveled at the obvious: his energy level, powerful voice, under-appreciated guitar playing, engaging personality and songwriting. But this time – thinking back over the two hour and forty minute concert – I was struck by his relevance. Despite being 62 years old and having created 17 albums over forty years, he’s more relevant than ever. How does he do it? Here are eight relevance lessons from the Boss:
He’s a thought leader – read the cover story from the recent Rolling Stone magazine to discover a man who’s well connected with the world around him and not afraid to express a point of view. Bruce has tackled controversial topics throughout his 40-year career, sometimes stirring negative reactions, but he never backs down. He did it again last night when he played “American Skin” (41 shots), a song inspired by the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo in 2000. Speculation suggests he may have been making a statement about the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin.
His values define him – Bruce told Jon Stewart in RS, “In my music – if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it – I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream.” Bruce began this journey in 1972 when he signed his first record contract with Columbia; it continues today with Wrecking Ball, his latest album.
He’s social – Bruce doesn’t sit still, doesn’t keep to himself. He’s a social animal who enjoys camaraderie and conversation. In an age of social media where the word “community” is fast becoming cliché, Springsteen has sustained an avidly engaged community that keeps expanding. One measure (besides selling over 120 million albums) is his social media presence. He has 2,179,654 “likes” on Facebook and 157,843 Twitter followers. Bruce is keeping the conversation alive, staying current in a digital age. He’s no Lady Gaga (with 49 million Facebook likes) but he’s definitely in the game.
He’s sensory – Bruce may be a biological 62, but watching him perform, I marvel at his twenty-something dexterity, strength and flexibility. Whether it’s sliding across the stage on his knees or bending backwards to the floor while holding a floor stand microphone, this guy logs hours in the gym to remain physically relevant. He’s a best case example of how staying fit keeps us young.
He’s an innovator – a handful of artists were creative enough to continually transform their music, taking risks, pushing in new directions. The Beatles morphed in amazing ways over a too-short nine-year span; “I want to hold your hand” sounded nothing like “Day Tripper” which sounded nothing like “A day in the life.” Bruce is in this pantheon. The rambling lyrical style of “Greetings from Asbury Park” morphed into the tighter pop structure of “Born to Run,” which was re-shaped to “Nebraska” starkness and later to the Americana-influenced “We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.” One of the new songs from Wrecking Ball – “Rocky Ground” – features a hip hop interlude, something Springsteen has never done.
It’s about us, not him – We brought two friends to the concert who had never seen him. I explained how Bruce feeds off the audience and exists to give each person a gift. “It’s never about him, it’s about you,” I said, explaining how Springsteen is passionate about making sure everyone has a good time, gets their money’s worth and leaves happy. When the show was over I said, “Now you’ve been baptized.” They grinned and understood.
He’s more than music – I’m not hung up on awards; sometimes the gods get it right, often they don’t. But Springsteen was robbed in 2003 when “The Rising” failed to win the Grammy for Best Album (he lost to Norah Jones). Inspired by the September 11 attacks, Springsteen had created an inspirational LP that helped us heal. It was musical catharsis; it was more than an album. His giving spirit has impacted a wide range of organizations, from Amnesty International to the Rainforest Foundation Fund to WhyHunger. He endorses a local charity at every concert: last night it was the Boston Food Project. He’s raised – and given away – millions.
He’s the best kind of brand – Great brands create a feeling, a meaningful personal connection that sticks. We want to associate with that brand because it’s part of who we are, how we view ourselves. That’s why he’s more relevant than ever