Re-Thinking Consumer Insights with Lil’ Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Emily Dickinson

As the songs of the summer, “Old Town Road” and “Bad Guy” defied both demography and gravity as they stayed popular for months amongst, well, nearly everyone. But what helped drive the unceasing ubiquity of these hit songs? And what might this all mean for how marketing needs to evolve? For the answers to these questions, it’s helpful to add a 19th Century poet into the mix.

Truth and Slant

In the first line of her poem 1129, Emily Dickinson encourages us to “tell all the truth but tell it slant”. In many ways, this line is her perspective on what makes for great poetry. And it’s also this combination, the truth and the slant, that helps us understand the genius of both of this summer’s pop superstars.

Both of these artists, in their own way, are often stunningly truthful. Not in the “truthful” way that is synthetically manufactured to try and get a rise out of you. No, as The New Yorker put it, “Eilish feels like a miracle in a cultural moment when we are all trying very hard to sort out real real people from the ones who are merely savvy and ambitious enough to know the right way to curate and present an authentic-seeming vibe.” In Billie Eilish and Lil’ Nas X, we have two artists, brazen in their utter lack of concern for what conventionally defines pop songs or the artists who make them, proudly sitting with their truth at the summit of contemporary culture.

But truthfulness alone isn’t enough. Nearly every artist and brand, every label and every agency, seeks to be “true” in a lemming-like pursuit of authenticity. Telling the truth, even when it’s real, isn’t enough. The truth needs “slant” — a touch of twist that makes the truth noticeable and memorable.

In the case of these two artists, slant is the topspin of effervescent surprise that permeates every aspect of their art. While some may claim this effervescent surprise is ephemeral, a “triumph of the weird” that is popular now but will soon give way to whatever is next, I believe the importance of slant is something far deeper and far more permanent.

But why is this slant so important? In her poem, Emily Dickinson goes on to explain that, just as it is with explaining lightning to children, “the truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.” To borrow the words of T. S. Eliot or Colonel Jessup, we “cannot bear too much reality”… at least directly. Truth without slant in music and marketing is, at best, an instantly forgettable replay of reality. At worst, it’s pedantic and preachy. Truth needs slant for you to want to hear it, let alone remember it.

For artists, slant is essential to break their art free from the sameness that is so soon forgotten in our cultural landscape. As Thom Yorke put it, Eilish (and I would add Lil’ Nas X) are “the only one(s) doing anything fucking interesting nowadays.” When there are well more than 20,000 songs are released on Spotify every day, what’s not infectiously interesting is instantly invisible.

Re-Thinking Consumer Insights in the Age of Abundance

The cacophony of abundance in the broader world of marketing makes the 20,000 songs released daily on Spotify look quiet by comparion. But this dizzying barrage isn’t just populated by the brands available and the marketing messages meant to sell these brands. Indeed, for marketers today, the trickiest aspect of our age of abundance is the limitless data available to us all.

This deluge of data over the last decade has prompted a breathless pursuit of the evermore exact measurement of the “truth”. A glance at any marketing publication will surface quotes that excitedly announce that the “journey of resolving the unknown to known in micro-moments will be possible.” Our obsession with illuminating micro-moments and micro-segments has led us to lose track of the big picture. Far too many marketing presentations today add up to little more than the kid in Jerry Maguire, incessantly repeating the brand equivalent of the human head weighing eight pounds.

As such, Emily Dickinson’s opening line is not just a way to better understand the success of today’s pop superstars, it’s also an effective lens through which we can re-consider what is needed from consumer insights in order to be effective in today’s age of abundance.

So, practically speaking, what does “slant” require from marketing and the insights that propel it? I believe that there are three guidelines for contemporary consumer insights, as relevant for the Fortune 500 as for Billie Eilish, that can help you consistently “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

  1. Insights must enable you to see things differently, not just see things clearly. Insights are built upon facts, but they are not facts themselves. If all an insight does is provide clarity out to three decimal points, it’s useless. Effective insights are catalysts for change: they enable to see your brand and the world around it differently.
  2. Insights must be topical, not just true. It’s not that “universal human truths” have stopped being an important ingredient of marketing; it’s just that these truths are no longer sufficient. In order for your brand to have slant that will enable it to break through the cultural clutter, you have to connect a truth about your brand and your audience to an equally-resonant topical truth about the culture in which you compete. This isn’t about chasing trends; it’s about finding a timely tension point that makes your truth salient.
  3. Insights must remain dynamic, never static. The most powerful propellant for Old Town Road’s perisistent popularity was the string of surprising remixes that kept making this song new again. With everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to Diplo to Young Thug to RM from BTS, each remix brought new energy and new audiences to the original. As our collective cultural attention span now trails that of a goldfish, we need to look at marketing through the same lens to keep it salient. This isn’t about constantly changing the core of your brand’s message; it’s about finding ways to remix your message to keep it fresh.

The number one song on the Billboard 100 is now, as life would have it, “Truth Hurts.” In their review of the track, Pitchfork comments that the artist (Lizzo) writes songs that “are as fun as they are critical — and her latest track, “Truth Hurts,” is one of the smartest yet.” Sounds like slant to me.

Father, husband, builder, strategist, optimist. Inspired by music, insatiably curious, and always in search of adventure.