One thing you should never do is listen to Revisionist History episode 6 while you’re at the gym.
The episode is titled “King of Tears” (if that wasn’t a dead giveaway), about the man behind country music’s biggest hits and why country music is so gut-wrenchingly sad compared to other genres.
After putting you through “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (good lord that song), Malcolm Gladwell reveals that country music is effective in evoking emotion because of its (drumroll please)…specificity.
He compares the lyrics of a country song and rock song as an example.
The country song paints a picture of pain so vivid that you are transported into the scene and your heart breaks with the singer.
The rock song is sad, but vague, so you’re free to move on with your life unscathed by the melody’s melancholy.
The reason specificity works so effectively to make you FEEL something is because it connects the singer’s pain to your own experience.
You see your own son, daughter, wife, husband, or mom and you feel the heartbreak.
You experience it as your own.
Here’s the kicker: country music developed this unique ability to make you feel (while most rock songs didn’t) because of diversity. Or rather…lack thereof.
Rock evolved into a melting pot of music, with songwriters from all over the United States, all genders, all religions, and all cultures.
Alternately, the last 30 years of country music hits were written by white Protestant (not even Catholic!) males from ~5 specific states in the South.
talking talkin’ exclusively to their own people about their own problems.
The other genre that does this effectively? Rap. For a similar reason.
When you know exactly who you’re talking to, you speak to them directly – without vagaries.
You’re not looking for mainstream absorption – you’re looking to penetrate your own group. It frees you up to use inside jokes, common turns-of-phrase, and situations only insiders can relate to.
The irony is this: it is precisely that exclusionary approach that makes the song relatable to EVERYONE.
In other words: the more specific you are, the more people you reach.
(That fits nicely with what we say in marketing, “When you market to everyone, you market to no one.”)
Specificity connects our common humanity.
When you paint a picture of a man’s pain – highlighting the exact feelings he’s having as he’s suffering – you open the door for everyone else to connect with him.
Even if it’s not targeted at them.
Consider the difference between these 3 ads for hair-growth shampoo:
“Want more hair? Try our bald-reversing shampoo!”
meh. kinda falls flat.
Now try this:
What if You Could Stop Worrying About Going Bald? Our proprietary bald-fighting formula reverses the effects of baldness in less than 6 months. Try it here.
Becuase it’s specific.
Here’s an even better one:
Get her to notice you, not your hairline, with our proprietary bald-fighting shampoo that reverses the effects of baldness in less than 6 months.
I’m not even bald and I want to buy this shampoo.
That’s the power in specificity.