They are the very first sounds you hear on the record. And if the story surrounding them is true, the man responsible may still cringe every time he listens.
In 1982, Kenny Aronoff was a classically trained percussionist who’d declined posts with prestigious symphonies to back up a stalled rock-and-roller with a phony last name. In the studio to record the singer’s third, and possibly last, album, Aronoff was struggling with perfection in a very rare way: He’d attained it, and it was ruining everything.Years of regimented instruction had turned Aronoff into a metronome, his sense of timing so impeccably precise that it now sounded artificial to his boss. This is when John “Cougar” embraced his inner Mellencamp and gave a seemingly ridiculous order.
“Put the hi-hat on the left,” he told his drummer. This completely reoriented the percussionist’s tools in a way that intentionally put him at a disadvantage. Aronoff, who’d been right handed his entire life, was being told to play lefty.
Listen to the first six measures of “Hurt So Good” and the result is a visceral one. How else should a salute to youthful indiscretion begin? The song is recklessly alive before a single melodic note is struck, and it’s because Aronoff has been pushed to the edge of his abilities. He’s simply trying to hang on, and the resulting tension sparks a current of wild abandon that surges all the way through American Fool. The album will go on to sell more than five million copies and change the lives of all involved. It isn’t perfect. It’s indelible.
As someone who makes his living leading a creative team in developing memorable, unexpected brand communications, I find some valuable lessons here about the benefits of stretching beyond your comfort zone. But for other business leaders, I think the takeaway of authenticity might be the larger pearl.
That’s because the most common mistake I see business communicators make doesn’t stem from a fear of pushing themselves or trying new things. It comes as a result of their attempt to be perfect.
Moreover, the marketing industry isn’t doing a lot to help them. Turn your attention to the nearest commercial break, corporate website or glossy print ad and odds are you’ll run smack into messaging that strikes utopian chords few of us living in the real world can identify with. Still, the biggest problem with feigning perfection isn’t disbelief. It’s boredom. As anyone who’s spent time in a coloring book or romantic relationship knows, perfection is hopelessly dull.
Why? Because human beings are drawn to things they relate to. And no matter how aspirational we claim to be, flawlessness isn’t one of those things. It’s no surprise that the most successful businesses are those that have stopped trying to be everything to everyone. Or that the brands making some of the biggest strides are the ones who have dropped the Stepford act, resisted Madison Avenue’s default conceit and allowed themselves to be exactly what they are: well-meaning, imperfect, contradictory, temperamental human experiments. In other words, mirror images of the customers they hope to attract.
So, be it on a website or in an elevator, the next time you communicate on behalf of your business, consider putting the hi-hat on the left. Lose yourself a bit. Speak from the gut. Be passionate. Be vulnerable. And trust that if you show your audience something real—that less-than-perfect, honest-to-god essence of your brand—they’re a thousand times more likely to see themselves reflected in it.
Remember, people want a heartbeat, not a metronome.