“You guys here for the new Britney Spears perfume too? No? Yeah. Me neither.”
Photo by Jorge Tung on Unsplash

I grew up with a close group of friends who bonded over heavy, angry (such a teenage cliche) music. For us, bands like Black Sabbath, Danzig and Pantera added another layer of insulation during the -30 degree winters of the Finnish Lapland. Tony Iommi’s riffs made the months of darkness just that little bit lighter.

This was the time before streaming and YouTube. The era of the dial-up internet. When some people I know, and definitely not me, waited for six long minutes to open up that Pam Anderson photo at the local library.

In the late 90s, with the internet in its temperamental toddler years, physical record stores were still all the rage. It was wandering inside these small houses of sound where you hoped to discover something old. Like The Blizzard of Ozz from the 80s. Or to be the first in line to hear The Misfits’ American Psycho.

And if you had somehow saved up enough pennies, you walked up to the counter and bought the CD. Then you fought your way in the wind and ice over to your friend’s house, kicked off your shoes, zipped down your thick jacket, and walked through the house saying an awkward “hi” to the parents as you half ran past them towards the room full of your buddies. The smell of coffee and youth punching you in the face as you opened the door.

And then, and then when you opened the case, placed the disc in the player and clicked “play” for everyone to hear. At that moment you made yourself vulnerable for the hope of status. Hoping your friends would dig this new thing as much as you did.

Status and group dynamics were a big deal for a 15-year-old.

Consider the uneven risk versus reward of pressing play. If your friends liked what you brought over, they might have nodded to the song. Maybe even mumbled a word or two of encouragement, commemorating of your fine choice. That was it. And if they didn’t like it? Man, they made fun of it for days. If not weeks or months.

The burning pain when I, for reasons lost on me now, bought over a Fastball record will forever be burned in my memory. For years after this we associated anything awful with ‘Fastball’. “How’s that burger.” “A real Fastball.” I paid the emotional tax on status for pressing play on a record that went against the collective grain of the group.

Then there were times when someone else played a hot new record while you were not there. And everyone raved about it. But you had yet to hear it. You really felt the tension of missing out on what was in.

Looking back on all of this as a somewhat mature level-headed adult, it is laughable. Something to put down in as part of the inescapable soul-stirring insecurities of a teenager.

Or is it?

Adults are not that different from a bunch of teenagers.

We think we live above the herd mentality and make our own decisions. But, except for those who live in a bunker oblivious to the world around them, the actions and thoughts of our community heavily influence the actions and thoughts of you and I.

We still care about our status. And we still feel the uncomfortable tension of being left behind. It’s that (sub) conscious feeling of not wanting to feel like an outsider.

We choose the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the activities we do, and the things we believe in based on what it does to our status within the group we want to associate with.

What did you think when you saw the first generation Air Pods?

A lot of folks, myself included, thought they looked like something made out of the scrap metal salvaged from the Starship Enterprise. Yet others bought them with glee. In their group the status comes from being the person who wears the latest Apple tech. And if you’re one of the first to have it? You win in the status race.

What we do, wear and say are signals that tells a part of the story of who we are. Something that we think is worth telling. Something that will elevate our status within their circle.

Sideshow Box
Status and tension are why that outrageous Tesla Cybertruck is brilliant marketing. Some people will absolutely hate the design. But a tiny group will find it hard to resist.

Not necessarily because it will be the best and most beautiful car, they’ve ever seen. But because of its “WFT effect”. Buying and driving it tells something about the status that the owner wants to convey. And like the Air Pods, it’s a signal that’s hard to miss.

As more people started wearing the Air Pods it trickled from the early adopters to mainstream. The more Star Trek scrap metal we saw, the more appealing the design became.

Not because the Air Pods sounded great. But because wearing them told a story. And more people started to feel the tension of being left behind. Just like a bunch of teenagers.

Status and tension affect how much we exercise, what we eat, and how we spend our money.

Group dynamics affect our health too. If all our friends are active, training, eating healthy and going for hikes on the weekends, well, we likely want to do that too. We want to feel included. Or more fittingly, we don’t want to feel like we’re missing out.

The alternative is true too. If all our friends still party like Keith did in the 70s, we’ll probably feel the tension of being left behind. Not only on weekends when they’re doing it, but also on Mondays when they talk about what they did. And on Thursdays when they revise their plans for the weekend ahead.

Keeping up and maintaining our status is often the easier, more appealing short-term solution. Something that doesn’t always work to our advantage in the long-term.

I still chase the status of being the first to listen to something new.

To this day we send new songs and albums back and forth with one of my best friends. The same friend whose house I speed walked through all those years ago.

It’s still a thrill to get the dibs on a new song or a band we both like. With music, I love the feeling I get from being the first. And I know he feels the same. Just like we both did over 20 years ago.

And as much as I try to convince myself that it’s irrelevant whether he likes what I share with him… I know it’s not quite that simple.

We’re just a like a bunch of teenagers.

Reading Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing made me understand the power of status and tension, and the power they have in our culture. For the good and the bad.