We were dropping like flies, wasting away, getting all kinds of weird diseases like Kaposi’s Sarcoma and PCP Pneumonia. We died, sometimes in horrible agonizing pain, sometimes slowly drowning from the fluid in our lungs. And nobody cared. Nobody gave a damn.”
For me, the scariest part of that paragraph is the ending. The loneliness of it.
I was born in 1988. Grew up believing AIDS was strictly a “gay” thing. And didn’t even know what HIV meant.
Never give it a thought, really (apart from the time I heard a playground myth about gay people injecting strangers at random).
Then, around the time of my graduation, I heard Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen, for the first time.
I became obsessed with every lyric. And was haunted by the horror some people went through, especially during the 1980s crisis.
Here’s a few lines from the song (notice how Springsteen captures the physical pain, the mental trauma, and that sickening level of loneliness from earlier):
“I was unrecognisable to myself”
“Saw my reflection in a window and didn’t know my own face”
“Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away”
“I’d walk a thousand miles just to slip this skin”
“At night I could hear the blood in my veins”
“Ain’t no angel gonna greet me”
“And my clothes don’t fit me no more”
Here’s the thing …
Springsteen isn’t gay.
He didn’t have AIDS.
And yet, somehow, he wrote a song (in a matter of days), from the perspective of a suffering homosexual in 1980s Philadelphia.
A song that would go on to win SIX industry awards, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
On top of that – the gay community embraced it, too.
In fact, that chilling paragraph I quoted earlier comes from a comment about the song on songmeanings.com.
Here’s the rest of it:
But even if you weren’t there, you don’t have to do a lot of deep thinking to understand the meaning of this song. The lyrics are perhaps too literal for comfort. We would start losing weight uncontrollably, losing maybe a few pounds, maybe more, every week. Literally ‘wasting away’. It’s not surprising that pretty soon we were ‘unrecognizable to [ourselves]’ and our ‘clothes don’t fit me no more’. I was down to 112 pounds when the first treatment came out. I literally looked like I had been in a concentration camp.
Every week the paper would come out, and the weekly obituaries. Up to twelve pages in the Washington Blade in a single week. Every week, another friend got sick. Every week, another friend died. Every weekend was spent going to funerals and visiting hospitals. Our friends were literally ‘vanished and gone’.
And indeed there was ‘no angel gonna greet me’. Our churches threw us out. They were afraid to touch us, afraid to share a meal, for fear they would catch it. It was ‘just you and I my friend’.
The movie Philadelphia was the first mainstream film to deal with the issue of AIDS. It even showed a bit of what Kaposi’s Sarcoma looks like, although the filmmakers had to water it down a lot to get the film made. If they showed the true horror of AIDS, nobody would pay to see it. But this song captures the pain, the loss, and the loneliness that was AIDS for those of us who lived through it.”
How did Springsteen tap into this tragic, bloodcurdling, existence?
A 1996 article in Advocate Magazine might just have the clue. And, as a writer, it’s an eye-opening lesson in how to empathise with almost anybody …
How the “Springsteen Method” Worked for this Song
When asked about his inspiration for the song, Springsteen said:
I had a very close friend who had a sarcoma cancer and died right around that time. For me, it was a very devastating experience, being close to illness of that magnitude. I had never experienced what it calls on or asks of the people around the person who is so ill. Part of that experience ended up in the song.”
When asked about “why he thinks he could reach the gay community”, he said:
I was pretty much a misfit in my own town […] Basically, I was pretty ostracised. Me and a few other guys were the town freaks – and there were many occasions when we were dodging getting beaten up ourselves. So, no, I didn’t feel a part of those homophobic ideas. Also, I started to play in clubs when I was l 6 or 17, and I was exposed to a lot of different lifestyles and a lot of different things. It was the ’60s, and I was young, I was open-minded, and I wasn’t naturally intolerant. I think the main problem was that nobody had any real experience with gay culture, so your impression of it was incredibly narrow.”
At the risk of dumbing down the genius of Mr. Springsteen, you can see how he simply drew upon his own experiences, to step into the shoes of the song’s ‘narrator’.
This “Springsteen Method” is something you can try next time you’re writing to an unfamiliar prospect, in an unfamiliar scenario …
How to Use the “Springsteen Method” in Copywriting
When you’re a freelance or agency copywriter, you run into these unfamiliar scenarios all the time.
I’ve written for some peculiar markets in the past (caravan owners, plumbers … even female escorts).
One market sticks in the mind, though – almost impossible to relate to on the surface: Investors.
Not just any investors, but first time property investors. Mainly entrepreneurs, who have reached a stage where they’re looking to make money on top of money, by building a portfolio.
My client offered an online investor’s community, where exclusive opportunities are discussed and investors help each other to build their success.
To get into the right frame of mind, I drew upon things I actually know (from my nowhere-near-successful-enough-to-be-an-investor life):
- The fear of missing out (happens all the time in life, most recently led me to downloading Pokemon:Go)
- The desire to surround ourselves with people who match our interests and goals (probably the main reason I joined a marketing agency in the first place)
- The fear of making a silly decision (probably get this from playing poker)
- The satisfaction of outpacing those who aren’t taking action (confession – I get a dose of this by blogging, building the Content Cavern mailing list, and feeling optimistic about my perseverance in general)
- The fear of wasting time, energy, money – by focusing on the wrong things (I get this from running the website, too)
- The hesitancy to join a club as a n00b (got this from my hesitancy to join the gym, 100%)
- The hesitancy to join something and never actually use the membership (also got this from the gym)
This is just a handful of ideas. But notice there’s barely a mention of anything to do with investing here.
It’s rare your prospect buys an item, or subscribes to a service, for the item/service itself.
Better to think about how it helps her wipe out some concerns, and become the “better version of herself”.
How NOT to Use the “Springsteen Method” in Copywriting
This method is not a substitute for in-depth research.
It’s a warm-up exercise – that simply connects you with your customer’s state of mind.
Using it in isolation is dangerous. Assume you know what your reader’s going through, and you don’t just risk alienating her – you risk insulting her, too.
How to Get the Best Out of the “Springsteen Method”
Play it safe by starting with this method – before applying more advanced empathy techniques in the research stage.
If you get stuck, send your idea to us for a second opinion (it’s a free service if you join the Content Cavern).
And if you haven’t heard Streets of Philadelphia before, just watch this: