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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Pounce Of Irrelevance
relevance irrelevance

Eventually, we all get to the point where no one gives a s—t what we say and do. Getting there is a lot easier than it used to be.


In 2012, the rock band No Doubt released their first album in over a decade.  Critics were mixed on the effort. Fans – or the lack of them – were the real issue.   Two singles released from the album failed to chart, all the more shocking because No Doubt had performed one of them live on a popular TV show the very week of the song's release. 

Two decades earlier, No Doubt was on top of the world.  Their 1995 album Tragic Kingdom had half its songs released as hit singles.   By 1999, Tragic Kingdom had sold over 16m copies, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. 

I've never been a fan of the group, so I cannot personally assess how their newest album measures up to their previous output.  The music could have been just as good as prior albums or a pale imitation of the band at its best.  It doesn't matter.  In this decade, there is no doubt that No Doubt is no longer relevant.

Should anyone be surprised?  Back in 1984, the rock group The Cars was at its own commercial peak.  Heartbeat City had just been released and the band embarked on a sold-out tour in huge venues coast-to-coast to promote the album.  I had to buy a scalped ticket to see their horrendous robotic performance.  Almost thirty years later, the surviving members of the band reunited to release a new album.  Unlike No Doubt, I don't think The Cars had tremendously high expectations.  They went on only a ten-city tour throughout the US and Canada to promote it, this time in very small venues.  I am absolutely certain no one had to buy a scalped ticket for these performances. 

Looking over a list of 1980's TV and celluloid celebrities, I'd say that less than 10% are names an average twenty-five year old would know about today.  For every Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, or Sylvester Stallone, there are nine names or more a youth of today would have no way to place.  I lived through the Eighties and I had to think a bit before I recalled who some of these people were.   

Becoming relevant is never easy to begin with.  Remaining relevant is even harder.  One of Andy Warhol's best known quotations is that someday we'll all be world-famous for fifteen minutes.  It was a very prescient comment because he said it way back in 1968.   Can you imagine being world-famous for just fifteen minutes?  Would it be easy to adjust sixteen minutes later when no one remembers who you are? 

The irrelevance I speak of goes beyond the generational gap divide I discussed in X Marks The Spot For Generation Z.  Generational differences have always existed and always will.  Parents and their children never see the world exactly the same way.  The growing lack of relevance today doesn't so much creep up on those affected as much as pounce on them. 

Back in the 1980's, even the 1990's, what we saw, what we read, what we listened to, came from very few sources.  The United States had more variety than most countries, yet we still only had four major television networks.  Radio by then was already corporate owned with playlists dictated by the major record companies.  If you wanted to go see a movie, you had to physically drive to the movie theater.  For news, you read your local newspaper or subscribed to a major newsweekly like Time or Newsweek, possibly The Economist if you were a bit more worldly. 

There was still plenty of choice back then.  There just wasn't as much choice, so more of us tended to watch the same TV shows and movies, listen to the same type of music, and read the same type of news from the same sources. 

So if you were a TV star circa 1985 or 1990, you had a larger audience watching you to know who you were.   You wouldn't necessarily have to be featured in one of the top 5 rated shows to be considered relevant.  Movies were more of an event, not pre-advertising like they are today for DVD and streaming rentals a month or two down the line, and they didn't have to compete with home entertainment, so as a movie star, you were also likely to be more relevant and for a longer period of time.  Music stars hailed from mainly the pop and rock worlds, and there weren't that many of them.  Newspapers were filled with the same syndicated columnists. 

Art Buchwald was one of the more popular columnists, and he is an excellent example of how much easier it was to stay relevant in bygone days.  Despite critics disparaging his columns as unfunny and clichéd, he was, at his peak, syndicated in more than 550 newspapers and won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.   Today, a jeered and out-of-date columnist wouldn't be granted that kind of staying power.  Readers would have many other places to digest commentary suited to their view of the world.

There are always legends, people to whom the current generation can look back on and find some glimpse of relevance. Charlie Chaplin or Orson Welles are considered legends due to their impact on later filmmakers.  Modern viewers have heard of them although most have probably never seen any of their work.  The Beatles are classified as music legends.  Their music is still widely played and covered today.

The Beatles, like James Dean, like Jimi Hendrix, like Bob Marley, fall into a unique category of relevance.  They've stayed relevant because they didn't get the opportunity to dilute their original impact.  No Doubt lived on to release a fresh album that either didn't fit with the times or was inferior to the sound they originally created.  The Beatles broke up before they could get to this stage, but mind you, had they ventured on, at some point the albums would have started sliding in quality even if they were continuing to make money.  You need only look at the Rolling Stones.  Paul McCartney has largely remained relevant because he was a part of the legendary Beatles.  In all his concerts after 2005, over 60% of the songs he's played have been Beatles tunes, a steadily growing percentage over the decades, and it's been called into question if he'd be able to pack in the stadiums this late in his career if he'd never been part of the Beatles.  

Then, of course, you have living legends, personalities who have been around for more than a few decades and remained relevant to some degree.  Clint Eastwood, William Shatner, and Madonna qualify here.  What living legends have in common is the capability for reinvention.  Eastwood was on the decline as an actor until 1993's Forgiven put him back in the spotlight and earned him an Academy Award for directing.  It is for his directing career that he's prominent today.  William Shatner was fortuitous in being able to reinvent himself as a pitchman.  This led to more TV series work, mostly of a comedic vein based on his pitchman persona.  Captain Kirk has long since left the building.  For a time, Madonna was reinventing her music and look every few years. 

Nonetheless, at some point, these living legends will become irrelevant unless they die first.  No one and nothing stays relevant forever.  

The software and internet industries might be great for making billions on the quick, but they're probably the hardest place for a company to stay relevant for the long haul.  Microsoft is not even a forty-year old company, yet it certainly seems like an old and irrelevant one nowadays.  Up until age twenty, Microsoft appeared king of the world and insurmountable. Less than twenty years later, it limps along like a has been, still generating massive profits from its two core products of Windows and Office licenses,  but how long will that last?  Apple Computer started a few years after Microsoft and had drifted into irrelevance within a quick fifteen years.   Its reinvention as a services and electronics company is what transformed it into the world's most valuable company.  Yahoo, which hasn't been able to reinvent itself successfully, is fighting the tide of irrelevance, at only a youthful twenty years old.  Google and Facebook look unassailable now.  Will they in three decades?

So what to do?  How to remain relevant for longer? 

I've read all the business advice on the internet.  You've got to be willing to kill your babies, scrap your complete product line, take yourself in new directions, blah blah.  This advice presupposes that anyone and anything can and should reinvent itself. 

The cold hard facts are that not every business or actor or music star is worth reinvention, if they're even capable of it.  The PC industry would have undergone more innovations more quickly had Microsoft not had a virtual monopoly on operating systems from the 1980's onwards.  Microsoft has not been so successful at leveraging its lordship over the PC into mobile operating systems.  Does anyone care except Microsoft?  

Certain things are relevant at certain times.  The Beatles were relevant in the Sixties.  Their music embraced the change in mood over the course of that particular decade.  Had the same four Beatles been twenty years younger and formed a band in the early 1980's instead, would their music reflecting the 1980's have been as relevant for a different time?   The search engine Excite was relevant in the early days of the internet.  Is the world a worse place now that Excite no longer exists?  Microsoft was relevant during the days when PC's were the world's primary computing device.  J.D. Salinger published few other works after The Catcher In The Rye and none after 1965.  Maybe Salinger was smart and knew he had nothing more relevant to add.  No crime in that.  Most authors never write a relevant book.

If everyone and everything followed all the hackneyed advice about maintaining relevancy – if it really worked – and was able to stay relevant forever, how would there be any room for anything new and different?  Entropy and irrelevance are natural states of the universe.  We can't simultaneously embrace the ideas of change and staying permanently relevant.  Change, by definition, is an alteration in what is most relevant.  Even if we allow for reinvention, a seventy-year old pop star performing gangster rap for a teenaged audience won't be viewed with the same authenticity as a more youthful star growing up in that element.   If tomorrow, chicken went completely out of fashion for lamb, would Kentucky Fried Chicken be wiser to reinvent itself as a purveyor of lamb or to politely close up shop?  

The 1960's were a time when two generations' ideals clashed over which would be the more relevant.  As always, the old guard eventually had to move on.  Resistance is futile.  Recognize when your most opportune moment is to be relevant, stay relevant as long as you can with a degree of dignity, and then get off the stage, preferably earlier rather than later, to make room for the new hotshot audiences now want to see.  Fighting irrelevance is like fighting old age.  You can apply some cosmetic tricks once or twice, but there comes a time when you're not fooling anyone anymore, and you just look like a caricature of the entity you were during your most relevant period.    

One day, we're all going to be that guy in the corner telling anyone within earshot about how relevant we used to be.  Better to accept the fact that no one cares.  There are worse ways to spend your time than curled up with a nice book in a comfortable nook in the world of irrelevance.


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