“I’ve heard tale the truth will set you free. Sounds good to me.” — Rollins Band, 2001
How did a hyperactive, self-described maniac who began his career by hurling confrontational lyrics at the cynical and disenfranchised youth of the 1980s punk-rock scene evolve into a respected media personality, writer, and activist? And how on earth did he come to be invited to address a room full of content marketing professionals as the keynote speaker at CMI’s ContentTECH 2019?
The stories Henry Rollins shared were, at turns, inspiring, brutally honest … and not necessarily suited for those with delicate ears or fragile egos. But they’re stories anybody who wants to deliver meaningful content to their audiences really should hear.
Turn a “low self-opinion” into shared connections
As a 19-year-old college dropout scooping ice cream for a living in his hometown of Washington, D.C., Rollins had no particular artistic aspirations, few career options, and little idea of what he wanted to do with his life.
But he had a driving passion for punk rock music, an agile mind, and a strong work ethic, instilled by his prep-school education and humble upbringing by a single mom. These traits would turn out to serve him in ways he could never have imagined.
A chance encounter with the Los Angeles-based punk band Black Flag resulted in an invitation to sign on as their new lead singer. The job as front man came with an exciting opportunity to travel the world and express the self-described crazy ideas he’d never had an outlet for.
But it also brought an intimidating responsibility: serving as the main point of contact between the band and its audience.
Rollins was assigned the task of writing the band’s newsletters and answering its fan mail.
This experience opened his eyes to the impact he could have on an audience – though it took a small shift in perspective for the full magnitude of this responsibility to sink in.
Serve truth to “rise above”
As the new singer of an internationally famous band, Rollins found himself in Los Angeles – with a duffel bag and no money – being interviewed by the L.A. Times. This is when he says content first became a part of his life.
“I’m a 20-year-old idiot who’s never had a highfalutin microphone like that put in front of me. So I said a bunch of stupid … Mark Twain would call it ‘dog water.’ I just said, ‘Bark, bark, bark, bark.’
“And then I read it. I’m like, ‘Oooh, wow, Lincoln was right. Words matter.’”
The realization that audiences might read his words and ascribe a value to them would guide his personal and professional persona and set the tone for the prolific content he’d create across virtually every form of media in existence.
Anything less than total authenticity seemed a betrayal of his fans’ faith in him, so he made a personal commitment: “Whatever I’m going to write, I can’t cheat the message … I can’t cheat the content … The only thing that matters is the truth.”“Whatever I'm going to write, I can't cheat the message,” says @henryrollins. The only thing that matters is the truth. Click To Tweet
Ironic words from a songwriter whose best-known track was called “Liar.”
Nevertheless, his aversion to “failing the message” constantly fuels Rollins’ content engines, revving from one creative project to the next at an impressive pace. In between relentlessly touring in various performing capacities over the years, he’s managed to write more than 23 books as well as newspaper and magazine columns, make guest appearances on shows like Deadly Class and RuPaul’s Drag Race, host his own radio show, and record the Henry & Heidi podcast among many other projects.
Always keep your “thinking cap” on
“I get listened to for a living. I don’t enjoy it. It is a burden. It is a thing that I serve. All I do is output. I don’t want to come to the wrap party. I just want to make the next [thing],” Rollins says.
That level of commitment to his craft brought him a tremendous level of career success. But his personal experiences with people on the other side of his microphone have done more to shape who he is – and the values he implores his fellow content creators to uphold in their own work:
“I am unable to stop talking, writing, taking photos, asking questions, calling it out. I yell. I get the mics to go into the red because I’m not dead yet, man. I communicate for a living.“You communicate for a living, and it is a big deal. There needs to be an element of moral goodness,” says @henryrollins Click To Tweet
“You communicate for a living, and it is a big damn deal. In everything that we do – from supplying content to making the means by which content is spread, faster, better, and easier to get to – there needs to be an element of moral goodness.”
The drive to “want so much more” from your content
What does Rollins mean by “moral goodness?”
To understand his intentions, it helps to hear a story he shared from one of his many trips on behalf of the USO, the U.S.-based charity providing entertainment to U.S. military forces and their families.
On one particular tour, a woman approached Rollins with a stack of his DVDs. While she personally didn’t know much about him, she explained, after her son had been killed in Afghanistan, she had found the DVDs in his footlocker. It compelled her to meet Rollins just to thank him for meaning something to her son.
The emotional exchange stuck a chord and sparked a realization: “I don’t know how much you get down with your [audience] base … but when you hear their stories of their living from paycheck to paycheck, or that they have an upside-down mortgage, or they’re living a pretty intense American drama, you should feel a duty to help those people with what you do.”
As one illustration of how he puts this moral code into action through his work, Rollins pointed to the “Tough Conversations” campaign he filmed for Mercedes Benz in Australia, which examines what it means to be seen as “tough.”
Though initially reluctant to appear in a luxury car “ad,” lest he get labeled as a “sellout” by his fans, he recognized it as a unique opportunity to talk about a real topic – and maybe save some lives – by exposing the detrimental effects of toxic masculinity:
“We did get the interviews done, and it was a beautiful thing about racism, suicide, homophobia, misogyny, and why we’ve got to get rid of it. Australia should be above that. And so, that’s what the [campaign] did. I got a nice group of hate mail, but I know I did the right thing.”
Audiences are “just like you”
Confronting people’s most challenging realities – and playing a part in addressing them – is a role Rollins implores content marketers not to take lightly. He reminds us all not to lose sight of how our work can affect the lives of those who consume it:
“We are only going forward in a content-driven world where the truth will be decided by people like us. You’re the future. I hope that keeps you up at night. There are millions of people you’re never going to meet who are going to depend on you to get it right. This is not something to be dreaded. It’s just to be respected, and you should fear getting it wrong.”
Learning to say, “I can see you”
But lest you assume that fear dominates his worldview, Rollins closed out his conversation with a sincere promise – one that conveys a surprising level of optimism:
“Goodness and the future. For me, I don’t think there is any better job to have because I know that I want to do something good. I want to tell the truth, and I want to help someone else’s life be better [because of] something I say. And that’s why, if I stagger into any one of you before I get in the car and go back to smoggy Los Angeles, I will look you in the eye and try to remember your name because it all matters.”