Licensed to Sell

Why Jingles Died and Licensed Pop Rules

When a song becomes too commodified, too overdetermined, what happens to the music? (And I'm not talking about some transcendental, life-affirming expression; just something to be listened to, period.) Songs now are plucked for commercials as soon as they break the charts; it's as if that's the whole point in the first place. The avant-garde of the moment, techno, made its way into commercials even before breaking the top 10--a phenomenon unheard of in the past. And Sherman Oaks, California, is now home to Ultra Lounge, reported to be the first ever "retail environment" based on a CD compilation series based on a lifestyle movement based on a past decade.

A song makes its way into popular consciousness now equipped with an army of strategically linked agendas. A single tune may evoke images of genre, of the artist, of the video, of the decade or era, of the generation, the store where purchased, lifestyle magazines, clothing line, video channels and media outlets, even its "degree of uncommercialness."

With so many brands competing for the same images, marketers like Lyon have hit upon a postlicensing strategy: to get the instant values communicated through a pop song but in a way unique to the commercial. A recent Gap campaign gives LL Cool J, Luscious Jackson, and other musicians 30 seconds to create "whatever they want," rather than performing known songs; Nike and Calvin Klein play A&R director, seeking out experimental ensembles such as Faust, Tortoise, and Flying Saucer Attack for the very traits that make them "uncommercial." When something as "out there" as Faust--unsalable in its own right--can be lucratively converted to a means to sell, everything really is up for grabs. We can no longer assume that any music, no matter how obscure, exists for its own sake.

As business primes every mainstream and alternative to the alternative to the alternative, and as the lead time between appearing in record stores and commercials shrinks, music fans face a double bind: The one easy defense against all this crap--cynicism, emotional detachment--gets in the way of experiencing music in the first place. And cynicism is a slippery slope. To be cynical and detached enough, you'd need a hole drilled in your head.

So what now? I'm not sure, but until we figure something out, I'd like to suggest a moratorium on further uses of Parliament, Stereolab, and Hank Williams in commercials, in exchange for forfeiting the rights to all electronica. (Tricky, Spooky, Chemical Brothers: all yours!) Or maybe we should, as a friend of mine suggested, just start recording the fax machine and listening to that. With so many forces competing for our ears, we're only going to find music where it is least expected.


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