Licensed to Sell


Pretty much the only pitchy chorus you’ll hear from commercials these days is this one: the jingle is dead. Once a standby of TV and radio commercials, those maddeningly catchy maxims are no longer. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz? Been there, done that. Ads now aspire to loftier heights: making the music in commercials as entertaining as the stuff on CDs. Just as advertisers have employed hep film directors (John Woo, the Coen brothers, Kevin Smith) to transform commercials visually, they’re enlisting esteemed artists to liven up the audio.

Pop music and advertising have a long history together. But whereas a couple of decades ago jingles would occasionally work as pop music and vice versa (Coke’s “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing” broke the Top 10 in 1972; the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” was originally a bank commercial), by the ’80s, crossing over had, uh, crossed over.

Advertisers increasingly turned to licensing popular songs, rather than crafting original tunes for commercials. Once Nike bought the rights to the Beatles’ “Revolution,” everything seemed up for grabs. Parliament, Staple Singers, “Disco Inferno”: if it can be hummed–and even if it can’t–it can be licensed.

“Audiences today are too intelligent and sophisticated for [jingles],” says Rick Lyon of Lyon Music, a company that makes ad music. People easily identify jingles as advertising and tune them out. Music in ads these days shouldn’t dare sing the praises of the product, or even mention it.

But is “intelligent” the right word? Rationality didn’t exactly cause the kick in the head I felt when, upon entering a local bagel place, I heard “Everyday People” on a radio and…thought of a car commercial. Not Sly Stone. Or discovering those records in college. Or even the predictability of hit radio. A FUCKING car commercial.

Consciousness, in other words, has little to do with it. People react intuitively, and commercials turn that to an advantage. Jingles aimed to elicit brand-name recall, but ads now work by “borrowing interest”–transferring value from the music to the product. Commercials not only borrow interest from music, they borrow our interests, milking our memories and desires, and selling them back to us. And since licensed songs are of the culture, they work as a shorthand for consumer lifestyles, from rock-and-roll rebellion to sophisticated jazz cool to obscure, weirdo noise.

Small wonder then that advertisers prefer licensed songs to original ones. They not only get “proven” hits, they get more to borrow: the image of the artist, the video, the movie–all synergized to copromote.

This upside can be a downside as well. The more well-known a song or artist, the more convoluted the association, the more difficult to make a connection between the song and the brand stick. As Lyon points out, the Dragnet theme–once an ad for a TV show–is now in an MCI campaign. Last year it was in a Nissan campaign. And for a decade it’s been licensed for “Tum-ta-tum-tums.”

And then there’s the possible fallout from appropriating the wrong song. Children of the ’60s may feel politically wronged when the messages behind their “Revolution”s and Janis Joplins are co-opted. Or morally wronged: how could so-and-so sell out? But when I reacted to “Everyday People,” it wasn’t about selling out or some ’60s multiculti love-in; it was as if the song in my head had been swiped.

Lyon acknowledges these concerns and admits to cringing when the Four Tops leader sings about Velveeta. “But why the double standard?” he asks. “Why is it just fine to parody a transcendent artwork like the Mona Lisa in scores of ads, but wrong to license ‘Start Me Up?'”

For better or worse, “Start Me Up” punches more buttons; it’s more culturally relevant. Whereas Mona Lisa is ancient high art (and now kitsch), the Stones song is contemporary and popular–it speaks to more people. And whereas only a hopelessly naive idealist would deign to protect all of Art from taint of commerce, we muster up the energy to scream when our personal experience is at stake. (They can take “Revolution” and William Burroughs and KRS-1 and the Verve, but Sly Stone? That’s it. Next thing you know they’ll be coming for my right arm.)

Unfortunately, we may not realize the loss until after the fact. The worst thing about hearing “Everyday People” in that car commercial was that it didn’t bother me initially. Maybe I even enjoyed it. The same thing that disarms commercials’ power–disengagement–ultimately lulls us back in. Acceptance, ironically, is the bummer side effect of cynicism.

“But, really, what is the difference between using Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown character in a commercial and Sly Stone’s ‘Everyday People’?” asks Lyon. “There is really no difference because Murphy Brown and ‘Everyday People’ are commodities with instant audience recognition.”

Sure, like every song on commercial radio, “Everyday People” is there to sell something. The reason Murphy Brown plugging Sprint doesn’t bother us is because we’ve never convinced ourselves she’s there for any other reason. But considering that every last human desire, experience, and action gets commodified in one way or another, abandoning all commodities means throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The intersections between art and entertainment and commerce are loaded with fine lines and gray areas, but that hardly makes trying to distinguish them unnecessary. At any rate, there’s a difference between simply selling music and using music to sell jeans.

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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