On December 3, 1965, in a small studio at KQED-TV, 24-year-old Bob Dylan held a press conference. Members of the audience were invited to ask Dylan "about anything from atomic science to the rhythms and rhymes." With a singular wit, Dylan kertwanged the crowd.
Q: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or as a poet?
Dylan: Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, you know.
Q: Who is Mr. Jones?
Dylan: Mr. Jones… I’m not gonna tell you his first name, I’d get sued.
Q: What does he do for a living?
Dylan: He’s a pin-boy.
Q: If you were gonna sell out to a commercial interest, which one
would you choose?
Dylan: Ladies' garments.
On March 4, 2003, Bob Dylan officially sold out to a commercial interest. Victoria's Secret debuted their new commercial "Angels in Venice," an ethereal journey through Venetian halls arrayed in silks, satins and the alabaster flesh of lingerie models. And the soundtrack for this dreamscape? Dylan's song, "Love Sick." I was so shocked to hear that familiar, raspy voice that I almost forgot to be mesmerized by the nearly-naked women.
So the premiere folksinger/songwriter of the past forty-plus years has sold his poetry to push push-up bras. Given his comments from way-back-when at KQED, maybe it's all just another kertwang. Dylan probably chuckled at the chance for some self-fulfilling prophecy. And points for audacity go out to the ad agency that put it all together for Victoria's Secret. Some bright kid must've heard or read about Dylan's comment and run with it.
That's what I'll choose to believe, at least, because beyond that, the pillaging of rock artists' catalogs by ad agencies is reaching ludicrous extremes. The leading mindset seems to be, "If the song sounds good, who cares what the song's about -- get it in the ad!"
Case in point: Hyundai's got an ad in which their Sonata sedan nimbly darts through the narrow streets of a Hamelin-like village, luring the curious townsfolk from their homes to see what the excitement's about. As the parade forms behind the car, the melodious trill of a flute provides the soundtrack, reinforcing the "pied piper" imagery.
And what is the merry tune that's being played? "Thick as a Brick," by Jethro Tull. Just the kind of song I associate with Korean automotive excellence. For your edification, here's a sampling of lyrics from the song:
Really don't mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper -- your deafness a shout.
I may make you feel but I can't make you think.
Your sperm's in the gutter -- your love's in the sink.
So you ride yourselves over the fields
and you make all your animal deals
and your wise men don't know how it feels
to be thick as a brick.
So what do we take away from this? Potential Hyundai owners are:
1) best compared to rats;
2) easily led around by shiny things;
3) thick as bricks.
Brilliant marketing strategy, that. But what really twists my knickers is the fact that Tull frontman Ian Anderson volunteered to re-record an instrumental version of the song for Hyundai, since it would be easier than getting a musician unfamiliar with the piece to play it. Now, thanks to saturation advertising, that great song is now inexorably linked to that inane, insulting commercial.
And it doesn't stop there. How many commercials in the past couple of years have been set to the raucous thump-thump of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life"? Royal Caribbean Cruises, Mitsubishi Motors, and Bally's Total Fitness immediately spring to mind; I'd wager there are more. Not bad for a song about shooting heroin. Wrangler Jeans uses Creedence Clearwater Revival's antiwar song "Fortunate Son" to sell pants. Pants! What next -- the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" backing a Viagra spot?
Putting pop songs together with products is nothing new; entertainers relied on corporate sponsors on radio shows for decades. But ever since Michelob scored big in the 1980s by getting Eric Clapton to record a down-tempo version of "After Midnight" for a beer ad, advertisers have thrown themselves at popular musicians, trying to keep the biggest names and the hottest songs tied to their products. Remember David Bowie and Tina Turner singing "Modern Love" for Pepsi? Or Robert Plant wailing that Diet Coke was his "Tall Cool One"? It wasn't enough for Michael Jackson to sell his own songs -- he bought the Beatles' catalog out from under Paul McCartney, then turned around and started passing it out to Nike. Today it's Smash Mouth for Toyota, Moby for Intel, Led Zeppelin for Cadillac, etc. Ad nauseam. These days I hear more pop music on ABC than on MTV. Hell, Celine Dion debuted her new song in a commercial for Oldsmobile!
Okay, I don't care about Celine Dion. But I do care about Britney Spears. Hey, get your jaw off the floor. She'll save every one of us!
Last year, Britney Spears did three unquestioningly brilliant things:
1) She performed a series of new Pepsi commercials using
classic jingles from decades past
2) She hastened the end of the "Joy of Pepsi" jingle
3) She got that insipid moppet Hallie Eisenberg off the TV.
While the Britney spots didn't last long, they showed an alternative to co-opting pop/rock music. They cashed in on cachet, discovering that it's not the song, it's the singer -- or more appropriately, the star. Maybe this year we'll see another few "stars" follow suit -- Kelly and Justin, I'm looking at you -- singing the company's music, rather than selling their own. Maybe companies and their ad agencies will realize that they'd be better served actually talking about their products in 30 seconds, rather than attempting to create witless Pavlovian slaves of the viewing audience...
Or maybe I'll just wait and hope for "Angels Along Highway 61."
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
3.19.03 @ 1:17a
I was also quite shocked when I heard Dylan singing that GREAT song on a Vic's Secret ad. But it's a nice ad. And I doubt Dylan remembers the KQED interview enough to chuckle at his (unwitting) fulfilment of it.
But, as offensive it is to see artists selling their songs as jingles, the fact is, the ads don't really have staying power. I can barely, if at all, remember the examples you cite, and Idoubt most others can either. When it comes down to it, except for a few lucky commercials that stick in the cultural consciousness for years to come, none of those songs will be remember for the ads they appeared in. The artist makes a quick buck, we all shake our holier-than-thou heads at them, and then it's all forgotten.
Lust for Life, if it's attached to anything, is attached to Trainspotting, which is more germane, and more lasting. 1/100th of all commericals are even noticed, let alone remembered. We need to relax.
But stealing someone else's songs and making THEM sellout by proxy IS despicable. But let's not pretend the Beatles are above cashing in.
3.19.03 @ 10:13a
Actually, I've noticed that the Hyundai commercial is almost Thick as a Brick. I assume they have the rights, but there are subtle differences between the flute melodies. It's a little odd, if you ask me. But if you listen, it's not exactly the same.
Same with the alergy commerical that's got the overture from Tommy.
Oh, and the Celine Dion song was actually a Cyndi Lauper song from 1989.
3.19.03 @ 10:20a
Adam: actually, Ian Anderson addressed that in the same interview -- for "Metal Rules" magazine -- that Hyundai edited his performance, and that he didn't care if they did.
3.19.03 @ 10:29a
Okay. Because I noticed that it was similar, but not exactly the same. Why they didn't just edit the original is beyond me.
A slight aside, but I thought it was cool: when Weird Al wanted to use Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" for his Beverly Hillbillies thing, Mark Knopfler agreed to it, but only if he could play guitar.
3.19.03 @ 10:32a
I heard the Stone's "Start Me Up" on some truck commercial last night - Ford? Chevrolet? Can't remember.
I recall those Burger King ads that used 60s and 70s pop and R&B. At least they tried to integrate the song and the sales message. But most of those poor songwriting bastards were robbed of their initial royalties - so they got slammed twice.
Using existing popular music to support a campaign is lazy marketing.
But I have to say, that T-Mobile commercial with Def Lep's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" lyric deciphering is hysterical. Wouldn't make me buy the phone, but it's classic. So for top-of-mind awareness, it's well-done.
michelle von euw
3.19.03 @ 11:21a
Led Zepplin tunes set to car commericals was my own breaking point.
But, artists probably love the extra play that advertisements get them. I read somewhere that Sting's "Desert Rose" didn't sell any records until he made that deal with Lexus or whomever. And I heard Moby brag about the fact that his album was the most licensed one in history.
3.19.03 @ 11:32a
Apparently Sheryl Crow and Lenny Kravitz earned between $500K and $1.5K for their song commercials.
3.19.03 @ 12:17p
That Celine Dion song is appalling. Now when I hear it, I just think of a car commercial. I hate it when that happens and with the frequency that stars do this, it's quite often. And another one... that song "Just Breathe." I love the tune, but all I can think about is the freakin' commercial.
I'm with ya, Russ, that I'd prefer to see the artists sing some little jingle than tarnish their own music in commercials.
3.19.03 @ 12:44p
That's actually one of the reasons I don't mind all those celebrities shilling for The Gap. The Steven Tyler spot is great.
3.19.03 @ 1:43p
The one that made my skin crawl was Mitsubishi's use of "Twentieth Century Boy" by T.Rex, which seemed a bit tasteless, as writer/singer/performer Marc Bolan's rather well-known death was in a one-car accident.
3.19.03 @ 1:46p
Usually, the products that use pop music to sell are the ones with no true differentiatable factor. Beer is beer. Sugar water is sugar water. So to make themselves stand out, they use the cache of pop songs.
Honestly, I don't see the problem. Artists want people to hear their music - and way more people watch TV than listen to the radio. It's all about exposure.
As far as why a company wouldn't just edit the real song versus remake it - money. Using a real song will cost you about 5 times as much as if you just buy the rights to the song and rerecord it yourself.
3.19.03 @ 1:59p
Oh, of course, Matt. If this represents success to the artist, more power to 'em. Unless the artist has specifically spoken out against the use of their songs for commercial use, they're far from hypocritical.
I think most of the discussion here is about the use of songs that have a personal meaning to the speaker. Sure, it's your own problem, but it's natural to have a feeling of betrayal when someone else appropriates what had become personal iconography (even though you had appropriated it yourself). Let the people mourn.
I think Russ's main gripe is the use of songs that -- because they mean so much to so many -- are used in a purely Pavlovian, "our product = your favorite song" manner. It's valid as advertising, but it is a bit shameless, and most certainly not something that is as compelling as a rational argument in the long term. As you implied, it's mainly for products with little to differentiate themselves.
3.19.03 @ 2:08p
I rarely feel that passionate toward any song that I feel "jilted" by the artist. Sure, an artist can do whatever they want with their music. But if an artist is trying to get good exposure, I don't see what's good about the audience hearing it as a glorified commercial jingle. I know when I hear the song later on the radio, I usually switch the station. Just doesn't feel like entertainment once it's a marketing strategy.
3.19.03 @ 2:27p
Point taken, Heather. I was probably a touch melodramatic -- but I think a form of my argument holds. After all, just being on a commercial has kicked the song out of the "entertainment" category for you, hasn't it? The song hasn't changed: just your perception.
3.19.03 @ 2:44p
You're half right, Brian. Most of the songs used in ads have little or no meaning for me; I don't feel robbed, personally. I do think that the saturation which seems to come with the commercialization of these songs has a weakening effect on that artist's music. If they don't see it that way, that's their prerogative -- but it only suggests to me that they're only in the music biz for the money. And once you've got that mentality, you're not going to be making good music, you're going to be pumping out market-ready, ad-accessible crap... the musical equivalent of stock art. Then you might as well be writing jingles.
3.19.03 @ 3:58p
Good use of commercial music: Dirty Vegas, "Days Go By." Bad use of commercial music: Barenaked Ladies, "One Week." Can we at least have some shred of relevance?
There was a Post article a few years back about the lyrics that get left out of commercials - like Tommy Hilfiger using "Freedom" and the opening lyrics of "Come Together" that are deeply wrong for the products they're selling. Like "Lust For Life." Mmmm, drug use on a family cruise! Yay!
3.19.03 @ 4:01p
Actually, having just finished reading "The Corrections," I find drug use on a family cruise to be even funnier now.
I'm waiting for the baby bottle company to start advertising to Pearl Jam's "Evenflow."
3.19.03 @ 4:04p
I agree with you, Jael. At least in the Celine commercial she IS saying "I'd drive all night..."
Somewhat on topic, I love the car commercials with "Leaving High School" and "Leaving Childhood." Genius!
3.19.03 @ 4:47p
Oh, and the Celine Dion song was actually a Cyndi Lauper song from 1989. Actually, it was a Roy Orbison song, written by Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne, in 1989. Although Cyndi did a great cover. (She is so woefully underrated....)
Anyhow, I think the use of hit music in commercials does exactly what it is supposed to do - get the audience's attention and make an association in their minds with the product. The fact that there is a good deal of irony for those of us who pay attention is a bonus, rather than a detriment. I doubt I would buy a product because of its catchy tune, but neither would I NOT buy a product because I felt an artist had sold out.
3.19.03 @ 11:00p
On one hand, I was not pleased to see The Who's "Bargain" advertised as "The Song from The Nissan Commercial". Plus, the GM use of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" has made me more tired of that song than any amount of radio overplay could. Don't even get me started on the use of T Rex's "20th Century Boy".
On the other hand, I didn't mind seeing Styx's "Mr. Roboto" in a Volkswagen commerical since that song was lame to begin with. And I admit I chuckled at Taco Bell's Weird Al like conversion of "My Sharona" into "My Chalupa".
3.21.03 @ 11:49a
So here was something I just thought about. Why is using a song in a commercial considered selling out, but using a song in a movie is just considered a good soundtrack?
3.21.03 @ 12:01p
Movies have a storyline. To be on the soundtrack is to be a part of the work and has artistic relevance.
Commercials are just backing a product. I like my musical artists to stay "artists." Let the advertising and marketing world jingle their ass for the commercial world.
3.24.03 @ 2:16a
Thank God for the VCR. I haven't seen or heard a commercial in about 15 years. As they whiz by on the screen, I will sometimes stop to check out something that looks remotely interesting, but it usually isn't and I fast forward back to my regularly uninterrupted program.
5.7.03 @ 3:14p
Some car company is now using "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" to advertise their 24-hour test drive service. As soon as I heard "What's it gonna be, boy, yes or no?" I thought of this column immediately.
5.7.03 @ 3:19p
Yep. That was GM, and I caught it last night during 24. And then I couldn't get that song out of my head for the rest of the night.