We accept the fact that TV commercials have co-opted the soundtrack of our youth. That's been inevitable ever since Nike first plundered the Beatles' "Revolution" for one of its ads about 10 years ago. Now, of course, "Everyday People" sells Camrys; Aretha Franklin's "Think" backs a fragrance commercial; and James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)" is theme music for a laxative.
We accept, too, the marketing impetus behind this. Baby boomers have heard these songs so many times that they occupy a corner of the brain like a dusty armoire, permanent and unmovable. Ergo, when advertisers steal from the baby boomer songbook, they tap into a powerful collective memory, creating instant attention and a borrowed halo of cool.
Fine. We are all in favor of cool.
But they can't have it both ways. As long as they are intent on cashing in on generational memories, advertisers ought to get the lyrics--and certainly the spirit--of the tunes right. They can't slice and dice willy-nilly, and run from the less savory, or at least more piquant, meanings of their musical selections.
Though, heaven knows, they try.
We're talking, for example, about a recent AT&T commercial that showed a young executive on his way to a big meeting. As he steps into an elevator, we hear the pounding opening strains of Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher." We get the musical pun, the play on the elevator and the young man's aspirations. But does anyone remember that the song originally referred to drugs?
And here's the Mitsubishi Montero powering around mountain roads, bumping across stony creeks and generally doing what sport utility vehicles do in commercials. The soundtrack is suitably upbeat and dynamic. Those familiar, funky rhythms . . . yes, it's "Superfly."
A great tune, and a pretty good ad. But does anyone remember that "Superfly" started life as a song about . . . a pimp?
A different kind of selective amnesia infects Ex-Lax, which recently used the Steve Goodman folk tune "City of New Orleans" in one of its commercials. "City of New Orleans" is arguably the greatest railroad song ever written, a vivid ode to a disappearing way of life:
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news
The conductor sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.
A mournful tribute isn't what Ex-Lax had in mind. Instead, it lifted a line from the song's chorus ("Good morning, America, how are you?"), turning a piece of American poetry into a mellow jingle for digestive regularity.
Similarly, David Bowie's anthemic "Rebel, Rebel" can be heard pumping behind a commercial for the Mazda 626. Aside from the notion that buying a 626 constitutes rebellion, the music is meant ironically; the commercial shows a young woman arriving happily, rebelliously late for a PTA meeting. But anyone who remembers the tune remembers these lyrics: "Rebel, rebel, your face is a mess. . . . Hot tramp, I love you so." Mazda has conveniently left this out, apparently uninterested in the all-important hot-tramp market.
Worse is the bowdlerization of another Beatles-themed ad, this one from Nortel Networks, a Canadian communications equipment company. In Nortel's commercial, an executive standing on a podium startles his widely dispersed audience by reciting words to John Lennon's "Come Together."
The actual lyrics, as any Beatles fan knows, go like this:
Here come old flattop. He come groovin' up slowly.
He got joo-joo eyeball. He one holy roller.
He got hair down to his knees.
Got to be a joker, he just do what he please.
He wear no shoeshine. He got toe-jam football.
He got monkey finger. He shoot Coca-Cola.
He say, I know you, you know me.
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.
Come together, right now, over me.
But that's not what the Nortel guy says. The commercial eliminates several lines, including, "He one holy roller" and "He shoot Coca-Cola." What, is Nortel afraid of raising the ire of religious people, anti-drug crusaders and Coca-Cola's trademark attorneys?
In Tommy Hilfiger's ad, Franklin's "Think" is used mainly for its lyrical bridge--"Freedom, freedom, yea-ah freedom!"--which happens to be the name of the fragrance Hilfiger is promoting.
But Hilfiger seems to be hoping that viewers don't think too much. It's not just that the song has nothing whatever to do with the product. It's that the commercial murderously twists the entire meaning of the song's chorus ("Freedom!"). "Think" is actually a warning to a straying lover ("You better think (Think!)/ About what you're trying to do to me/ . . . I ain't no psychiatrist, I ain't no doctor with degrees/ But it don't take too much IQ to see what you're doing to me"). The chorus is a derisive taunt.
Think about that next time you buy fragrance.
If it proves anything at all, the neutering of popular music demonstrates that time--and good old American commerce--can knock the rough edges off just about anything. No matter how outrageous or marginal, no matter how dangerous a work of art starts, sooner or later it's likely to be pounded into the same cheerfully consumable mush.
If songs about pimps and tramps can be retooled to sell sport-utes and sedans to middle-aged suburbanites, what's next? Before you know it, some marketing genius will figure out a way to transform "YMCA" from a celebration of anonymous gay sex into an innocent crowd-pleaser, suitable for bar mitzvahs and baseball games.