22 February 2003

Time Marches On ... to a 4/4 Beat That's Easy to Dance To

As Bilbo Baggins said in The Fellowship of the Ring, "I am old, Gandalf. I don't look it, but I'm beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts."

Most of the time I look and act far younger than my years (which, in case I'm every trying to shag one of you out there, I shall not reveal). Every now and again, however, a little chunk of my past breaks away and falls to the ground like the leaves outside these days and diminishes me a little bit. Another one of those moments happened recently -- though some may think it silly, it's a reminder that time, even for a dedicated Doctor Who fan like myself, marches forward, never standing still.

This past Friday (21 March) I happened to be watching television, something I do more and more infrequently (apart from The Daily Show, which is now just about my only newscast. The real newscasts have gotten too absurd to be taken seriously anymore). At 9:37pm, a commercial came on for a cell phone carrier called Cingular (I'm sure most of you have heard of it). It was the usual sensual-overload of flashy computer graphics, but there unaltered save for time editing was a song: "Talk Talk" by the band Talk Talk.

I don't expect there are many reading this that will remember them. I doubt they ever charted, though their videos were frequently played on the nascent MTV and one of their later efforts, "It's My Life," was a minor hit in the US. They were a quirky, artsy British band when the airwaves were full of quirky, artsy British bands -- what I'd give for a few Talk Talks today though! We were spoiled rotten in the 80s, we were.

Now this was not by any means the first time a "new wave" or "punk rock" song has been used in a commercial. Most memorably "What Do I Get" by the Buzzcocks had been licensed a year or two ago for an SUV ad (!!). At the time I was a bit dismayed, but the use of the song was ironic and its use in the ad was considered quite edgy so I shrugged and went on my way. And of course during the 80s themselves, Devo, Grace Jones and Adam Ant made ads for a Honda (I think) scooter that used their music, but again it was obviously part of the artists' design. And let's not forget the "Da Da Da" by Trio used in that memorable Volkswagen ad (and if you want to see something really odd, check out the Bill Gates/Steve Ballmer parody of that ad), or the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" Levi's advert (which subsequently caused the song to go to #1 in the UK, 14 years after original release).

Indeed, sometimes I don't mind "my" music being in an ad (only sometimes, mind you). I was pleasantly surprised to hear mega-obscure dead poet Nick Drake floating through the air one day in a VW ad. For many younger people it was like a bomb had dropped and my wife asked me "who in the world was that?" like she'd never heard anything so delicate in her life. Nick Drake was a weird-beard obscuro when I first heard him in the 70s, and he died before he ever got anywhere, but I told her the story. Later, when "Pink Moon" and that VW ad really went huge, I was "Mr. Cool" for a couple of months because I had known who he was.

Later, I head Devo's "It's a Beautiful World" used in a Target ad. I was perfectly fine with this: everything Devo do is ironic, so who better to exploit Devo than Target, except possibly Wal-Mart.

More often, though, I get appalled. Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" was great in Trainspotting, but when it was used in a Heineken ad I blanched. When I heard it later in a fucking CRUISE SHIP AD I knew we were tumbling ass over teakettle down a slippery slope. Iggy Pop songs should be used to advertise heroin, not fucking yuppie fucking cruise ships vacations with their fucking brat kids.

Devo's "Whip It" turned up in a Pringle's ad, and Bowie's "Changes" in a Microsoft ad, and suddenly this joke wasn't funny anymore (not that it had been that amusing in the first place). And it got worse. Dead people started endorsing products. Fred Astaire had a vacuum cleaner Photoshopped into his hands. Jack Webb developed a posthumous taste for Diet Dr. Pepper. And Mr. "Hope I Die Before I Get Old" himself, Pete Townsend, allowed "Baba O'Riley" to be used in a car commercial, fer chrissakes!

Sometime I could lie to myself and say "these guys probably got shafted out of a lot of money back in the day, and this is their way of making it back. I hope they got a ton of cash for that." I remember thinking that quite distinctly when Gary Numan's "Cars" finally turned up in a car ad, for the Nissan Altima (we all sort of knew this would happen one day, so it was a bit easier to take. But come on, Gary -- a better class of car would have been possible, surely?).

Perhaps this is why Mark Hollis (who presumably had to give permission on behalf of Talk Talk) sold his song to Cingular, I don't know. Maybe every generation goes through this. Maybe today's senior citizens ball up their fists with resentment when they hear meaningful songs from the 50s being used to sell denture cream. Maybe there are some old hippies who didn't sell out who get bummed when antiwar songs are used to push material consumerism like SUVs (...naaaah).

For some reason, Cingular buying "Talk Talk" bothers me. Probably because I wouldn't have expected such a relatively obscure song to be used here in the US, or maybe because Talk Talk always seemed to be one of those groups with lots of artistic integrity. Of course, it could just be that I don't have as firm a grip on the cynical reality of the marketplace as I should ... I recently heard Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" on Muzak if you can believe it. Perhaps that should have been a clue.

Those of us who grew up living inside the music (as many of the "new wave" kids did) are upset about this trend. The problem is, most of the loser kids (the vast majority in the 80s) never (or just barely) heard these songs the first time round so it doesn't bother them. So the mainstream wins again. Devo was right all along, as if we needed reminding of this.


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