The Magazine

Kings of the Jingle

How music and commerce combine to make America.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By TED GIOIA
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If Timothy Taylor is a fine music historian, he is a miserable economic theorist. Whenever he offers Big Picture explanations of his subject, he collapses into generalizations so ludicrous as to approach unintentional comedy. Does Professor Taylor really believe that advertisers rely on music in order to ensure “the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations”? Does he really think that the evolution of jingles in the 1980s had anything to do with “the sacralization of consumption by Ronald Reagan”? Apparently so.

Like many academics, Taylor has difficulty telling the difference between economic theories and business strategies. Advertising professionals espouse many different views on economics, from Marxist utopianism to laissez-faire faith in free markets. But these differences of opinion do not hinder their work, which focuses on selling a product, not upholding any economic system. Taylor should know that street vendors sang about their products during the age of feudalism, and that jingles still show up on television in socialist countries. Instead, he gets lost in his own rhetoric and ideology.

Taylor might have avoided these missteps if he had lived up to the promise of his book’s title and actually explored the full history of music and commerce, and not just the modern use of songs in advertising. He makes only the most cursory references to street vendors, medicine shows, and other predecessors to the radio jingle. He apparently hasn’t seen the WPA study, conducted a year before the debut of the famous Pepsi jingle, on street cries in New York. Nor does he note the attempts, long before the invention of radio, to impose legal restrictions on musical selling in London, New York, and other cities—as a result of the incessant clangor of singing vendors. Even the world’s oldest profession used music to sell personal services in medieval Europe. 

Taylor skips over interesting stories that might force him to modify his theories. Instead, he offers up clumsy generalizations about a “new capitalism” driven by consumption, which enlists music in its nefarious schemes. He never explains why the fastest-growing economics in this “new capitalism” downplay consumerism in favor of savings, investment, and capital form-ation. He never ponders why jingles took off during the Great Depression, when economic survival, not consumption, drove mass behavior. Again and again, Taylor’s theories collapse when put under the mildest scrutiny.

Fortunately for readers, however, the cumbersome theorizing is mostly restricted to the first and last chapters. As soon as he stops trying to play armchair economist, Taylor is an outstanding guide to his subject. We still need a more complete guide to the interplay between capitalism and music. But for a fun, spirited look at marketing music in modern media, The Sounds of Capitalism, like that supersized bottle of Pepsi, mostly hits the spot.

Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.