Could Mozart write jingles? “Are you kidding,” responds the ad copy for a 1990s music marketing production house. “A Little Night Music had ‘beer commercial’ written all over it.”
Mozart was no stranger to market forces, often selling his services to wealthy merchants. But in our time, famous musicians have taken the further step of selling merchandise—sometimes with amusing consequences. One example: Bob Dylan was asked at a 1965 press conference, “If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?” The counterculture icon smiled slyly at the journalist, and quipped, “Ladies’ garments.”
Fast forward to 2004, when Dylan and his music showed up in television ads peddling bras and panties for Victoria’s Secret. Was anyone surprised? Dylan had already licensed “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” to the Bank of Montreal in 1997. Even earlier, the Beatles’ “Revolution” appeared in a Nike ad. The Rolling Stones allowed Microsoft to use “Start Me Up” to sell Windows 95. And Michael Jackson not only sang and danced in Pepsi commercials, but suffered serious burns when his hair accidentally caught on fire while filming an ad, an event that may have set off his addiction to painkillers and plastic surgery.
Some music fans still deride these increasingly common deals as sellouts. Others simply ignore them, as if they were the sporadic infidelities of an otherwise loyal spouse. But Timothy D. Taylor, professor of musicology at UCLA, puts them under the microscope as part of this history of the modern marriage of music and commerce. His conclusion—“There is no longer a meaningful distinction to be made between ‘popular music’ and ‘advertising music’ ”—may be an exaggeration, but it is true enough to give the heebie-jeebies to those who still look to popular music for a clarion call of rebellion against the System.
Taylor shows that “sellouts” by recording artists date back to the earliest days of broadcasting. Almost from the start of radio, companies hired musical acts to promote their products. Not only did the musicians sing about yeast, cigarettes, maple syrup, ginger ale, and other products, but they often were required to take on the identity of their sponsor. Radio listeners enjoyed performances from the Wheaties Quartet, the Happy Wonder Bakers, and other ensembles with equally uncool names.
These businesses had no interest in promoting music for its own sake; they used songs to move products off store shelves. When General Mills considered dropping Wheaties in 1929, they found that most of the cereal’s sales came from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where a singing commercial had been used for three years to promote the product. Wheaties survived, and it was thanks to a silly tune.
Have you tried Wheaties?
They’re whole wheat with all the bran.
Won’t you try Wheaties?
For Wheat is the best food of man.
Taylor is at his best when recounting the history of these often-insipid radio and TV jingles. I wasn’t around when Pepsi mounted a major assault on Coke in 1939 by way of its “Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot” jingle—a song which told Americans that Pepsi delivered twice as many ounces as Coke for the same nickel. (Lucky for them, Michael Bloomberg wasn’t born until 1942.) But other accounts remind me of daring, funny, and strange ad campaigns from my youth. Some even launched hit songs, such as Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (1971) or Alka Seltzer’s “No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In)” (1966).
In retrospect, we can trace a connection between these slick marketing messages and the later rise of music videos. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the MTV generation has shown more tolerance than the baby boomers did when their favorite stars turned into product pitchmen. Yet even the most naïve music fans must cringe when they see will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas named director of creative innovation for Intel, or McDonald’s handing out five dollars to bands every time a song mentioning a Big Mac gets played on the radio.
Advertising agencies are more focused on music than ever before, and companies are willing to pay top dollar for the right song. The old-school jingle is now derided as crass and out-of-date. But the upside of hiring big names may be offset by equal risk. Wrigley was delighted to have Chris Brown tout the benefits of Doublemint gum to the tune of his hit song “Forever,” until they had to pull his ads after he was arrested for assaulting Rihanna. Taylor shows how corporations, once cautious about jumping on the newest music, now try to discover the next hot band. But will they open themselves to the same kinds of exposure that companies who hired Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong have recently faced?
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.