Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gone Commercial: TV Ads and Music Discovery

Though by now it has probably all but subsided for most of the 40 million plus who tuned in from the USA alone, Olympics withdrawal is no joke. But the comedown from the high of this biannual fortnight of nationalist revivalism, heroics, bratty silver medalists, nationally variable broadcasting atrocities, and impassioned if amnesiac debates on the legitimacy of mysterious events like rhythmic gymnastics, curling, and dressage takes different forms for different folks. Those for who,m television is a major life engagement must adjust from athletic drama to scripted, "reality," or 24 hour news cycle drama, while others gradually reacquaint themselves with life beyond the boob tube, whatever that might be. For the latter, the short term difficulties of their more drastic transition are mitigated by one significant long-term benefit: no more COMMERCIALS! As one of this group, I can certainly feel the positive effects of the poison leaving my system: no more spoiled Lexus drivers seeking exotic vacation locales where they can stay in their beloved cars; no more promos for clearly doomed NBC shows (Animal Practice, Stars Earn Stripes); no more of Jeff Probst posing as self-important life coach; no more car salesmen somehow managing to make Grease songs even more intolerable; no more of that awful Wendy's spokesgirl and her damn Baconator. Winners all around.

Now, like spiders or Jersey Shore, commercials aren't entirely a bane on the world's existence. In terms of the music business, which generally makes little direct use of television advertising, commercials can do some good and almost never harm; for musicians, tv ads when harnessed properly can offer considerable rewards with virtually no risk. Rarely has this been done more successfully than this year's placement of "We Are Young," by the new alternative band fun., in a Chevrolet commercial aired during the Super Bowl. The single shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for six weeks, and has sold over five million downloads. The enormous impact of the placement (significantly eclipsing the sales benefit of Madonna's massive halftime show) is of course an exceptional case, but even if on a far less monumental scale, numerous other acts have enjoyed boosts from tv ad exposure beyond the primary benefit of licensing fees.
Prior to 2012, I can remember only one instance where a song featured in a television ad intrigued me enough to investigate to find the source. The ad was for Old Navy sweaters, the artist Ingrid Michaelson. Michaelson, a singer-songwriter akin to Sara Bareilles but somewhat less widely known, has built a robust following with her quiet, quirky music packed with understatement and humble, often humorous insight and live performances beloved for their organic intimacy. Still, she probably would not have appeared on my particular radar if not for the Old Navy spot, meaning this is probably true for countless others. Certainly most of the millions of people who saw the ad, in which her song "The Way I Am" played as much of a role as the merchandise pictured. "If you are chilly, here, take my sweater" goes a lyric featured in the ad; the collusion of the lyric with the images on screen attracts special attention to both. The single reached the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 and number 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Echoes of Michaelson's Old Navy vehicle seem to reverberate in a placement from this summer's advertising crop for the band Leftover Cuties, whose single "Smile Big" provides the perky score for an Olympics-themed spot for the Samsung Galaxy smart phone. In the ad, civilians run a sort of urban electronic version of the Olympic torch relay using a digital decal of the flame that is bumped from phone to phone by a series of runners, cyclists, a hurdler (leaping over cement guard rails, coffee in hand) and finally a man who navigates construction debris a la a triple jumper before "lighting" a giant screen in Times Square. The song underneath this fantasy of action is the sort of ruthlessly optimistic, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" tune with banjos and slap bass and whistling and ain't life grand lyrics that make hipsters want to slit their wrists ironically.

Singer Shirli McAllen's perky, marble-mouthed, vaguely foreign-sounding voice has a Billie Holliday (but happy!) quality that energizes the verse in the first half of the ad; then, as the relay nears the finish and the triple jumper scales the final obstacles to light the flame, McAllen crescendos into the melodically dramatic upward line from the second stanza of the chorus before lilting back down to a happy major-key resolution. The song may not lyrically relate to the product or the actions in the ad, but by musically paralleling the dramatic arc of the segment, the way a film score corresponds emotionally with the action on screen, it plays just as fundamental a role, beyond simple establishment of mood or tone, and therefore proves especially memorable.This is a significant key to the ad's success, because to remember the song is to remember the spot and, ideally, the product at its center. What's more, the ad serves as a reliable preview of the song, so interested consumers who, like me, go to purchase the song in full will not find they had been misled. If you like the thirty seconds of "Smile Big" heard in the Samsung ad, you will like the full two and a half minute version. (I do.)

That isn't quite as true for another dramatic song placement from this summer, although it has hardly hampered download sales, which have dwarfed those resulting from the Samsung placement. Microsoft's powerful, almost menacing ad for the new edition of its web browser, Internet Explorer 9, makes similar use as more an active than ambient ingredient of alt-rocker Alex Clare's single "Too Close," produced by electronic troublemakers Diplo and Switch (with Mike Spencer). Specifically, the ad features the song's violent, dubstep-infused chorus, on which Clare belts the cruelest bit of rhetoric in his lyrical argument over a loud, brutal sawing bass line, like the dubstep "wubwubwub" slowed down, pitched up a couple steps, and set on maximum intensity. In context of the song, it's intentionally jarring, since otherwise the track sounds more aligned with current trends in rock music as it warily embraces electronic sound: guitar and percussion infused with an underlying electronic presence that remains in the background as traditional rock instruments handle the details of the musical landscape. It's effective in the adfor the same reason it's effective within the full track - sudden violence in the midst of far more benign energy (in the ad's case, that of other advertisements shown alongside it, while on the track the verses are the innocuous surroundings). In essence, the Microsoft ad gives away the climactic musical revelation at the heart of "Too Close," at least to the extent that the chorus' effectiveness relies on the element of surprise (although one might find that the anticipation of it to be almost as powerful on subsequent listens). But considering Clare, after topping the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, now sits inside the top twenty on the Hot 100 and may not be finished climbing, I imagine he's much preferred a huge audience that already knows about the twist than not to know the song at all.

The final commercial-inspired music discovery that attracted my interest did so by more enigmatic means, and has incidentally proven a fascinating find even beyond the commercial discovery level. While the main summer ad campaign for AT&T's mobile U-Verse wi-fi television system featured humorously young adolescents lamenting about the hardships of the digital age in the days before you could move your television around wherever you liked, another very different U-Verse advertisement from early this year, targeted toward the Latino market and released in both Spanish and English, continues to air occasionally as well. The clip is set at a young couple's quiet night in growing out of control as everyone seems to have forgotten to tell the hostess that they'd invited their friends over (so rude), causing the conveniently mobile television set, on which some poor Latin chanteuse is attempting to sing a bouncy-sounding Latin jazz tune like Edith Piaf in Cancún. I'd always thought it was interesting that the commercial featured such an ethnically specific musician in an ad that didn't seem obviously targeted toward Latinos (not aware it had initially been released in Spanish), and after many months I finally decided to look up who that jazzy singer was and what she was singing. 

I definitely felt a little sheepish when I learned that it was none other than Gloria "Come on shake your body baby do the Conga" Estefan (but really, do you know what Gloria Estefan looks like? Like REALLY know?), singing "Hotel Nacional," a single from her 2011 album Little Miss Havana. I'd barely heard about the album being released, so I went to iTunes and bought the single, you know, to help her out, since I figured it must have flopped and it's hard being an old female former music star who's still trying. Right? Turns out the song was the first single by a female performer to debut at number one on the Billboard Latin Songs chart and later topped the Dance Club Songs chart as well, and that Estefan has been retired since 2007 and just did Little Miss Havana for shits and giggles. Boy did I feel like an asshole.

If "Smile Big" is blithely predictable and "Too Close" predictably bipolar, "Hotel Nacional" is fascinating in its volatility. It careens recklessly from static, blasting house synths to a clarinetty Latin Big Band house loop and a "We No Speak Americano" bounce, to dramatic, look up to the lights fanfares of chopped, earnest wailing vocals and back again several times over with no apparent concern for the safety of pedestrians. When Estefan ends the song with a winking "Voila!" you can hear the pressure release as the brakes finally lock. With her producer Emilio Estefan, who she's also sleeping with (to be fair, they've been since 1978), Estefan alternates between I-really-hope-this-is-satire (the track opens with the less-than-encouraging words "It's time for hoochie coochie;" this is subsequently rhymed with "Susan Lucci," "Yamaguchi" (as in ice skater Kristi), and "Bertolucci" (as in director Bernardo)) and the air of earnest emotional devotion to the power of nightlife that only exists on a crowded dance floor so abruptly you could get whiplash. The result of this cacophonous mess of good, bad, sincere, cavalier, clever, and ridiculous is one of the most bewilderingly wonderful tracks I've encountered in quite a while. I can't quite figure it out and I can't quite stop playing it. (Also, the Rocky Horror Picture Show-inspired, Susan Lucci cameo-featuring music video is deliriously funny and caused me to actually fall out of a chair.)

So yes, television commercials are pretty much terrible in so, so many ways; tv ads inflicted "We Are Young" on us, and the Today Show did pump energy and cash into the dreadful Owl City/Carly Rae Jepsen atrocity "Good Time" just as the Super Bowl did for Flo Rida's comparably loathsome "Good Feeling;" and Internet Explorer really does suck serious rocks, and absolutely nobody wants to watch Animal Practice, and Jeff Probst is just gross. But, once in a while, it is possible to discover something worthwhile buried beneath all the muck in the unlikeliest of places - even television commercials. If I can emerge from Olympics withdrawal with three uniquely interesting new songs for my library that I would never have encountered otherwise, well, it almost feels like I've won a medal myself. (Not silver, though...gross.)

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