Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Listen to the Lyrics

This morning as I rocked out to Joe Cocker and his lovely backup singers doing "Feelin' Alright" I was reminded of a dastardly (or at least irresponsible) practice. I'm talking about advertising companies destroying the meaning of songs by removing them from their contexts, placing them all over television and radio, and using them to sell jeans and computers and plasma TVs.

Ok I know song lyrics aren't exactly literary, but there are some damn good lyric writers out there. And when you pair good lyrics with soulful tunes, you get that combination of head and heart that makes just about everyone in their right mind like music. That said, I find myself infuriated by the commercial use of songs to advertise products and ideals that have no relevance to the meaning of the song.

"Feelin' Alright" -- A Chicago area medical group created a series of radio ads that use their own recording of the song. They took out the "You're" which comes before the "feelin' alright" and they just sing "feelin' alright." I guess they didn't want to go as far as changing it to "I'm feelin' alright." The commercial talks about how the great medical care enhances patients' "wellness." The song is actually about feeling crappy. A guy is sitting at home thinking about missed opportunities in his love live, while his former lover lives it up. Hence, "You're feelin' alright -- I'm not feelin' too good myself."

Leave Out the Politics

By far the most infuriating abuse of songs happens when war-protest, anti-government, or any other type of song that takes up a 1960s kind of cause is used to suggest patriotism and Americana! This flows over onto radio stations actually playing the songs thinking they're patriotic. At a Fourth of July picnic I overheard a country-ish station play both "Fortunate Son" and "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World."

"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival -- This song is a war protest song. The lyrics "Some folks are born made to wave the flag -- Oooh that red white and blue..." are most often taken out of context, and dubbed over an image of the American flag. One commercial from a few years ago shows teens in GAP jeans jumping out from behind an American flag and rocking out to Creedence. How is it that such blatantly ironic lyrics don't set off anyone's political correctness alarms? Not that I'm into political correctness, I just don't believe that these advertisers would use the kinds of songs they use if they sat down and listened to them all the way through. I highly doubt that GAP Jeans was trying to protest anything.

"Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young -- This is just an "anti-shitty-things-happening-in-America" song. Neil (my friends and I call him by his first name as we've had a big crush on him for awhile) straddles the line between folk and rock, and many of his songs are not exactly advertising friendly. He is a "causes" guy. That's why we love him. I really can't remember what the commercial was where I heard this song, but I know they just used the title lyrics, which actually sound very optimistic if you take them out of context. "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" could suggest, "Keep your chin up, roll with the punches, 'cause we live in a great free land." But that is not at all what it's about. This song has everything from a girl putting her newborn baby in a garbage can to a cry for help for homeless people to, of course, a war protest. Advertisers, back off! I don't think there's any way you can save this one and turn it around to represent happy suburbanites getting a free coffee or something.

The Exception

Finally, there is the less abusive brand of rock music in advertising that doesn't piss me off so much, but it still irks me because it's effective and makes me want to buy crap. Songs that are about nonsense rock subjects like hot chicks or dresing up to go out, etc (typical tasteless rock fodder) are good for commercials, because they aim at the right age bracket -- the newly successful baby boomers. Another advantage of using radio-friendly rock music is the advertisers have a huge wealth of songs to draw on that already have built in taglines. The monkeys don't even need to think up their own slogans!

These guys could sell me anything.

Boston's "Peace of Mind" says it all for the indestructible computer, AC/DC's "Back in Black" gracefully touts the simplicity and sex appeal of the black Razor phone (it made me buy one -- crap!), and the Cars' "Just What I Needed" sums up what the fat guy on the couch in the Circuit City commercial really does need - a plasma TV - if he wishes to keep his current body type. The jury is still out on whether I can tolerate Electric Light Orchestra's "Hold On Tight To Your Dream" in a Honda commercial. I mean, they sing in French in that song! Too fancy for advertising.

Like any kind of art that was not originally intended to be commercial, I don't think angry, artsy, or politically charged rock lyrics should be taken out of context and used to sell things. As for the light-hearted songs that sell phones and cars, well, I guess they make the commercial breaks seem shorter.


  1. One that has always bothered me is Royal Caribbean using the Iggy Pop song "Lust for Life". In the commercial they cut the lyrics about liquor and drugs. Honestly, what is a cruise without chemical enhancement?

  2. Haha! And I just remembered the 1980s "L'eggs" commercials. But ZZ Top selling pantyhose is appropriate in some ways...since almost all they ever sing about is clothing and accessories(Cheap Sunglasses, Sharp Dressed Man), women's body parts (Legs), and things that can be done with women's body parts (Pearl Necklace).

  3. "Fortunate Son" is probably the most abused song in this respect. John (You can have Neil, I'll take John) needs to write a protest song protesting the use of songs in commercials. "legs" is about the only one that works! I think the one that offended me most for some reason was the use of a Ramones song for a cell phone commercial...I can't remember which company, but I think it was for one of those cheapy 'pay as you go' phones angled toward teenagers. Those kids weren't even alive when that song was recorded! Um...neither was I...but that isn't the point!


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