It should be clear to readers of this blog that music is extremely important to me — what with the fact that a whole two previous posts were tagged as having to do with music and they both consist entirely of context-free YouTube clips — and so nothing bothers me more than seeing it disrespected.
Of course, being human beings (and, more to the point, being Americans), disrespecting something is the first thing we do when money is involved, and compromising artistic integrity is a close second. Hence the use — or misuse, or abuse — of excellent songs in commercials that seem to be suspiciously engineered to retroactively drain respectability from anyone who ever enjoyed the songs therein.
Here are ten of the worst offenders that come to mind. Please feel free to leave more in the comments, so that I can become even more upset, and have another reason to stomp loudly in small circles around my house.
1) “Boom Boom,” John Lee Hooker, 1962. Ruined by Chili’s.
I won’t pretend to know what “Boom Boom” is about, if, of course, it’s about anything. But I will absolutely guarantee that it’s not about the mediocre defrosted dinner platters they serve at Chili’s for the scarily inexpensive price of $20 for two. To say that John Lee Hooker helped shape rock and roll is to sell him short. To say that John Lee Hooker was a blues guitar god is closer to the truth, but still not enough. “Boom Boom” has a lot of Hooker’s great musicianship on display, so much so that it’s really just an excuse to jam, but that doesn’t stop Chili’s from appropriating his signature “a-haw haw haw haw” to make it sound less like he’s lusting after the irresistible sexiness of a woman strutting past him in the bar and more like he’s craving some artless slab of heat-lamp meat. Cue inappropriately excitable solo, I guess.
2) “Bargain,” The Who, 1971. Ruined by Nissan.
I couldn’t find a video for this one, but you can reconstruct it in your mind: a 2000 Nissan Pathfinder drives through puddles and around a mountain while a great but irrelevant song plays behind it. Absolutely worth the money, Nissan, as you mean to assure us, I guess, that the sticker price of your forgettable SUV is “a bargain.” And not just any bargain, but the best bargain I’ve ever had! Well, I have no idea how much this particular gas guzzler sold for so I’m not sure it was cheap, but what they did to this song sure was. Pete Townshend has probably single-handedly written a larger number of truly brilliant spiritual rock songs than any other human being on the planet, and that’s due in part to the fact that he knows how to write them without tipping anyone off that they’re spiritual. That includes a huge number of his most popular songs, including “Baba O’Riley,” “Join Together,” “The Seeker,” and, yes, “Bargain.” What, you thought it was about love? Well, it was. It was about God’s love. And now it’s about the love of the warm engine of a sports utility vehicle. Looks like you lost that enlightenment before you ever knew you had it.
3) “Use Me,” Bill Withers, 1972. Ruined by Pringles.
This is actually the usage that inspired this article, as “Use Me” pleasantly surprised me on my iPod and I started wishing I could hear this song again without imagining a sentient pipe of Pringles singing it to me. Was this one really worth co-opting to advertise your pressed potato dust, guys? It’s a song sung by a guy who enjoys fucking his girlfriend so much that he doesn’t really care that she’s sapping the life out of him. Its porno thump adds an erotic emphasis to a tragic situation, and it’s eminently grooveable. So why did we need to stage a pool party where Mr. Pringles is the guest of honor, serenading his fans as they reach into his greasy hole for another helping? Bill Withers was an accomplished lyricist and a truly blessed musician. He crafted pop songs that revealed themselves layer by layer, and that easily hold up through the best that any subsequent generation has to offer. He married complex but engaging arrangements to unforgettable lyrical hooks, and tapped into emotions so simple that only the truly gifted songwriters could serviceably explore them. Also, a Pringles can is singing it in a pool. Because of course it fucking is.
4) “Revolution,” The Beatles, 1968. Ruined by Nike.
Okay, so “Use Me” might have been the first example of a great song ruined by commercial usage to come to mind for me, but for nearly everybody else who was alive to see it, this would be the headliner. I was too young to really understand The Beatles when this happened, and even I remember feeling dirty having watched it. “Revolution” is nowhere near the best that music’s most important band had to offer, but it was a pretty clear and concise statement on the part of John Lennon, a snarky and already fed-up “fuck you” to the still-burgeoning Woodstock generation. You want a revolution? Start one. Don’t talk about it, don’t fuck around, don’t sit in your mother’s basement all day smoking up. Get off your ass — or I guess he’d say arse — and do something. “Do something like buy some shoes?” Nike asked. Lennon, being long dead, hesitated to reply and that was confirmation enough for them. Yes, “Revolution” stands in stark contrast to his later love-in anthems “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine,” so I can understand that some listeners might come away from Lennon’s output with a muddled view of what the man actually wanted. Was he peacemaker or revolutionary? You’ll get a different answer depending upon which decade of his music you consult, but I think it’s safe to conclude that “shoe salesman” was never on his list.
5) “Like a Rock,” Bob Seger, 1986. Ruined by Chevrolet.
I could fill this article easily with automobile commercials alone, but there’s probably no more deserving representation than what Chevy did to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” The song has been the theme song for Chevy’s truck commercials for more than a decade, and the title has become their slogan. In other words, this isn’t just the irrelevant score to some rolling footage…this is theirs now, so much so that you’re far more likely to encounter it on television than you are the radio. Which is a shame, because “Like a Rock” is actually a pretty great song, which I’m embarrassed to say because it’s difficult to disassociate it from its marketing purposes. Bob Seger built an entire career out of these nostalgic, looking-backward songs, including “Against the Wind,” “Night Moves,” “Still the Same,” and even the maddeningly shitty “Old Time Rock and Roll.” And they all seem to get used (and overused) in television shows, films, commercials, and anything else that seeks to tap into our nostalgic impulses for better days long gone. Bob Seger was making songs that felt old fashioned even when they were new. The problem was that he was good at it, and you can’t be good at anything for long without somebody stepping in for a cut. Bob Seger’s songs feel like quaint punchlines now, when they were once evocative of real memories, real feelings, and real emotion. Perhaps they should have been confined to classic rock radio, where they really belonged.
6) “I Melt With You,” Modern English, 1982. Ruined by Hershey’s.
This one might be a bit of a cheat as I don’t think I can call “I Melt With You” a great song and keep a straight face, but it’s certainly some sturdy, serviceable pop, and it has its charm and its appeal. It’s effortlessly fluffy and utterly hollow, but its “to hell with everything, we’ve got each other and we can do anything” moral is wish-fulfillment on a pretty universal scale, and I mean that as a compliment. Enter Hershey’s, who crafts the creepiest damn characters since Duracell’s Putterman family and asks these dripping humanoid chocolate monstrosities to sing “I Melt With You” as though that might be something even remotely pleasant for a creature made of candy to consider. Embedded above is the holiday variation of this commercial, with overdubbed sleighbells, in which the family is singing it together as a carol, just in case there was anyone out there who wasn’t totally convinced already that Hershey didn’t give a fuck what things it was cramming together in order to sell chocolate bars.
7) “Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971. Ruined by Pepsi.
The Rolling Stones are no strangers to having their songs reappropriated for marketing purposes, what with Microsoft Windows all too happy to suggest that their operating system is capable of making a dead man cum, but they’ve actually been pretty lucky overall. If I were making a list of good uses of great songs in commercials, for instance, I’d absolutely have to include Apple’s “She’s a Rainbow” ads, showcasing the amount of colors in which you could buy their products. It’s every bit as shallow in theory as anything else on this list, but in practice it was the perfect marriage of visual concept and aural emphasis. It was short, it was cute, it was bubbly, and it was fun. It was also, obviously, memorable. Unfortunately, so is this Pepsi commercial, in which a mosquito drinks some flat pop off a filthy counter and immediately starts singing about giving enthusiastic oral sex to a slutty black chick. “Wait,” says a voice from 1990-something. “Were we supposed to listen to these songs before or after we bought the rights to them?” But there is no reply, and he will never know.
8) “Lust For Life,” Iggy Pop, 1977. Ruined by Royal Caribbean.
Speaking of not listening to these songs, does Royal Caribbean really want people to associate it with “liquor and drugs” as a lifestyle choice? The commercial emphasizes the enormous variety of experiences you can have aboard their luxury liners, which is probably not something that will benefit passengers who spend the entire trip on the floor of their cabin with needles in their arms. In all seriousness, why would any company in their right mind, particularly one advertising family vacations, want to align themselves professionally with an overt paean to heroin addiction? The image of Iggy Pop shuffling shirtlessly across the shuffleboard deck and gyrating all up on grandma is likely to make people give up on cruises as vacation options altogether. Which, hey, isn’t actually such a bad thing. Gyrate on, Iggy Pop. Gyrate on.
9) “Gimme Some Money,” Spinal Tap, 1984. Ruined by American Express.
To this day I’m not sure that American Express is aware that this isn’t a real song. Or maybe I should say that Spinal Tap isn’t a real band. It’s possible that somebody in their marketing department thought that this could work as a knowing nod to the comedy-savvy consumers in the audience (who also, hopefully, needed credit cards with terrifying terms and conditions), but even if I was supremely generous and willing to grant that, what point does this make? “Gimme Some Money” is, like all of the songs in that film, a genre pastiche at best. It’s not particularly funny on its own…it was meant to be representative of a type of music that a type of band was writing in a particular cultural climate. It’s not even representative of the present-day band in the film…so what is it doing here? I keep thinking about the great featurette Mark Mothersbaugh provided for The Life Aquatic. He talks about how nice it is — or, sadly, was — working with Wes Anderson, because the score was always an organic part of the creative process and not something slapped on after the fact. He lamented the fact that there is computer software available to film makers that allows them to input whatever situations they like (his example was “he’s putting on a red bow-tie”) and have it generate a list of pop songs with similar things happening in their lyrics, so that nobody involved in the production would have to give the soundtrack much thought at all. I think that’s what happened here. The song has “money” in the title and “money” in the lyrics, and AmEx had their mind on that money and that money on their mind. Dog.
10) “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye, 1968. Ruined by The California Raisin Advisory Board.
Yes, I know Marvin Gaye didn’t write this one, but it’s his version most of us remember. Or, it would be, if it weren’t for the claymation racial caricatures that caused this song to become forever associated with raisins. As much as I claimed “Like a Rock” was actually a good song stripped of its reputation by a truck commercial, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a certified masterpiece. It’s a disarming dirge about a man who finds out that he’s been cuckolded, but he doesn’t even find this out first-hand: he hears it from everybody else first. His life has come crashing down, and he was the last to know. How long could this have continued? How long has he been living a lie? And what does he do now? The singer seems to be fixated on the fact that he wasn’t told first-hand, and he pretends to be getting upset about that, but that’s a psychological sleight of hand that prevents him from having to address the core truth: he doesn’t have her anymore. It’s a great song and one of the true classics of popular music, so of course we had to put it in the mouths of these purple Al Jolson heads as they perform their little minstrel show. The obvious blackface caricatures that were the California Raisins make this reappropriation an only slightly less racist marketing move than if the Board had additionally adopted the slogan “Raisins! Like watermelon seeds you can eat!” Some might say that Marvin Gaye’s greatest misfortune was when he was murdered in cold blood by his own father. But we know better, dear reader. Yes, we do.
Oh, and also, here’s an 11th and I don’t care. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” It’s a genuinely brilliant song. Stop putting it in every fucking commercial that can’t come up with its own music. THANKS.