Sunday, 21 February 2010

Commercial music

I have a couple of "side interests" that wax and wane in my life, with indeterminate frequency. They range from "pretty ordinary" to "somewhat exotic", from the things that could be mentioned in a friendly chat, to things that would be seen as pretty bizarre, even if there's nothing wrong with them. One such interests is in adverts. It's a somewhat contradictory interest, though: I have never studied advertising, I watch almost no TV at all, read few magazines and almost never listen to the radio. My interest, however, stems mostly from childhood memories, when the TV and the radio were much more present in my life. Once in a while I start hunting for old adverts and jingles that spark a wisp of nostalgia in me, and quickly my interest broadens towards advertising in general.

Recently, I reached a pretty radical paradigm shift, compared to the thoughts I had as a teenager. I have no shame in recognising advertising as an art, though I admit that's a dangerous statement. Dangerous because it's bound to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Many people think advertising is the beating heart of the consumerist capitalism, that promotes poverty and the destruction of the planet and so on and on. Others think that it's downright sacrilegious to think of an advert, something designed to SELL, as a work of art. Both are empty arguments. The former, because I don't necessarily become a proponent of the evils of capitalism by cherishing one of its elements (and people who think so should start looking beyond the surface of things); and the latter deserves some more discussion.

Let's imagine an advertising jingle, since the main focus of this blog is music. A jingle is commissioned by a company in order to make money, in this case, by selling a product. Some people feel disgusted by that. I say: do you know all those works by so called "classical" composers, which today are performed by expensive orchestras, played in concert halls and recorded by fancy record labels with big names? Those works were also commissioned by rich and noble people, and their goal was also to make money. The only difference, here, is that those composers were not selling anything other than their own talent. But you see, the fact that those works were made for money does not mean that those works can't be works of art. Money and art are not mutually exclusive, unlike many people think. The more "romantic" music enthusiasts think that music must be made exclusively with passion and inspiration, and money should be left aside. That's NOT how the business works; and when I mean "business", I mean, yes, all those artists that are heard and loved for decades, NOT just the media fads.

Also, a jingle is not a product put out in a matter of seconds. Writing a good jingle takes a great deal of talent, of sensitivity, of vision and great skills. Think about it: a regular song can use 3 or 4 minutes and repeated listens to sink into your mind. A jingle has half a minute to do much more than that! A jingle needs to grab you right from the very first seconds, and keep the message in your mind for the rest of the day at least. Sounds easy?

Of course there are many low quality jingles and adverts, that try to get by solely on repetition and exaggeration. But there are adverts that leave a strong impression for years afterwards. There are things that I remember clearly and cherish even after 15 years! Does that mean I am a brainless sheep, follower of mass media? Or does it mean that there are incredibly intelligent, talented people working in that medium? I'm just stating facts here, but there are renowned artists that have worked in adverts. Speaking of Brazil alone, film-maker Fernando Meirelles, director of City of God (one of my favourite films), The Constant Gardener and Blindness, has directed TV adverts. Musicians and famous and respected as Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto have composed and performed jingles.

You'll say that they have "sold out". Sold out for what? Meirelles's feature films also give him money; Jobim and Gilberto's songs also gave them money. Besides, they were not openly and blandly selling off their image for a product; they were merely being professional artists. We may notice a difference there: it may be extremely annoying when a famous celebrity accepts to sell his image, but what's the matter if the artist truly puts his heart and soul into his work, even if it's just to sell something? In that vein, I remind you that Tom Waits, of all people, has done voiceover work for an advert; in fact, an advert for Purina dog chow (which you can watch HERE). Oh, Waits fans will want to kill me for that one, but I say, what's the matter? Waits does a brilliant job, in an entirely professional way. If he has decided to never do that kind of stuff again, it's for his own principles; doesn't mean the WHOLE act is rotten. Need more examples? What about Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart offering their music and voice for Luden's Cough Drops? Watch HERE. Amazing work!

Notice, though, that I'm not saying that all artists should be forced to accept their songs used in commercials, or anything; this is a business that requires respect. If someone doesn't want his work or image associated with advertisement (like Tom Waits), he has to be respected. What I am defending, though, is the vision of advertisement as a form of art. And, as with every form of art, you gotta learn to appreciate it.


  1. I guess you've got a point there. The thing is that most jingles do nothing but annoy me, especially radio jingles. Maybe there are better jingles where you live. :-) Sometimes I like a tune in a TV commercial pretty much, but most of the time these tunes turn out to be part of existing songs by random artists. So they weren't specifically written for the TV commercial they're heard in. I think it's happened two or three times that I liked a tune specifically written for an advert.

    Some TV commercials I could ALMOST consider as art... But something that's connected to a product and has the sole purpose (or at least main purpose) of selling that product can never fully be art, in my opinion. That's because art needs to be independent to be able to communicate absolutely freely, without any kind of frameworks - that's what creativity is all about. Art = communication (at least that's how I feel about it). The TV commercials that I see are pseudo-artistic at best. It's not that adverts can't be very creative, but creativity is a broad concept, and creativity isn't per definition the same as pure art. If certain adverts would be disconnected to the product they're trying to sell, and if they'd be developed some more, they actually could be art.

  2. First, I'd like to mention that I arrived at your blog via your inane blathering on the forums of xckd. Next I'd like to respond authentically to your post here, because it's interesting.

    Let's complicate your idea. First, we don't merely have a "jingle" in one sense. We have a "jingle" as art composed by someone who needs money to survive, and does so in a job they may or may not agree with, but still following something along the lines of an artistic passion (we hope). Next, we have an advertising agent, who actually uses the "jingle" as an aspect of the delivery mechanism by which the consumer is introduced to the product.
    In this unpacking, you can see that the musician has a goal which is placed upon him by his occupation. Does this fact exclude the "jingle" from art? Necessarily, I doubt it.

    Above is proposed Art as communication. Let's temporarily adopt this notion of art. Communication requires three elements to work. The sender, the receiver, and the message. Under the understanding of art, if the "jingle" successfully communicates the intended message, then it is indeed art. However, not all communication is artistic in nature, thus our notion of art must be incomplete.

    What is missing? Well, you included several artists who delved in advertising. If these artists authentically created art within the project of producing an advertisement, there must have been something which exceeded the mere nature of being an advertisement (I'd like to point out here that to sell out would be to simple formulate an advertisement without the excess.).

    There must then, be something beyond the "mere message" (in the case of an advertisement the product) which is in artistic advertisements. This excess is whatever makes any art classifiable as "art." A possible answer: Art communicates something real or true, which enriches the life of the individual who experiences that. Your enrichment could merely be the enjoyment of the jingle.

    We could add to it the importance of "self-expression" which may be art. I would propose it's impossible to avoid self-expression within any sort of project, but I digress. Self-expression is not excluded necessarily by faithfulness to the "mere message."

    Thus: I would conclude that advertisements have within them the possibility of artistic expression.