Clash song in Jaguar ad

The Boston Globe’s new weekend Ideas section has just launched — edited by the fab former editor of Lingua Franca, Alexander Star. It has a simply superb piece by Rob Walker on how Jaguar is using the Clash’s “London Calling” in a new car ad. Obviously, we all know corporations use supposedly “subversive” old-school rock to sell stuff. But Walker makes a intriguing new point, and it’s something I’ve always suspected about pop music: Most people just don’t listen to the lyrics:

The answer is not that advertising ”creatives” aren’t sharp enough to know what these songs are really about. One explanation favored by cultural critics is that advertisers simply want to borrow a little of the rebellious feeling that many of these songs convey, and persuade their audience that buying, say, a luxury car is an attractively nonconformist act. It’s also possible that advertisers spike their pitches with ”alternative” references because it makes them feel hip. But probably it boils down to the simple fact that commercial-makers are clever enough to know that a song’s ”real” meaning doesn’t actually matter. Where you or I might hear a counterculture anthem, there is also a collection of sounds and lyrical bites ready to be stripped for parts. From an ad-maker’s point of view, even the most edgy rock ‘n’ roll is just so much musical wallpaper.

It’s kind of like TV, in a way. The aesthetics of the form overpower the content. Every time I’ve been on a TV debate, friends will email me or call or IM to say they saw it. “You looked great!”, they’ll say (thankfully). Terrific, I’ll reply; but what did you think of the debate? “Oh, I can’t remember what anyone was saying,” they’ll reply. “But you guys all looked great!”

Music’s the same way. If the groove kicks ass, nobody really pays much attention to what the hell they’re singing, and advertisers know this. That might be why folk music is the real last vestige of serious lyrics; the instrumentation is more so much more sparse it doesn’t distract from the words.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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