It’s always a startling experience, but I can’t hear more than a few notes of the Nelly Furtado song “Promiscuous Girl” before I am instantly whisked into a hospital bed, with whatever clothes I’m wearing suddenly replaced by a gown and thin blanket. It’s July 4, 2006. My stomach hurts, I’m high on morphine and I simply can’t get Nelly Furtado’s synthesized voice out of my head. I had listened to her album for the first time the night before. And despite her seductive lyrics and cadenced beats, I still, 19 months later, viscerally associate her song with my emergency appendectomy.
Songs have a fantastic capability of serving as little time capsules full of context and emotion. It’s not a new idea; the 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange” featured a character, Alex DeLarge, who was driven to ecstasy and even suicide after hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But it’s a wonderful feeling for me to experience the nostalgia and raw sentiment of music and escape to my past, from the roller-skating birthday parties listening to “A Whole New World,” to my awkward eighth-grade dances with Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue.”
That’s why recently I’ve been upset when listening to new music. Instead of imagining road trips, first dates, and graduation parties, I’m recalling commercials. Lots and lots of commercials.
The confluence of YouTube, iTunes and, well, Grey’s Anatomy has contributed to a new method of marketing music — advertisers purposefully speculate on songs and anticipate their popularity. In other words, brands want their commercials to be your first exposure to a particular song that you end up downloading. It’s a significant departure from advertising strategies in the past.
In the early years of television advertising, many companies developed jingles to associate memorable tunes with forgettable products: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” Fred Flintstone famously sang to Barney after a 1970 episode of their primetime show. But while some jingles might have been catchy, they were never also released as singles. Even Billboard readers had minimum standards.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, many companies substituted the Flintstones with actual pop stars, transforming commercials into music videos. Brands like Pepsi used the talents of Ray Charles, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears in “cool” updates of old tunes: The Spice Girls’ 1997 song “Move Over,” for example, launched Pepsi’s “Generation Next” campaign. I sadly admit that my first time hearing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was in a United Airlines commercial. I still think of the airline when the song is performed by the YSO.
That kind of virginal association, though, has now become critical for advertisers. And what’s distinctive about modern commercials is that advertising firms, not talent scouts, are the agents promoting new musicians, anticipating their success, and cashing in on the results. Take, for example, a recent advertisement shown by Apple during last year’s World Series. In September 2007, a British 18-year-old named Nick Haley made a homemade commercial for the iPod Touch featuring “Music Is My Hot Hot Sex,” a song by an obscure Brazilian band named Cansei de Ser Sexy. Weeks after Haley posted the commercial on YouTube, executives from Apple’s advertising firm contacted him, flew him to Cupertino and produced a professional commercial almost identical to Haley’s original. While Cansei de Ser Sexy was virtually unknown in the United States before the commercial, their song quickly shot up to No. 63 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart afterwards.
Many unfamiliar artists, from Feist to Yael Naim, have profited as much as their corporate underwriters after their songs first appeared in commercials. Other groups, such as Phantom Planet or the British band Psapp, caught their breaks when their songs were featured in shows like The OC and Grey’s Anatomy. And while the Internet has undermined the power of record labels, it has fueled this new form of viral marketing: Commercials appear on YouTube immediately after they are broadcast; artists’ MySpace pages allow prospective fans to listen to their other songs; and the Grey’s Anatomy Web site even has playlists from each episode, complete with links to download songs directly from iTunes.
This recent development might be praised for allowing artists to express themselves without needing to sign exploitative record contracts. But it also represents the commodification of culture to the point where even songs produced by no-name artists on independent labels are identified more with the product they’re used to promote than the messages of the songs themselves. I hate to defend record labels, but at least when I listened to Universal Music Group-sponsored Nelly Furtado I had nothing to identify her songs with but my own experiences. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible for me to whistle “Music Is My Hot Hot Sex” without thinking of myself as a walking iPod commercial.
Indeed, it would be sad if commercial and television advertisers managed to reduce culture to mere consumption. We should not have to trade deeply personal memories for corporate bottom lines. When commercials are what introduce us to new songs — instead of friends, events or even appendectomies — the emotional resonance of music is lost.
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.