The Muppets and Metallica – Television Commercials and The Search for Meaning

It is a curious twist when advertisers take a well-known song and reset it as the soundtrack to a television commercial. Whether it’s the Jefferson Airplane’s “(Don’t You Want) Somebody To Love” being used by Coca Cola, Dave Dobbyn’s “I Love You Like I Should” heralding the Holden Astra, “Maybe Tomorrow” by Golden Horse promoting the Inter-Island Ferries or Microsoft using Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” we are all having our songs re-contextualised and our memories reprogrammed.

Those of us involved in writing songs are aware that the “hot spots” or “hooks” which are contained in a good lyric are pure gold for listeners. That gold is being spun into even more treasure for advertisers. While the songs get thrashed night after night on prime time television there is one good outcome – the songwriters, whose songs are often born from troubled experiences or intense responses to life’s observations, are collecting fees for the use of their intellectual property.

Not all songs are intense of course – The Muppets “Ma Nah Ma Nah “used for the Can Teen promotion or “ Living Next Door To Alice” used by Greg’s Coffee hardly caused a ripple on the collective consciousness when they were first released.

When I first heard Evermore’s “The Light Surrounding You” last summer I was driving back to the Bay – flying out of the Athenree Gorge and into a gold drenched sunset arching over the east coast oceans. The memory went in deep. Six months later the song has been kidnapped by TV One and my strongest image now is of TV presenter Paul Henry gazing skyward with a torch. “ ’Cause I see the light surrounding you, Don’t be afraid of what you’re turning into” (What’s that all about?).

The relationship between hearing lyrics and constructing meaning is always been stretched and redefined. It’s part of the fun of playing with sound and vision. Analysts of popular song may rate authenticity and locality when pulling songs apart. The reality is that we sit watching television and our favourite songs have been re -contextualised, re-located for us. Even the great classical canon. Kapow! Pal Dog Food is now served to the sound of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony.

My guess is that it won’t take too long before Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (this week’s number one song on the charts) is recast as an ad for a roofing system and Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” will grace an All Blacks promotion.

Researching this article led me on a trail further into this week’s Top 40 – a journey which was littered with B grade songs and indifferent lyrics. If you ever doubted that the pop charts are the domain of our Bebo infected offspring check out the banal lyrics to most of the current top songs. Most are about relationship break-ups and most find their way on to the chart because of the power of their accompanying music videos. Pink’s lyrically lame “Leave Me Alone (I’m Lonely)” is a case in point – puerile lyrics but a stunning live video.

Pink is interesting because regardless of her current light weight hit we know she is politicised. She is in the music game for more than just making money. And we know that many artists start out with the intention of using their music to raise our consciousness.

It is in this spirit that this coming Saturday (07.07.07) sees the staging of the planet wide “Live Earth” Concert when bands in seven countries will perform to mark the start of a multi-year campaign to move individuals, corporations and governments to take action on climate change.

Lenny Kravitz, The Beastie Boys, The Foo Fighters, The Red Hot Chillis and Metallica are among a host of international artists who were inspired by the success of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” to lay the planet’s environmental ills out for the powerful to see and take action on.

In a Live Earth press release Lars Urlich of Metallica states with some urgency: “I love my sons. I want them to “inherit the earth” for real! We keep waiting for the generations to solve the problems; to invent cleaner technology, to pay the costs. I want the buck to stop here right now”.

Let’s hope the lawmakers and government leaders can hear his clarion warning in amongst the commercial chatter which pervades our media and stops the important messages getting through.

Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 05 July 2007

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