Your song? It’s just a jingle in waiting

Smiths fans may have been appalled at the use of one of the band’s songs in a John Lewis ad, but the Pavlovian power of pop makes it ripe for exploitation

As a small child I remember jigging around the playground singing “If you lii-iike a loo–oot of choco­late on your biscuit … join our Club”. Sad really. I’m not sure I realised that I’d turned myself into a mobile, short-wearing form of outdoor media. I think I just liked the tune. If an uneasiness persists around the use of music in marketing maybe this is one of the reasons why.

Orwell once wrote that advertising was merely the “rattling of the stick in the bucket”. He meant the metaphor broadly, but it contains another truth: our response to sound is Pavlovian. It can reach us despite ourselves. It gets under the intellectual radar and goes straight for the heart.

Melody trumps meaning. Pop music is testament to this fact. Everyone has had the experience of a song that captures the mood of a particular time: a break-up, for instance. And yet these songs, which seem to articulate our feelings, almost better than we can, aren’t about us at all. Ever found yourself walking through an empty house with tears in your eyes? Me neither, but I know what Knowing Me Knowing You is about. I know the feeling (aha). We identify with the sentiment, our egos fill in the gaps.

The vagueness that makes pop songs broadly applicable, also make them vulnerable to exploitation. The use of a folked-up version of Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want for John Lewis’s most recent (rather excellent) Christmas ad caused much angry quiff-wagging amongst disgruntled Smiths fans. “Please, please is our hymn about long and unrequited love, no way on earth should it be used to sell household goods,” wrote one. But here we see the illusion at work; for all we really know Morrissey could have been singing about a Dualit toaster.

To add insult to injury, John Lewis weren’t slightly bothered by the backlash. It turns out that Smiths fans were exactly the demographic they were looking for. Ironically those spotty teenagers who looked to Morrissey to express their sense of youthful alienation have all turned into the kind of 45 year-olds who want to fill their kitchens with farmhouse-style chairs. As each generation seizes power, its anthems become those of the establishment. It happened to the baby-boomers,  now it’s happening to you.

With the collapse of record sales the music industry is looking to advertising to keep the good times rolling. You may even have noticed shifty A&R types hanging around your agency, just dying to tell you that Lemmy is really excited about your script. The fashionable line is that selling a lager isn’t any different from selling a piece of plastic with a recording scratched on to it. But to admit that means recognising another more unpalatable truth: that every song you ever loved was really just a jingle.

Gordon Comstock’ blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com

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