You know you're getting older when the rules of life change and you don't understand why they're changing.
My understanding of the progression of musical success was as follows: First, the artist toils in the underground scene for years, playing the beer halls of Hamburg, Germany, for the love of the craft - and perhaps a few paltry Deutsche Marks from the take at the door. Paying your dues, as it is commonly known. Then said artist gets big break - being in he right place at the right time, or perhaps parlaying past relationships with other successful singers and song writers. Maybe a hotshot producer gives them a chance to record a song or two, which by happenstance strikes a chord with the local community and spreads like wildfire.
Then the artist digs deep down into their soul and produces an album or two of exceptional quality, and their reputation skyrockets. They buy their own jet and go on a 79-city worldwide tour of massive stadiums and indoor sports arenas. Then comes the double live album followed by the overly pretentious, themed double studio album. Then they start to run out of ideas and turn ever increasingly to drugs and alcohol to cope with their ebbing popularity.
Then, and only then, their music begins to appear in commercials; the ubiquitous sell-out once either (a) the money starts to disappear, or (b) it's time to cash in, because everyone else is.
See: Guns N' Roses making "Welcome to the Jungle" available to anyone who wants it. Clapton with his remake of J.J. Cale's "After Midnight" for Michelob. The Stones and their Budweiser ads. B.B. King's stint as spokesperson for some diabetes tester. Wilco lending their soft, semi-introspective, post-college sound to help sell VW's to 20-somethings. Hip Hop artists selling cologne and sweatpants. The list could be increased tenfold and more, to musicians of all genres and levels of success. And yeah, not everyone fits the little picture painted in the previous stanza, but you get the point:
Genuine success based on merit will precede commercial endorsements. That is, until recently.
I'll admit, I had never heard of the Canadian artist named Leslie Feist until her video appeared on those video iPod commercials, despite that fact that she had been in the underground music scene for the better part of the last decade or so. I have plenty of company in this regard, for it seems as if her commercial endorsement was the springboard to Feist-mania worldwide. Though can it really be called an endorsement? I mean, if the artist is largely unknown, then who's endorsing whom?
Anyhow, the video as it appeared in the commercial was somehow mesmerizing in its simplicity, and I found myself transfixed every time it came on. There was something about her sexy blue dress, slightly scratchy temptress voice and deliberate, girlish dance moves that proved very appealing. I couldn't quite make out what she was singing about - One, Two, Three, Four, then something about teenage hopes arriving at my door. Whatever it was, it worked, and it hooked me. I found myself searching for the video online, without knowing the name of the artist or the song.
The search illuminated that there were countless others exactly like me, who were basically asking "Who was that? I need to know, for some reason. Is the video up on YouTube yet?" This is how fame is acquired in the Age of Aquarius.
But the unthinkably hip marketing folks at Apple weren't done with Feist. With the launch of the impossibly thin MacBook Air, Apple has again essentially created instant success for an aspiring artist. Though it's rumored that Steve Jobs himself picked the song that launched a notebook computer as well as a career, I imagine that the person responsible for finding Feist was called into the office of Phil Schiller, director of Marketing for Apple. The conversation perhaps went something like this:
"Hi Mr. Schiller, you wanted to see me?"
"Yes, please sit down. As you know, we're about to launch out new ad series for the MacBook Air. Since those ads with Feist were so helpful in selling a thrillion video iPods to all the young hipsters with disposable income, we were hoping you could pick out another Feist song for our new campaign."
"Well sir, if we picked out another Feist song, it might seem as if we are resting on our laurels, and thus damage our reputation as aggressive marketing geniuses who are always challenging the paradigm of thinking outside the box. We're widely regarded as the best youth marketer in the business, as you know, and I wouldn't want to sully that image. Plus, Feist is popular now so she charges a lot more."
"Hmm. Good point. Okay, pick out another song from a relatively undiscovered artist who sounds exactly like Feist, but isn't Feist."
"Will do sir."
Enter "New Soul" by Yael Naim. Yes, that Yael Naim.
What, you've never heard of Yael Naim? No matter, no one else had either, until the Apple people found their new marketing soul in the form of another female quasi-French phenom. The French Israeli singer went from starving artist to top-ten artist in a heartbeat thanks to her song being the featured musical accompaniment for the new MacBook (which, I have to admit, is pretty cool looking, and I'd want one if it weren't a Mac).
Despite Naim's success, it's fairly obvious that she's no Feist. Not saying that there's anything wrong with musical simplicity - it has its place and time, and that place and time seems to be the first decade of the 21st century - but a song that features "La" 36 consecutive times over two verses bothers me on some level. I feel like I'm being lyrically cheated, as if my girlfriend yada'd sex when describing a visit to an old flame's apartment.
There's a pattern developing here; a marketing recipe for the nuevo-yuppie masses.
Singer-songwriter synergy soufflé
(serves about 20 million)
Take electronic product, female artist and catchy candy pop song. Shake well and place in ad studio. Set aside until marketing campaign is complete. Put mixture in media baking pan for about three months at 350 degrees. Serve quickly to electro-youth to further distract them from reality. Enjoy popularity bump!
- 1 part new electronic product aimed at youth demographic
- 1 part largely undiscovered female artist with slightly scratchy, airy voice
- 1 or 2 parts (depending on taste) catchy doo-wop, candy store pop song
- 70 parts ad placement in major media markets
The latest batch of SSS soufflé mixes Rhapsody (a new digital music listening/downloading service available online and to TiVo subscribers) and Sara Bareilles. Again, Ms. Bareilles was not really on "the map" until Rhapsody's commercials began airing nationwide. Now, she's everywhere. I was recently programming the presets on my car radio, and her featured tune "Love Song" was simultaneously playing on three different stations as I set my stations. No doubt all those 14-34 year olds with the marketing targets on their backs identify with her opening lyrics:
Head under water, and you tell me to breathe easy for a while
Oh that's deep, man. "OMG, That was just like my last relationship with _______! Sara Bareiles really knows me. I'm downloading her song from Rhapsody to my iPod right now!"
Oops, you can't. That's not a feature offered by Rhapsody, not yet anyway. But once that little licensing hold up gets worked out, there will undoubtedly be another commercial touting their new partnership, with a new, largely unknown female artist employing an ethereal singing style, and her new love ballad will race up the charts. And she'll get paid for the free publicity. Nice work if you can get it.
Sound like I'm hating? Well, I'm not gonna write you a love column, 'cause you asked for it, 'cause you need one, you see.
Evan Redmon gets a lot of spam. If you are not spam, please feel free to drop him a line at email@example.com.