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Any way you hear it, that’s the way you need it…

February 27, 2012

For years now, Madison Avenue has been preying on popular songs to help move merchandise. One of the current ones on the airwaves is for State Farm. This spot moves well beyond using a popular song – in this case, Journey’s 1980 hit “Any Way You Want It” – to the extent of actually incorporating the song’s lyrics into the dialogue.

I first came across it a few weeks ago when I was watching an NCAA hoops game. I was standing in my kitchen when I heard the rapid fire, call-and-response dialogue that struck me as a little too familiar, and, sure enough, by the end of the commercial, the two actors are talking fondly about their “little Journey moment,” just before the actual song comes up to conclude things.

I had to laugh at this little meta-marketing moment. I hadn’t really thought about Journey since junior high, at least until GLEE scored a hit with a remake of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” (For the record, the wonderful Petra Haden did a similar largely a capella remake prior to the TV show’s, which even includes her stretching her vocal chords through Neal Schon’s guitar solo. I have to watch what I say here because my high school friend Patrick played Coach Ken on the first season of GLEE!)

Anyway, I can’t say I care either way whether Journey is used in TV commercials, but it can be a touchy subject. I recall my shock when I first heard Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a now-famous Volkswagen commercial. My first thought was “Sacrilege!” How could such a beautiful song, recorded as Drake was at the end of his rope, be used to sell cars?

When I calmed down though, I thought that maybe the exposure could help revive interest in the long-dead singer-songwriter’s career. It’s safe to say now that it did. I don’t know what the commercial did for its auto sales, but Volkswagen was able to get Drake exposure in a way that Joe Boyd, Hannibal Records, their parent Island and the others behind Drake could never do during his sad, all-too-short life.

I should say the auto manufacturer has a history of using some innovative music for its commercials over the years, including tunes by Pell Mell, Stereolab, The Roots and others, so it’s no surprise they picked Drake’s song.

The CBC’s Terry O’Reilly, a former ad man, covers this dilemma brilliantly in a recent edition of his radio show, Under the Influence, called “Big Chill Marketing,” which chronicles the history of pop music and advertising over the last 30 or so years.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with the melding of music and marketing though. Like many, I fear a beloved piece of music will be re-burned into my memory as a mere soundtrack for some product with a limited shelf life. (John Densmore of The Doors wrote a piece in Rolling Stone several years back about how he and Robbie Kreiger had been outvoting Ray Manzarek in order to prevent the band’s catalogue from being used in commercials because, as Densmore put it, it would better preserve their music over the long haul.)

However, I can’t blame artists, especially new or obscure ones (as opposed to the Stones or Beatles), for looking for ways to get their work out there, especially in light of a declining music industry. Commercial radio, it has to be said, has long been a dinosaur institution that plays the same 40 songs to death to the point where they become a kind of audio wallpaper.

These days, I’m far more likely to hear something that gets my attention on an Internet music site, in a movie, an episode of House or – yes, I hate to admit – a TV commercial. Hell, how else would I have heard Ane Brun’s oh-so-sweet duet with Ron Sexsmith, “Song No. 6” without a pitch for Ford? (I’ve included a link if you want to watch her own video, minus the sales pitch.)

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