A Television Commercial
‘I want to be . . . a musician.’ Those are the opening words in a television commercial for Prudential pension plans which was being broadcast in late 1992. It begins with a young man sitting back in a chair, a dreamy, wistful expression on his face, listening to music on headphones.
He is absorbed in the music; he taps his foot and bobs his head in time to it. And yet he is not completely taken up with it, for he is also thinking about what and who he wants to be (the words we hear aren’t being spoken out loud by anyone, they are in the young man’s head – something which the musical context makes seem natural, for when you listen to music you seem to leave the world of people and things, and enter one of thought and feeling. Or at least, that is one of the many experiences that music has to offer.)
Later in the commercial the young man appears as a musician. There is one episode where he is playing with his band, backed by two attractive girls. Everything is lurex and sequins; this is glamour, this is the real thing, this is what being a musician is all about . . . But the sequence is no more than a fantasy (you can tell this because, unlike the rest of the commercial, it is shot in black and white), and the picture dissolves into a scene in a shopping mall – Whitley’s shopping centre in Bays water, to be precise. The young man is still there, but his electronic keyboard has turned into a piano – and the pretty girls have turned into old women. One asks ‘Do you know “I want to be Bobby’s girl”?’ ‘Oh no,’ mutters our hero, now fully back in reality, as he settles down to play the woman’s request.
You could think of television commercials as a massive experiment into musical meaning. Advertisers use music to communicate meanings that would take too long to put into words, or that would carry no conviction in them. The Prudential commercial uses music as a powerful symbol for aspiration, self-fulfillment, the desire to ‘be what you want to be’, as the voice-over says. More than that, it uses a particular sort of music – rock music – to target a particular segment of society, the twenty- or maybe thirty-something’s. (The commercial is advertising pension plans that you can take with you from one job to another, and obviously they are of interest to people near the beginning of their careers. It is basically saying that you will probably try a number of jobs before you find the right one, and you need a pension plan that you can take with you from one job to another.) But there is something unusual about the way it does this. For while you see rock music – the young man tapping his foot as he listens to his Walkman, the band – you don’t hear it. Instead, you hear music in a watered-down version of what is sometimes called the ‘common-practice’ style, the style of Western European art music from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century: the music that record shops file under ‘Classical’, and that books on music traditionally refer to simply as ‘music’, as if there were no other kind.
The meaning of the commercial emerges out of this odd juxtaposition of the music you see and the music you hear. Rock stands for youth, freedom, being true to you; in a word, authenticity. Classical music, by contrast, encodes maturity and, by extension, the demands of responsibility to family and to society. Through music, the commercial accomplishes a kind of conjuring trick, combining both sets of values and in this way selling the advertiser’s message (you need to start planning for your old age now) to a segment of society that might be expected to be resistant to it; what the commercial is saying (though not in so many words, of course) is that you can begin responsible financial planning without selling out on your youth, freedom, and spontaneity. With its reassuring sonorities and controlled pacing (there are four balanced, unhurried phrases, the last culminating at the point where the Prudential logo appears on the screen), the music tells you that you’re safe in Prudential’s hands. But what I want to emphasize is not so much the way in which this particular commercial uses this particular music to convey meaning and value, but rather what it is about music that enables it to be used this way – which is as much as to say, what it is about music that makes it matter to us in the way it does.
You might define music as humanly generated sounds that are good to listen to, and that are so for themselves and not merely for the message they convey. (The first part of that formulation excludes the sighing of the wind or the singing of birds, while the second is meant to eliminate speech – though, to be sure, we do sometimes speak of the ‘musical’ qualities of oratory or poetry.) But the Prudential commercial makes it obvious just how much more, or maybe it would be better to say ‘other’, music is than good things to listen to. You only need to hear a second or two of music in a commercial to know what kind of music it is, what genre (classical, trad jazz, heavy metal, house) is being referenced, what sort of associations and connotations it brings with it. (I don’t mean that everyone can say that the music is heavy metal or house or whatever, but that you somehow know that the music goes with fast food or financial institutions or whatever the commercial is about – or, if it doesn’t, that it is being used ironically.) Of course, this requires the kind of familiarity that comes from growing up in a particular culture. A Japanese businessman watching a commercial in his
Because music and its associations vary substantially from place to place (like clothes used to and food still does, just about), it functions as a symbol of national or regional identity; émigré communities sometimes cling tenaciously to their traditional music in order to preserve their identity in a foreign country. (Examples include the eastern European and Chinese communities of
‘Music’ is a very small word to encompass something that takes as many forms as there are cultural or sub cultural identities. And like all small words, it brings a danger with it. When we speak of ‘music’, we are easily led to believe that there is something that corresponds to that word – something ‘out there’, so to speak, just waiting for us to give it a name. But when we speak of music we are really talking about a multiplicity of activities and experiences; it is only the fact that we call them all ‘music’ that makes it seem obvious that they belong together.
(There are cultures which don’t have a word for ‘music’ in the way that English does – so that there are different ‘music’s’ associated with different musical instruments, say, or so that music isn’t distinguished from what we would call dance or theatre.) Moreover, there is a clear hierarchy in that we regard some of these experiences and activities as more ‘musical’ than others. That is one of the things that the Prudential commercial plays on. The young man at the beginning is listening to music, but that isn’t good enough; he wants to be a musician. (There are societies where this distinction wouldn’t be intelligible, such as the Suyá Indians of Brazil, but in modern Western society being a musician is different from being someone who just listens to music.) As the commercial makes all too poignantly clear, though, there are musicians and musicians. For the young man doesn’t want to be just a shopping mall pianist; he wants to be a real musician – someone who not only plays before an appreciative, perhaps adulating, public but also plays the music he wants to play, his own music, and not what some old woman has asked him to.
Authenticity in Music
All this is tapping into a rich seam of musical meaning. I said that the Prudential commercial was all about authenticity - about being true to yourself even as you grow up and take your place in society (and buy a Prudential pension plan, of course). That is why it is based on rock music, for the idea of authenticity is built deep into our thinking about rock, into the meaning that it has for us. This goes back to the origins of rock in the blues, and specifically in the blues as they were played and sung by Black Americans in the deep South. The blues were seen as the authentic expression of an oppressed race, a music that came from the heart (or ‘soul’, as in the later music of that name), in contrast to the starched formality of the classical ‘art’ tradition - concert music and opera - that had been imported from Europe. But the idea that some music is natural, while other music is artificial, is a much older one. It is associated particularly with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the same Rousseau whose writings form part of the prehistory of the French Revolution), who criticized the artificial and contrived nature of the French music of his day; Italian music by comparison, he said, was free and natural, giving direct expression to emotion and feeling.
This idea has taken many shapes in American popular culture. A representative example, which you could almost believe to have been based on Rousseau, is an episode of ‘The Ghost of Faffner Hall’ (a feature-length spin-off from Jim Henson’s ‘The Muppet Show’) that included an encounter between Ry Cooder, the legendary blues-rock guitarist and singer, and a virtuoso violinist of the European tradition, Piginini. Despite his prodigious technique, the porcine celebrity has a fatal flaw: he can only play scales, and besides, he cannot play without a score in front of him. All this has not surprisingly brought on a sudden crisis of confidence, and it is at this point that Cooder, playing the part of a janitor, discovers Piginini cowering in a broom-cupboard.
How, Piginini asks, is he to satisfy his audience, who demand that instead of scales he plays all the ‘little black notes’ in different orders - ‘all piggley-higgley’, as he puts it; who, in a word, demand music? And so Ry Cooder gives him a lesson in playing from the heart, in letting it come naturally - in real music, that is to say, rather than the exercise of artifice. (Real music, it turns out, sounds remarkably like the blues.) Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that critical commentary on popular music - I am thinking in particular of heavy metal – concentrates overwhelmingly on its visceral and countercultural qualities, glossing over the extent to which it borrows from the classical art tradition. (Heavy metal guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads have been heavily influenced by baroque composers such as Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach, and such influences go back at least as far as Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer - not to mention Procul Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.) But the idea of authenticity in popular music does not revolve just around the opposition with ‘art’ music. It has a directly ethical side, which derives largely from the commercialization of the blues – or to be more precise, its urban derivative, rhythm ’n’ blues – in the 1950s and 1960s. These were the years when for the first time the American recording and broadcasting companies saw the potential for marketing Black music to White audiences. Instead of simply marketing the recordings of the Black artists themselves, however, they had the songs re-recorded by White musicians. Rock ’n’ roll was in effect the White version of rhythm ’n’ blues (and the outstanding example was, of course, the ‘King of Rock’, Elvis Presley).
By ‘covering’ the songs, as such re-recording was known, the recording and broadcasting companies avoided paying royalties to the original artists. As the Black rights movement gained momentum, a scandal developed over this, and the whole idea of the cover version became disreputable. As a result the development of rock music, and particularly of progressive rock, became closely associated with the idea that there was something dishonest about playing music that wasn’t your own, something that went beyond questions of whether or not you had paid your copyright dues: bands were expected to write their own music and develop their own style. And above all, they were expected to come together naturally, rather than being put together by the entrepreneurs of the music business. Rock aficionados of the mid-1960s were disgusted at the success of The Monkees, an American group (modelled rather too transparently on the Beatles) which was effectively invented, and heavily promoted, by NBC-TV; they were seen as a synthetic band, an artificial construction, and thus a transgression against the very principle of authenticity.
And the same system of values remains broadly intact today. Popular music critics generally ignore the ‘look-alike’ bands whose aim is to mimic the sound and look of the great bands of the past, rather than developing a style of their own. They are suspicious, at best, of the Spice Girls, whose meteoric rise to fame in the mid-1990s showed how it is possible to manufacture success in popular music provided you have the right formula. And in a famous case, Milli Vanilli were stripped of their 1990 Gramophone award for Best New Act when it came to light that they did not actually perform any of the music on their records – a perverse judgement, arguably, in view of the extent to which modern studio technology has rendered the very concept of ‘performance’ problematic, at least as it has been traditionally understood. But something more complex is at work here than an anachronistic belief that music should be naturally rather than artificially produced, the product of personal sincerity rather than industry acumen.
When the Pet Shop Boys first toured in the late 1980s, by which time their recordings had already brought them international success, their staged performances made it very clear that they could not re-create the sound of their studio recordings. What is more, they were up front about it; Neil Tennant, their lead singer, told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘I quite like proving we can’t cut it live’. And he added: ‘We’re a pop group, not a rock ’n’ roll group.’ Now what is particularly telling about this last comment is that it is generally rock musicians who draw the distinction between themselves and pop musicians, and they do so as a means of disparagement. Expressed a bit crudely (but then it is a bit crude), the thinking goes like this. Rock musicians perform live, create their own music, and forge their own identities; in short, they control their own destinies. Pop musicians, by contrast, are the puppets of the music business, cynically or naïvely pandering to popular tastes, and performing music composed and arranged by others; they lack authenticity, and as such they come at the bottom of the hierarchy of musicianship. To put it another way, the hierarchy of musicianship elevates the originators of music - the authors, if you like – above those whose role is merely one of reproduction, in other words, the performers.
With the reissue of ‘rock masterpieces’ on CD in the late 1980s and early 1990s (predominantly to thirty- and forty-somethings whose original vinyl recordings had long since worn out), a new strain of critical writing came into being, the aim of which was to justify the masterwork status of the classic bands’ albums. It did this by showing how these bands did not simply reproduce existing music, but forged new styles and new compositions of their own on the basis of a unique vision shared by the band members. The music expressed this vision, not audience tastes or industry demand; the bands were genuine authors, in other words. But this kind of critical interpretation does a fair amount of violence to the facts. Relationships between the classic bands and the music industry were often problematic, but they were certainly close. And the distinction between authorship and reproduction is a very slippery one (doesn’t a performer like Madonna stamp her own identity on a song like ‘Material Girl’, make it her own, regardless of who wrote it?). In a way, it is the very difficulty of sustaining the distinction between an ‘authentic’ rock music and an ‘inauthentic’ pop music that is most revealing, because it shows how determined critics have been to draw it against the odds. But what has motivated this kind of commentary on popular music? What, to adopt a useful current term, is the ‘cultural work’ that it is intended to
accomplish? In the next text I shall provide a historical context for this kind of thinking, but first I want to show how it links with the way we think about classical music. You only have to scan the music magazines on your nearest news-stand to see how thinking about classical music centres on the idea of the ‘great’ musician, defined as an artist whose technical skill is taken for granted, but whose artistry lies in his or her (but usually his) personal vision. The record companies’ advertisements do not in general sell Beethoven or Mahler as such; like motor manufacturers (whose commercials are all about personal style because their products are practically indistinguishable), the record companies are primarily engaged in brand marketing. So what they sell is the interpretive vision of the exceptional, charismatic performer: Pollini’s interpretation of Beethoven, or Rattle’s interpretation of Mahler. In other words performers are marketed as stars, just as in pop music - and indeed some of the most striking examples come from classical artists who have broken into the pop market.
In this way, the classical music industry markets the great interpreters in their role of originators, or ‘authors’, rather than mere reproducers of music, and so
upholds the same values of authenticity that are found in popular music. But it is in books on classical music that the distinction between authors and reproducers is to be found in its most literal form. For the most part, they refer to ‘music’ but are actually about composers and their works; if you look in the two capacious volumes of the New Oxford Companion to Music, for instance, or for that matter in the Rough Guide to classical music, you will find a mass of information on even the most obscure composers, but performers are conspicuous by their absence. It is like the role of servants in Victorian society: they have to be there, but you don’t have to talk about them. (When such books do mention performers, it is as often as not in the context of a complaint at their unwarranted ‘licence’ or ‘extravagance’ in obscuring the original music through over-interpretation or gratuitous virtuosity.)
And even within the select world of the composer, the same value system operates: academic writing on music almost invariably emphasizes the innovators, the creators of tradition, the Beethovens and Schoenbergs, at the expense of the many more conservative composers who write within the framework of an established style. A value system is in place within our culture, then, which places innovation above tradition, creation above reproduction, personal expression above the market-place. In a word, music must be authentic, for otherwise it is hardly music at all.