New York Times, June 6th, 1999
Two years ago, electronica--a media and record industry buzzword
Sounds associated with an underground subculture and linked to the recreational use of drugs like Ecstasy and LSD are diffusing into the mainstream of American life in the form of "quotidian music"--a term some cultural studies academics use to describe music that you hear but don't consciously listen to. All of which begs the question: if advertising agencies and their clients aren't worried about alienating their target audience with this abrasively unfamiliar and weirdly abstract music, why are radio and MTV so nervous about programming electronica?
Hired to rejuvenate the public image of Oldsmobile, the agency Leo Burnett procured an original slice of electronica from the music house Ash Spencer to use in its spot for the Allero car. But the agency secured the rights to use Fatboy Slim's "Right Here, Right Now" for its Superbowl commercials promoting the entire Oldsmobile line
Compared with many other styles of electronica, big beat is relatively accessible--it's peppy, crammed with hooks, and its riffs often have a rock'n'roll feel. But you can hear full-on underground rave sounds in TV commercials too--the twisting, convulsive rhythms of jungle, the futuristic burbles of acid techno. One of the most sonically adventurous spots of recent months is the Philips recordable CD player commercial created by the agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer. The spot is set in a rave environment, with clubbers dancing to formulaic techno, until an individualist called
Commercials like the Philips CD player spot show that, despite its
There are also technical reasons why electronica is increasingly the creative director's first choice. "The pacing of ads today is so frantic that techno works really well with it", says Anthony Vagnoni, editor-at-large of trade mag Advertising Age. "The composited images, saturated colors, bizarre camera angles, and scrolling of text down the screen--that kind of imagery overload lends itself to a futuristic music treatment like electronica." Modern dance music works for video editors
Although Sixties and Seventies classic rock and Nineties alternative are still used in commercials, electronica has advantages over rock. It's energetic yet usually devoid of the distracting sonic foreground of a lead singer. "If you compare a band like Korn with Fatboy Slim, both are very youth-orientated," says Robert Kaplan, the Messner music supervisor responsible for the Philips CD-player commercial. "But Korn comes with a lot of baggage -- it's very angry, sonically, vocally and lyrically. Whereas Fatboy Slim doesn't stand for anything." In this view, it's the meaningless-ness of dance music (or at least, the absence of an overt meaning intentionally inserted by its creator) that lends itself to background usages of all kinds.
Yet for radio and MTV, it's precisely this impersonality--the absence of a charismatic persona--that makes electronica tracks problematic. "Modern rock" radio stations have generally found that only the most rock-flavored electronic tracks--those featuring song-like structures or vocal hooks--seem to prosper. Listeners connect with a voice and a lyric. In 1997, MTV was briefly enthused by electronica's "next big thing" candidacy--the channel programed videos by The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Orbital and Underworld, and started Amp, a late night show dedicated to more experimental electronic music. But last year MTV abruptly ceased its flirtation with techno. Today, electronica videos are almost never played, while Amp has been relegated to a graveyard slot on Sunday nights between 2-AM and 4-AM. MTV's reluctance to play electronica videos is offset by the channel's paradoxical partiality for using techno, drum 'n' bass, and big beat in the background, as the soundtrack to docu-drama soap operas like Road Rules and The Real World, and as "interstitital music"--the sonic element of the graphically bold interludes and animated logos that act as punctuation between shows.
Is this use of electronica as aural wallpaper by MTV and other channels like Bravo contributing to the banalisation of this once alien music? Maybe. Are advertisers expropriating and debasing an underground sound that matters deeply to its cult audience? For sure. But it's also possible that by subliminally infiltrating this music into people's living rooms and lives, and in the process familiarizing listeners to strange new timbres and rhythmic idioms, advertisers are actually preparing the ground for a future pop breakthrough of electronic music. In the mean time, the commercials are helping to sell the music as well as the intended products. "I get listeners phoning in and saying 'can you play the song in that Volkswagen commercial?'", says Aaron Axelson, music director of