ELECTRONICA GOES STRAIGHT TO UBIQUITY
New York Times, June 6th, 1999
New York Times, June 6th, 1999
by Simon Reynolds
The usual trajectory for a new form of pop music is a journey from underground sound to mainstream omnipresence, followed by ignominious banalization as the style filters into television commercials and background music. That's what happened with grunge--in 1991, after a decade brewing in the indie-rock margins, the sound exploded into the pop charts with bands like Nirvana and
Pearl Jam. Within a year, grunge's
fuzzed-up guitars were soundtracking TV commercials like the Subaru Impresa
advertisement that featured a
scruffy slacker hailing the car as "just like punk rock."
Two years ago, electronica--a media and record industry buzzword
for a disparate array of electronic dance music genres--was hyped as the new grunge. Despite the success of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, it never quite became the next big thing. Instead, electronica has done something unprecedented--it's skipped the pop hegemony stage and gone straight from underground noise to ubiquitous mood music. Radio and MTV generally shun electronica, but you can hear its clattery beats and screeching synth-riffs in countless TV commercials for products as non-subcultural as Mastercard, BMW, Call AT&T, LA Looks hairgel, Smint breath-fresheners, Skechers sneakers, GMC Sonoma, and even the US Army. You can hear it in TV trailers for
movies or used to get the viewer's pulse racing on the Bravo channel and
programs like ABC News.
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?
If your only window to the pop world was TV commercials, you might think
Fatboy Slim is as big as the Beatles. In the real world, this English DJ/producer's sleeper album You've Come A Long Way, Baby has finally edged into the Billboard Top Forty after a seven month long, agonisingly slow build. But in TV-land, Fatboy Slim--real name, Norman Cook--is King. Six tracks from You've Come A Long Way and two from its predecessor Better Living Through Chemistry are featured in TV commercials for brand names like Nike Air
Surge, Adidas, and Oldsmobile, or in TV trailers for Hollywood
movies like Cruel Intentions, Office Space, and
Ten Things I Hate About You. The song "Gangster Tripping" appears on the soundtrack of Go, while "The Rockafeller Skank" was the backdrop for a crucial scene in the
smash hit She's All That. New commercials featuring Fatboy music seem
to be airing every week--a recent addition is the Gap.Kids ad that uses Norman Cook's
remix of Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha".
It's hard to think of another musician who's so relatively unknown and yet so sonically ubiquitous. In addition, countless commercials imitate the Fatboy Slim sound, a blend of uptempo hip hop breakbeats and squelchy techno riffs that Mr. Cook pioneered alongside The Chemical Brothers. Sometimes the imitators are actual artists whose music has been licensed, like The Crystal Method (whose single "Busy Child" was used in a Gap commercial over a year ago). And sometimes the Fatboy soundalike tracks are commissioned from companies that specialise in composing for
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
Talvin Singh's hybrid of jungle and Indian bhangra) and does a weird-but-graceful dance, which the crowd immediately imitates.
Commercials like the Philips CD player spot show that, despite its
failure to conquer the mainstream, electronica has won an ideological victory. The youth of
America may actually be moshing to
funk-metal bands like Korn or dancing to ska and swing revivalists, but rave
culture has somehow managed to establish itself as
*the* signifier of "youth today". Yet electronica in commercials is less a generational marker like hip hop and grunge were in their day, and more a reflection of the tastes of the advertising industry, which contains a high quotient of hipsters and is largely based in cities where club culture has a strong presence, such as New York, Los Angeles, and London. "In the advertising world, creative teams are afforded a tremendous amount of leeway," says "So the music ideas tend to come from the ground up."
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
for precisely the same reason it works for DJs--the tracks are designed for cut and mix. "The density of rhythmic activity and the highly nuanced sonic layers provide wonderful cut-points for video editors," says Rick Lyon, a composer who's scored commercials for some of
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