Indie Rock in Ads

A quick post, thoughts a bit scattered, so an apology up front. Amanda Marcotte recent wrote a post about advertising, interesting throughout. It touches on indie rock in ads, and whether or not this constitutes a problem. I agree with Marcotte that aesthetic enjoyment and emotional manipulation are not really all that different, and the role of money in the process is nothing new. I would argue that aesthetics and advertising are both about defining class markers, encouraging us to derive pleasure from expressing class in particular ways. Ads enrich our vocabulary for that, as does the cultural capital involved in elaborating a personal taste. When indie rock is used in ads, it exposes the kind of cultural capital now bound up with that music, how effortlessly it evokes a certain class position, and how products want to appropriate that.

I think she misdiagnoses why this bother people though:

The use of rock music in advertising has always been a point of contention, and I think the reason it gets so ugly and people get so bent out of shape about it is that we still believe that advertisers pick these songs because they have some scientifically demonstrable emotional pull that will make us helpless to resist the charms of the product. We want the experience of being emotionally manipulated, but we want it to be free of ulterior motives, which is as close to a definition of “art” as you get in our capitalist society.

I don’t think that people get upset about advertisers manipulating them to buy things with irresistible songs. The problem, it seems to me, is that it makes the songs automatically signify something other than what the listener would have associated them with. Their emotions get shut out preemptively, and they fail to be manipulated. For instance, I can’t listen to Feist at all anymore, because all I can think about when I hear her voice is iPods. It’s annoying. The same is true for the band Phoenix; I sort of like it, but the music makes me think of commercials, and it ends up turning me off.

Pop music generally needs to be open for us to contextualize it in ways we enjoy; for me the associations with specific products impede that. It’s not a problem that a song is “commercial” as long as it is only trying to sell itself, making itself available to us to market ourselves in some way of our own.

I don’t blame bands for getting money however they can, but they shouldn’t be surprised if some people dismiss them as jingle writers. Most listeners don’t seem to care about that though. I wonder if the presence of a band’s song in an ad doesn’t authorize people to listen to the band, make the band seem more legitimate to them. That is the real danger, as far as I am concerned. The whole process reinforces the idea that advertising is a legitimizing force, an arbiter, an authoritative source for culture. For a good portion of the audience now, a marketing context for a song may actually enhance its listenability rather than impede it — it may be a precondition. What products go with this song?

That’s why I think Marcotte is wrong when she claims this about ads: “it’s not a lot different than other distribution methods” for music. It may that ads are actually more effective at making the music seem pre-endorsed, preapproved by society. It makes them more consumable, but in the specific way we enjoy ads as disposable yet flattering attempts to woo us.