TV Commercials: the New, Nonstop Playlist

TV commercials have become a legitimate source for discovering new music -- from Wilco on the Volkswagen ads, to Cat Power hawking DeBeers diamonds, to any number of artists pimping Apple.

I spent the first part of March fighting the cold that wouldn't die, and, as is customary when ill, found myself watching a lot more TV than usual. As I surfed through the channels, hoping to catch at least part of True Life: I Have a Stutter (I hear it's classic), I realized: I'm hooked on these "American Living" commercials from JC Penney.

You know the ones I'm talking about. They first appeared during the Oscars, putting Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' rendition of "Killing the Blues" in every viewer's head for the next few days. I'm sure there were a ton of Google searches for "JC Penney American Living song" just minutes later.

In addition to piquing my interest in the duo's recent collaboration, Raising Sand (which I hear is great), the song actually kept me interested in the commercial. The images on screen sure wouldn't have done it alone; from the girl stepping on a wedding cake to the family giddily posing for a formal photo, the semi-contrived scenes resemble what the Cotton Dockers ad on Seinfeld might have looked like if set to music. "I could be comfortable too, if I had pants like that," Jerry mocked in the episode. "I could sit on a porch and wrestle around, and maybe even be part of a real bull session."

The situations may be kind of improbable, especially the impromptu parade featured in another "American Living" commercial, set to Chris Montez's "Let's Dance". But something about the spots just worked, and I have to give the credit to the music for bringing it all together.

This isn't the first time I've enjoyed a JC Penney ad, or, at least, the music in a JC Penney ad. These people just seem to know what they're doing. Last year, I even downloaded Persephone's Bees' Notes from the Underworld after hearing the catchy "Way To Your Heart" on one of their commercials. At the time, I was a little distressed about discovering a band that way, but that seems silly, now. Television commercials are now a legitimate source for discovering new, exciting sounds, and I’m not just talking about the Comcast music channels that no one but my uncle and my former roommate seems to watch. Whether it's Wilco on the Volkswagen ads, Cat Power hawking DeBeers diamonds, or any number of artists pimping Apple, TV has become a nonstop playlist.

There was a time when I may have thought of this as problematic, worried that listeners hearing but a sliver of a song could adversely affect they experience that song from then on. (see Mixtape Confessions: Roots of Creation) Those fears haven’t completely subsided, but I also can’t argue with the facts. Licensing their music for commercials enables artists to make money and, of course, then they can record more music -- something that can only be a good thing for those of us who require an endless flow of new sounds to live.

With the increasing irrelevancy of radio (at least among most people I know), artists are also finding TV ads to be a valuable medium for exposure, and finding new audiences because of it. Take a look at sites like and and you'll see what I'm talking about; there's a large community that wants to know what they're hearing in a TV commercial. Music in commercials has become about a lot more than just jingles, and, by extension, choosing the music that is in commercials is a pretty big deal.

Back when I could still realistically start sentences with the words "when I grow up", I had dreams of working in advertising. Thanks to a class assignment in ninth grade, I even put those plans in writing, in a letter to my future self. As a senior in college, I found the aspiration pretty amusing, but it didn't feel so farfetched at age 15. I was still on a high from my semi-successful marketing campaign for Venom, a fake energy drink I devised for a seventh-grade project (tagline: "Feel it rushing through your bloodstream!"). It's too bad I didn't copyright the name, as I could’ve made a bundle selling it to Snapple.

Of course, no amount of clever advertising could've saved my next product: Chick Bitz, a chicken-flavored cereal. None of my classmates were swayed by the catchy theme song; they were all too busy trying to get the imagined taste of corn flakes mixed with chicken bouillon cubes from their mouths. My corner office on Madison Avenue dreams died soon after.

But if there is one way I could see myself in the biz, it'd be picking out music for commercials. I've always dreamed of putting together movie soundtracks, and this would be at least a step in that direction. If I put in my time for JC Penney, it wouldn’t be all that hard to convince myself I was on my way; the spots tend to resemble mini-movies, most obviously in the commercial recreating scenes from various classic films, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “South American Getaway” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Few of JC Penney's commercials are about the clothes themselves, something that makes an ad like the "Doodle Heart" spot somewhat timeless, and of interest to people who, like me, wouldn't normally buy those clothes (again, shades of Cotton Dockers: "That's what's clever about it, that they're not talking about the pants.") A few minutes of browsing through the results of a search for "JC Penney commercials" turned me on to several new artists to check out, including Forever Thursday, Sleepy Rebels and The Weepies. I even re-discovered some great songs, such as John Lennon’s “Real Love” and The Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside”.

Of course, the whole time I was listening, I was also subjecting myself to ad after ad -- exactly the desired result. By thinking I'm just watching the commercial for the music, I'm playing right into those advertisers' hands. Before I know it, I'll be shushing people when the commercials come on TV.

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