Going commercial: The weird world of advert-ready pop songs

(Photo: courtesy of the artist)
<p>Of Montreal</p>
photo: Of Montreal Outback promo
Of Montreal

As a feisty teenager, I clearly remember scorning bands after hearing their songs used in commercials, and deriding them for having “sold out.” I admired people like Jello Biafra who crusaded against needless commercialism and defied his own bandmates when refusing to let “Holiday in Cambodia” be featured in a Levi’s ad.

Now as I grow older, I can’t help but think: is it really such a bad thing?

The first time I ever heard Nick Drake was in a television spot for Volkswagen. I’d guess that maybe five percent of the people watching television in 1999 were familiar with Nick Drake while the vast majority heard that song for the first time, myself included.

If a commercial exposes an artist to a new and receptive audience, isn’t that a win-win situation for everyone? Legendary artists like Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbison, and The Troggs all did spots for Cola-Cola in the mid-1960s in an effort to woo potential fans and things aren’t much different today.

For the most part, whenever I hear a familiar song used in a commercial my first reaction isn’t disappointment, but optimism. I hope the music will fall on fresh ears and result in a bevy of new listeners. However, there is a certain instance in which I take exception to this: when bands change the lyrics of an existing song to be used in a commercial.

These reside in the “uncanny valley”– while the music seems familiar, inside lives a cold, mechanical core, and it becomes harder to separate the art from the ad. Though rare, it is a curious caveat in the world of advertising and I’ve compiled five of the most bizarre examples below:

1) New Order’s “Blue Monday” gets reworked for Sunkist

Apparently Sunkist gave New Order $200,000 to update their classic single “Blue Monday” for a mid-1980s spot. Why a generic hair metal band is featured in the ad and not New Order is anyone’s guess.

2) Of Montreal goes “Outback”

The song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” from the indie pop veterans' 2005 album "The Sunlandic Twins" was revised for the Australian-themed casual dining chain.

3) Devo’s “Whip It” meets Swiffer

Due to an unfortunate publishing deal, Devo insists on recording all their music for commercials to receive 100% of the royalties as opposed to just half. In response to the ad, Jerry Casale said “We don’t feel bad about the little bit of money that trickles to us now that we never got in the first place because they used these songs in a terrible way. It’s almost more subversive because you go, ‘This can’t be, it’s all wrong.’ By misusing it so badly, they’ve created something that amuses us, entertains us.”

4) McDonald’s rips off Reunion’s “Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)”

Allegedly, McDonald’s appropriated this 1974 bubblegum single without permission for a 1988 campaign, and were forced to settle out of court.

5) Lou Reed takes a “Walk on the Wild Side” with HP

Perhaps the strangest of the bunch, a Lou Reed knockoff talk-sings technological catchphrases to the tune of “Walk on the Wild Side,” in stark contrast to the original’s gritty and graphic lyrics.