Predictably, my thoughts gravitated to music. Although I engaged in running commentary on the merits of various television commercials – the Betty White spot for Snickers, the “casual day” commercial featuring underwear-clad office workers and Google’s elegant demonstration of their search engine’s merits being the most notable – I was most interested in how popular music factored into the flow. The lackluster performance by the two remaining members of The Who inspired a spirited exchange with Facebook friends about the merits of recent halftime shows. As in previous years, though, it was the songs featured in advertising that I found most intriguing.
The use of Blur’s “Song 2” in a beer commercial as the bed for yet another spot twisted the song’s tongue-in-cheek quality – it was originally intended to parody alternative hard rock in the States – into a Moebius strip of irony. From its initial licensing in the late 1990s to sell Intel microprocessors and the film Starship Troopers to its more recent use in canned celebrations in many football and hockey arenas, no song better demonstrates the degree to which the distinction between programming and advertising has broken down over the past decade. From Apple iPod commercials to ringtones, music’s capacity to reach an audience increasingly depends on non-traditional means of getting exposure rather than traditional airplay. Whereas advertisers once aimed to get brands mentioned in films, television shows and songs, artists now thrill to have their work associated with a particular product But the opening bars of “Song 2” have been used to shill so frequently that the tune is now identified, not with particular brands, but the “branding” of art itself.
To my mind, though, the most interesting use of a song came courtesy of the National Football League itself. By licensing the rights to the Arcade Fire’s best-known anthem “Wake Up” for an ad promoting its own product, the NFL’s marketing team demonstrated a keen awareness of the problems it will face in the future. Although the sport remains wildly successful in the United States and has attracted increasing interest abroad, its core audience, the sort of people who follow their teams rain or shine, is aging. The presence of The Who, coming on the heels of Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and U2 in previous years, testifies to a suspicion that the NFL is afraid to alienate the Baby Boomers who still buy a high percentage of its season-ticket packages. But, as the conversations I had with my “Baby Bust” friends during the game indicated, that conservative approach runs the risk of making younger folks – even middle-aged ones like myself – feel like the sport does not belong to them.
That’s why the choice of the Arcade Fire was so apt, however cynical the decision-making process behind it. After all, the NFL’s self-promotion is meant to remind casual viewers, those who have tuned in primarily for the spectacle, that there’s a reason to pay attention to the season that leads up to the Super Bowl. Selecting a band that has made a point of paying its respects to Boomer culture – leader Win Butler has been outspoken in his devotion to Sprinsteen’s music – while still maintaining the allegiance of twenty and thirty-somethings is an attempt to symbolically pass the torch to those generations – commonly labeled “X” and “Y” – that the league desperately needs to hold onto.
But there’s a racial aspect to this effort that casts unflattering light on the NFL. Although the majority of the players in the game itself were African-American and many of the league’s most devoted fans are people of color, the use of the Arcade Fire reinforced a message conveyed by inviting the half-Who to play the halftime show: the league’s priority is to satisfy white, middle-class viewers. While the use of Rihanna and Jay-Z during the pregame show helped to temper the impression of bias, the “official” appearance of the Arcade Fire commercial, which literally closes with the league’s seal of approval, puts it in a different register.
The fact that “Wake Up” was used to promote the 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are, which practically amounts to a post-Boomer manifesto, was surely not lost on the NFL. But why not try to appeal to people of color according to the same principle? Part of the problem may be that contemporary hip-hop and R&B culture are configured to promote new releases rather than to celebrate older work by iconic artists. Even someone as iconic as Jay-Z has to keep releasing material, since his back catalogue doesn’t move enough units. There’s a reason why new records by Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. kept dropping years after they had been killed.
At the same time, it’s worth asking whether the planned obsolescence that plagues genres of color might partially be the result of the way they are treated in film and television. Although contemporary hip-hop and R&B are not absent from the commercial landscape, they are often used in ways that call their cultural legitimacy into question. Another Super Bowl ad, for Bud Light, is a perfect example. Instead of talking normally, the men it features sing-speak in the distorted mode made possible by exaggerated manipulation of Auto-Tune. While it’s nice to see the hip-hop artist T-Pain get acknowledged – and paid – for his wildly influential use of the technology at the end of the spot, the commercial is still making fun of his style.
In light of the way contemporary hip-hop and R&B were presented, it was deeply ironic that another one of the “feel good” ads featured a fast-paced montage of “historic” events of the past forty years to a remix of The Who’s 1965 classic “My Generation”. Put together by the Black Eyed Peas’ front man will.i.am, this new version was undeniably effective. Given the hobbled performance given by The Who’s surviving members, however, the fact that their generation was elevated at the expense of young people left a bad taste in my mouth. Even though I love the song, I kept wondering what it would be like to have The Arcade Fire – or The Who, for that matter – cover the Black Eyed Peas, Jay-Z or Lil Wayne at an event of the Super Bowl’s stature.
Then again, there may be something perversely salutary about the fact that contemporary hip-hop and R&B are denied anthemic status. Even a song as stirring as “Wake Up” will eventually lose its edge when used over and over to sell something. And the generational and, yes, racial solidarity that its deployment is meant to facilitate has obvious drawbacks. In evading the “programming” directed at Super Bowl viewers, twenty and thirty-somethings of color are granted a measure of freedom with regard to the spectacle. To be sure, the reasons for this fate derive from a combination of condescension and ignorance on the part of the NFL and its advertisers, but that beats being manipulated into caring about Michelob Light.
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