Ed Driscoll

The Sounds of Capitalism

In the Weekly Standard, Ted Gioia reviews The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture by Timothy D. Taylor:

Could Mozart write jingles? “Are you kidding,” responds the ad copy for a 1990s music marketing production house. “A Little Night Music had ‘beer commercial’ written all over it.”

Mozart was no stranger to market forces, often selling his services to wealthy merchants. But in our time, famous musicians have taken the further step of selling merchandise—sometimes with amusing consequences. One example: Bob Dylan was asked at a 1965 press conference, “If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?” The counterculture icon smiled slyly at the journalist, and quipped, “Ladies’ garments.”

Fast forward to 2004, when Dylan and his music showed up in television ads peddling bras and panties for Victoria’s Secret. Was anyone surprised? Dylan had already licensed “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” to the Bank of Montreal in 1997. Even earlier, the Beatles’ “Revolution” appeared in a Nike ad. The Rolling Stones allowed Microsoft to use “Start Me Up” to sell Windows 95. And Michael Jackson not only sang and danced in Pepsi commercials, but suffered serious burns when his hair accidentally caught on fire while filming an ad, an event that may have set off his addiction to painkillers and plastic surgery.

Some music fans still deride these increasingly common deals as sellouts. Others simply ignore them, as if they were the sporadic infidelities of an otherwise loyal spouse. But Timothy D. Taylor, professor of musicology at UCLA, puts them under the microscope as part of this history of the modern marriage of music and commerce. His conclusion—“There is no longer a meaningful distinction to be made between ‘popular music’ and ‘advertising music’ ”—may be an exaggeration, but it is true enough to give the heebie-jeebies to those who still look to popular music for a clarion call of rebellion against the System.

But why would anyone still believe that? As Mark Steyn wrote in 2007:

The music biz have been humbug revolutionaries ever since 1955 when Bill Haley and Elvis put them in the permanent-revolution business. The kids tore up movie seats to “Rock Around the Clock,” even though its composer wrote it as a foxtrot, and its lyricist was born in 1890. When Max Freedman was a rebellious teenager, the big hits were “The Merry Widow Waltz,” Kipling’s “Road To Mandalay,” and “When A Fellow’s On The Level With A Girl That’s On The Square.” And, unlike most revolutions, the regime itself—in the shape of RCA, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and the other corporate entities that dominate the business to this day—proved far wilier survivors than Louis XVI. They’ve made a very nice living out of ersatz revolution.

Apparently though, as Gioia writes, the author of The Sounds of Capitalism is actually surprised — or at least disappointed — that, as Frank Zappa and the Mothers reminded listeners nearly 50 years ago, rock musicians are ultimately only in it for the money. But why would anyone at this late date get fooled again?