Remix – or regurgitation?

15Nov11

When the concept of a remix culture — described by Lawrence Lessig as when “the distinction between original content and various forms of exchange, collaboration, and imitation have become increasingly artificial” – is broached in Chapter 3 of “Managing Media Work,” it brought to mind a pesky cultural question I’ve struggled to answer until perhaps now:

Why in the hell do I still keep hearing the pop music of “my youth” – roughly the late 70s through late 80s; basically junior high through junior year in college – still being played with surprising regularity in commercials [and in some cases, in general] more than 20 years later?

To put things into perspective, consider this: Around the time I attended Boys State in Arkansas during my junior year in high school, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album debuted. That was more than 25 [gulp] years ago. Flash forward that far to my arrival at IU for doctoral studies – an entire lifespan for some folks in this class [gulp again]. No less than a half-dozen times within my first few weeks in Bloomington do I hear the same exact same music – not just Thriller itself, but other Jackson tunes and music from mid-80s artists – coming from apartments, car stereos, and open dorm windows as I drive about campus.

Not all, of course. But more than a few. More than what “should be.” At times, it seemed as if I’d been zapped away on some space mission – traveled faster-than-light to an alternate universe and explored it for more than two decades – then zipped back to earth only to find a few months had passed. It was the temporal equivalent of me – as a college freshman in the mid-1980s – rolling onto campus rocking such tunes as:

Which, as you can see … gives an entirely new meaning to the term “time-shifting.” Of the above, only one – “El Paso” – was a tune I heard with any regularity as a youth [my dad had a Marty Robbins 8-track cassette]. Each predates my birth by more than a half-dozen years. It would have been inconceivable – indeed, beyond laughable – that someone of my generation back in the mid-1980s as a college freshman would listen to such music in a casual setting [except maybe “El Paso” — I went to undergrad in Texas and frankly, I think it’s a cool song — especially the lyrics .. and the guitar … the whole thing really].

As I looked beyond these initial observations, another realization soon followed. I began to notice that in what seemed to be an increasing number of TV commercials, more musical tracks from “my youth” seemed to appear as well:

It gets even better. In tracking those examples down, I actually stumbled upon an entire web page filled with more than 100 examples of ‘80s music [or ‘70s in some cases] co-opted into commercial usage. http://www.inthe80s.com/adsmusic/o.shtml. It’s that darned prevalent!

Of course, the question is why? From what I can figure, a parallel to the phenomenon I’ve witnessed can be drawn to the example of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books [p. 36]. Just as Rowling pulled together genres and motifs from earlier children’s fiction books – prompting debates about the originality of her work – much the same has occurred in the world of music [club DJs, sampling in rap and hip-hop music] and in music selection by producers of advertisements.

For one, all of these are examples in which the production aspect of the work is emphasized over the work of the artists themselves – managed creativity as opposed to creative management [pp. 34-36] — which is symptomatic of the state of many creative industries today. Another consideration is ever-more-emphasized pressure to produce profits and the need for outcomes that are as predictable as possible so that sales teams can – as accurately as possible – meet the performance projections they laid out for management. That means playing it safe and what’s more “safe” than a good ol’ 80s pop tune? In fact, some of these tunes – such as George Thorogood and The Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone” or Queen’s “I Want It All” – are so “safe” they have been used in multiple commercials for various products.

This is not to say that newer music is being avoided by Madison Avenue. Indeed, a number of newer songs have been known to gain widespread exposure through use in commercials – such as Aloe Blacc’s 2010 single “I Need a Dollar” [which oddly enough, sounds a lot like a ‘70s tune] used in this Boost Mobile ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZX6tHkW7xg.

Still, one cannot help but wonder how long that commercial uses of 70s and 80s-era pop music will remain “frozen” — locked in a temporal-commercial mobius loop of sorts — before a greater number of more recent tunes will begin winning more advertisers’ confidence.

— Bill W. Hornaday

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