Transcript for Timothy Taylor on "The Sounds of Capitalism"

Jim Fleming: Have you heard any good advertising jingles lately? Probably not, as the jingle's pretty much gone the way of the dodo bird. But there was a time when you couldn't turn on a radio  or a TV set without hearing such classics as, 'You Deserve a Break Today,' and 'Plop, Flop, Fizz, Fizz.' Remember? Timothy Taylor spent many years studying jingles and other kinds of advertising music. Taylor's an ethnomusicologist at UCLA. He's also the author of 'The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture.' He tells Anne Strainchamps about the very first jingle.

Timothy Taylor: Most radio scholars agree that the first thing that we can call a jingle was from 1926, and it was selling Wheaties. That was a pretty successful commercial, and it saved the Wheaties brand.

[recording of Wheaties jingle]

Taylor: But in 1926, nobody was thinking, 'Oh, gee, maybe we can write original songs to sell goods, and this will be a new thing.' It was, you know, something that Wheaties happened to do that happened to be successful. It wasn't really until the Depression, and well into the Depression, that one particular jingle that was written for Pepsi-Cola was aired, and that one, because it was thought to be so catchy, and was listened to by so many people across the country, that the jingle as a sales mechanism became popular.

[recording of Pepsi-Cola jingle]

Taylor: And that was 1939, actually late in '39. And then the jingle lasted for decades.

Anne Strainchamps: So was that Pepsi jingle the first one to go viral, in a sense?

Taylor: Yeah, that's right. And it was translated into 55 languages, Pepsi made versions of it to be played in jukeboxes, there were sort of popular song versions made of it, so you could go out and buy a record, a 78 rpm record.

Strainchamps: So you write that at a certain point, advertisers and composers began to get even more sophisticated about how they used music for ads, and they began to compose music to deliberately manipulate emotion or convey certain ideas about products. For instance, you write about a famous TV commercial for Ford cars called 'Backseat Blues.'

Taylor: Yeah, that was written by the great Mitch Leigh, who listeners might know better as the composer to 'Man of La Mancha,' who started a jingle house, as they're called, a jingle production company, in the '50s. He had been classically trained by the German composer Paul Hindemith at Yale. He and some other classical composers really wanted to make emotional appeals through music, part of what they did. And that hadn't really been done before, believe it or not. I mean, all the jingles, all the advertising music that had been done from the '20s, '30s, into the late '50s, was almost always very happy, upbeat music, as if nobody ever thought about trying to make music that could be, maybe, disturbing at the beginning, because you've got a stomachache, but then you take the magic pill, and then you have happy music at the end, and nobody really did that. Which is odd, because in the film industry, all they talked about what music can do emotionally for what's going on on the screen. But in the commercial music world, nobody ever talked about it, and I read all of the trade press, I looked at tons of archival material, I only found two or three mentions, ever, of people talking about music and emotion. But it wasn't until these people like Mitch Leigh, and some other folks, in the late, very late '50s, all of whom had classical training, they come along and they say, 'Well, wait a minute. You know, music is powerful, and music can do more than just be happy, or be upbeat, and let's use what music can do in a more subtle way to sell product.' And that's what they did, and of course, that became the norm.

Strainchamps: And what was 'Backseat Blues' like?

Taylor: 'Backseat Blues' was sort of a vocal, jazzy, track. It sounds pretty upbeat the whole thing, from start to finish, but what Mitch Leigh did is he changes the meter in it, so when you see people trying to get in and out of Ford's competing cars, and they're scrunching themselves up to do this, he changes the meter, and it sounds kind of off. And he does this on purpose. But then, when you get in and out of the Ford car, you get a much more straightforward beat.

[recording of Ford jingle]

Taylor: This was one way in which he was trying to use emotion to sell product. By the '70s, it became much more sophisticated. Lots of different emotional nuances could be used. At least, up to a point, in 30 or 60 seconds there's not that much you can do.

Strainchamps: The jingle, as such, kind of began to disappear after a while, and I don't think music is really used quite that way in ads anymore. What caused the decline and fall of the jingle?

Taylor: Yeah, it was a workhorse in the industry for decades. What I write in the book, and what is borne out demographically, and, and, you know, backed up by other authors is that when the baby boomers began to come into positions of authority in the industry in the 1980s, in the advertising industry, they just thought the jingles were corny, and they felt like, 'Why can't we use our own music to sell goods?' And you begin to see the rise of the licensing of pre-existing popular music for use in commercials. Maybe most famously or infamously, the use of Beatles' 'Revolution' in 1987 for Nike.

[recording of song]

Strainchamps: That was a huge controversy, wasn't it?

Taylor: Yeah, it was.

Strainchamps: What happened?

Taylor: The surviving Beatles sued, but at that point, they no longer owned their own music, Michael Jackson's company owned it, so they didn't really have much of a case for a lawsuit, if you ask me, and I'm not a lawyer.

[recording of song]

Strainchamps: It's interesting, there's a quotation in your book I flagged because it either seems remarkably cynical or, very alarming. You write that there is no popular music today that is not, to varying degrees, advertising music.

Taylor: Yeah.

Strainchamps: What do you mean?

Taylor: Well, it's partly because the power of the advertising industry is so great, at least in our media landscape which is dominated by commercial interests, except for public radio, of course. So, you know, commercial interests tend to win out. But also, the advertising industry, exercises what I think is sort of an outsize influence on the culture itself. I think the advertising industry's pursuit of the hip and the cool since the '60s has made us all, you know, everybody, at least in the US, sort of aware of the hip and the cool. What's the hip new show or the hip new indie rock band or whatever? So I think this ideology of the hip and the cool matters more because the advertising industry feeds off of it, and pushes it back on us.

Strainchamps: Well, to a certain extent, that's what we're buying, isn't it?

Recording: Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh ("Da, Da, Da"/Trio)

Taylor: Yeah.

Strainchamps: When you look at an ad, the sort of subliminal message often is, 'We're showing you, we're telling you what's hip and cool, and if you're hip and cool, you'll understand this.'

Taylor: Yeah. Or, you know, you're not going to be hip unless you're in the car like these cool people in the car.

Strainchamps: Wearing these particular shoes [laughs]

Taylor: [laughs] Right. And then also, for these technological reasons, it's much easier now for musicians to move between, you know, writing music for commercials, producing a band or being in a band, this technology has kind of evened things out a bit. Some complain about that, some people say that a lot of popular music sounds the same, because everybody's using the same software, and I think there's some truth to that.

Strainchamps: Well, I was gonna ask you, is this good for music or bad for music? I suppose I'm revealing myself as a boomer when I think it sounds like the whole world has become commercial, and music is just part of it.

Taylor: Yeah, it's a complicated question. I think, a young musician who wants to try to make a living off of his or her music, is probably going to face greater pressures to compromise, or do what we used to call 'selling out,' then they would have in the past. At the same time, in many places across the country, there's a thriving independent music scene. I almost said 'indie rock,' but it's not always rock. Musicians who don't care if their music gets recorded or not, or gets popular or not. And then there's plenty of musicians who, you know, the music industry has no interest in, like people who just sing or play for fun, and have no ambition of trying to make money off their music. I think all of that is worthwhile, but I do think, at the same time, that the moment that you decide that you want to try to make money off of your music, the likelihood that you're going to be forced to compromise, in commercial directions, is greater than it's ever been.

[recording of Volkswagen commercial featuring "Da, Da, Da"/Trio]

Fleming: Timothy Taylor is the author of 'The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture.' He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

Comments for this interview

Program about the sounds animals make effected by logging ... (Joel Erkenswick, 08/28/2013 - 11:10am)

Is this the program where this topics is discussed, which I believe I heard on St.Louis Public Radio last Sunday, August 25, 2013 some time about the noon hour? Please let me know if you can. My email is "erkjoel@gmail.com" ... also there was discussed how indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest navigate using the sound they hear for the forest. THank you. Joel Erkenswick, 1 McKnight Pl., Apt 436, St. Louis, MO 63124