the greatest TV commercial ever made

I hate it when rock 'n' roll songs are used as sound-bites or soundtracks in TV commercials. And you know why? I hate TV commercials, all of them, even the "good ones," the funny ones. I hate all commercials, whether they're on TV, radio, the Internet, the "Silver Screen," roadside billboards or clothes. In a capitalist economic system such as "ours," there's only affirmation, and no possibility of negation, in all commercial discourse. Think of MTV, source of the pernicious trend of using "classic" rock music in TV commercials: for almost 25 years it has broadcast nothing but commercials. In the November 1983 issue of Artforum, Greil Marcus maintained that,

Within a commodity economy, negation can be packaged and sold as a commodity glamorizing commodities that aggressively affirm. There can be no negation on MTV, not even that of terrorism (if terrorism can be a negation, which is dubious). Were terrorists to take over the MTV transmitter, line the video jockeys up against the studio wall, and shoot them, viewers would rightly wonder what new group was being promoted.

And so, on three recent occasions, I, good Greil Marcusian that I am, have vehemently denounced the use of the music of Pete Townshend, Lou Reed and the Cure in various TV commercials, most of which have been for cars. I also hate cars, especially Sports Utility Vehicles.

But don't get me wrong, Gentle Reader. I do have a sense of humor and I can't/don't get worked up into a rant -- indeed, I'm far more likely to burst out laughing -- when I see such stunners as Devo's "Whip It" used to sell "Swiffer" cleaning-spray to strangely energetic housewifes or placed in the mouth of a singing cow in an ad for Gateway computers; or the Turtles' "Happy Together" used to promote the new steak-and-shrimp combo at the local chainstore restaurant; or etc etc. There's been dozens of comical monstrosities like these over the years. I know, I know: "They are so stupid that you just can't take them seriously; and, if you do take them seriously, it will be you who looks like a fool." Besides which, who knows? Maybe Devo really has been putting subliminal messages of rebellion into their you've-got-to-be-kidding appearances in TV commercials!

With all that in mind, and to keep things "fair and balanced," I now give you an example of a TV commercial with a "classic" rock song as its sound-bite/soundtrack that I happen to think is good, great, even THE GREATEST TV COMMERCIAL EVER MADE. And why's that? Because this particular TV spot, which is a rousing exhortation to buy a Cadillac SUV, is 1) a commercial for Cadillac, which as every American knows is THE GREATEST CAR COMPANY IN THE WORLD, 2) a commercial for an SUV, which is of course THE GREATEST AMERICAN CAR EVER MADE, and 3) a commercial that has as its gimmick/schtick a song by Led Zeppelin, THE GREATEST ROCK 'N' ROLL BAND EVER.

Now it's true that the Led Zeppelin song used in this all-time great TV commercial -- "Rock and Roll," on Led Zeppelin IV, released in 1971 -- isn't THE GREATEST SONG THEY EVER RECORDED, which as every true Led Zep fan knows is "Stairway to Heaven." But nothing's perfect, right? -- well, nothing except for the new Cadillac SUV, that is!

Led Zeppelin were THE GREATEST BAND EVER because they set the mold by reversing everybody's expectations: instead of getting better over the years, their music got worse. Their first album, boldly entitled Led Zeppelin I (1969) was their best, and their last, In Through the Out Door (1979) was their worst. Their decline took place during or immediately after the 1969-1971 period, during which they released three albums in a row -- Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III and Untitled (commonly called Led Zeppelin IV) -- the very titles of which suggest that a formula or "brand" was being perfected and capitalized upon ("milked dry") as fast as possible.

Ironically, this branding wasn't good for the band's musical development. Singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones stopped trying, did competent but uninspiring work, coasted through, and let the band be driven/dominated by the cranked-up playing of guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham. But Page quickly concentrated on his growing expertise as a producer of recordings at the expense of his guitar-playing, and Bonham was, after all, only the drummer (but let it be remembered that he, too, could give the concert-goers "Moby Dick," a 30-minute-long solo of his own!). And so Led Zeppelin became a lazy dinosaur, a Sloth Behemoth. Perhaps it was the cold expertise of their radio-friendly sound production that kept its rotten core (sexist "cockrock" posturing and racist rip-offs, cliches and put-downs) from stinking the place up.

"Rock and Roll," which is credited to Bonham/Jones/Page/Plant, is a perfect example of why Led Zeppelin was a big fat disappointment. It opens with a sizzling, up-tempo rip-off of the drummer's intro to Little Richard's "You Keep A-Knocking (But You Can't Come In)," and then, powered by two interlocking guitar parts, drives right into an up-tempo, 12-bar blues. Though Plant's vocals are typically lazy and noncommittal, Page's smoldering guitar-playing picks up the slack (there's an extended guitar solo, of course), which keeps the driving momentum going, but does nothing to increase it. The typically self-absorbed lyrics are full of evasions, begged questions, and cynical comparisons to the rock 'n' roll of the 1950s.

It's been a long time since I rock and rolled,
It's been a long time since I did The Stroll.
Ooh, let me get it back, let me get it back,
Let me get it back, baby, where I come from.
It's been a long time, been a long time,
Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. (Yes it has.)

It's been a long time since the Book of Love,
I can't count the tears of a life with no love.
Carry me back, carry me back,
Carry me back, baby, where I come from.
It's been a long time, been a long time,
Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.

Seems so long since we walked in the moonlight,
Making vows that just can't work right.
Open your arms, opens your arms,
Open your arms, baby, let my love come running in.
It's been a long time, been a long time,
Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.

Yeah, hey! (repeat)
O yeah, o yeah.
It's been a long been a long time,
Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.

And then . . . the song just ends or, rather, Bonham begins the short, triplet-heavy, momentum-killing and utterly pointless drum solo that prematurely signals the end of the song. When the song finally does clatter to an end, the sound is metallic and the tone detached and cold. It's all been nothing but a con, an empty affirmation of nothing.

But if you take this bullshit con-job (it's already a car commercial), edit it properly (just the "exciting part," the song's beginning), and then put what remains in a slick TV commercial for an SUV, the song becomes "perfect." It now has something to affirm: power. Power steering and power rock: the perfect combination! Dude! Can't you just see yourself driving one of those monsters, listening to 'Rock and roll' as you drive rough-shod over the face of the whole planet? You'd (still) be lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, but at least you'd have yer SUV, right?

-- Bill Not Bored, 12 April 2004.



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