when the cure is worse than the disease

What's being sold here [in the Budweiser radio commercials that use the music of Squeeze and the Dave Edmunds Band] is not name or personality but style. The familiar but chart-poor groups are not announced, and that anonymity provides an aural itch that you scratch when you remember the product with which the style is associated. The spots take the language of a performer and reduce it to two or three constituent elements; the result is that the performer's language -- made of incipient cliches that, by means of a confrontation with a specific occasion of performance, are sometimes dissolved into an efflorescence that transcends cliche and extends language -- is now reified into a single cliche hard enough to dominate any mere occasion. From now on, this is all the performer will have to say. His performance will communicate in terms of how well it approximates the reification of the commercial, not necessarily because the commercial will have been more widely or intensely heard than any other work by the performer (though it probably will have been), but because the commercial will have completed -- in fact, realized -- the performer's career. When one hears an old Squeeze or Dave Edmunds record, it will sound like an attempt to formulate a cliche -- to produce a style so recognizable and narrow that it can be marketed as an object, as a thing -- which is what the record will have been.

Greil Marcus has changed his mind since he wrote these words, back in 1987, when his "Real Life Top Ten" column was published in The Village Voice. He now says, "I think all songs should go up on this block [...] It's a way of finding out if songs that carry people with them, songs that seem tied to a particular time and place, can survive a radical recontextualization, or if that recontectualization dissolves them" (see "Bob Dylan After the 1994 Congressional Elections," in Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, published in 2000). But this essay isn't going to be an examination of Greil Marcus' change of mind or the increasing timidity of his politics. No, this is going to be yet another denunciation of the on-going and relentless use of rock 'n' roll songs in TV and radio commercials, a subject we have taken up twice before, in essays about Pete Townshend and Lou Reed.

Much of what Marcus once said about the Budweiser ads can be applied to the "anonymous" use of "Pictures of You" (a song by the familiar but chart-poor British band The Cure) in a TV ad for Hewlett-Packard printers. But the "reification" of style in this instance is much worse. Unlike Squeeze or Dave Edmunds, the Cure never made "happy" music. All of their songs were dark and brooding, perfect confirmations of Lester Bangs' assertion that "the whole reason pop music was invented in the first place was to vent sick emotions in a deceptively lulling form" (see "On the Merits of Sexual Repression," in Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, published in 2003).

Released on the 1989 album Disintegration, "Pictures of You" is a typical piece of Cure-shit: a "sick" and maudlin tearjerker narrated by someone whose lover has committed suicide ("And you finally found all your courage / To let it all go"). But you couldn't possibly realize any of this from the small part of the song (the chorus, of course) that's used in the commercial:

I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are
All I can do

And so this is a doubly sanitized version of the song. Not only has it been "cleansed" by the removal of all traces of the death and decay of the lover's body, but it has also been rendered "sane" by the suppression of all hints that its narrator is morbidly depressed. Sure, there's still fragmentation (the full-color pictures of some happy family that are coming out of the Hewitt-Packard printer are separate and distinct from each other), but it's not the result of anger or destruction ("If only I'd thought of the right words / I wouldn't be breaking apart / All my pictures of you"). What was once a messy disintegration has become a series of clean separations.

Unfortunately, that's not all. The last line ("All I can do") is not in the original version of the song. Either it was taken from an alternative mix or was created specially for use in the commercial. The original line was "All I can feel." And so this is real sickness, a sickness in the soul of society itself: the narrator no longer feels, no longer feels anything at all; he simply does, he simply takes pictures. Not only are his pictures more "real" than his dead lover, they are more real than he himself is.

-- 26 March 2004.



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