Sunday, May 10, 2009


Absorbing song lyrics

The Ridger has a post about when song lyrics aren’t considered as a whole. She considers the use in an ad of the song “Major Tom”, by Shiny Toy Guns, a reworking of the story from David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity”. They’re using it to hawk a car, to make the car seem space-age. “Loaded for liftoff,” is one tag line in the ad. “Reach higher,” is another.

Only, as The Ridger notes, in the song, Major Tom lifts off... but doesn’t return:

Sure, if you don’t know the song, it sounds cool[...]

But if you know the song, do you want to buy that car? Major Tom dies!!!

YouTube has the advertisement, and the full song. Lincoln has another ad that uses “Space Oddity”, as covered by Cat Power; on YouTube here.

The question is this: Does it matter? Will anyone really notice, apart from a few of us who wouldn’t buy the car anyway?

Most people don’t have a clue about most of the lyrics in most of the songs they hear. Yes, a few of us really absorb them, internalize them, treat them as poetry. But for most people, “Space Oddity” consists of “Ground control to Major Tom,” something about “planet Earth”, and a bunch of music. “La-la-la-la-tin-can, dum-dum-dum....”

That’s especially true if the song has a catchy tune: the tune takes over, and people remember few of the lyrics, apart from one or two lines in the refrain.

Take “The Gambler”, written by Don Schlitz and on the pop charts by Kenny Rogers in 1979. Everyone knows the song, right? Everyone knows the chorus, about knowing when to hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em. Does everyone know what happens? The gambler dies in his sleep on the train. But most people never listened to it closely enough to get that.

Speaking of Kenny Rogers: he had a big hit in ’69 with the Mel Tillis song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. It’s got a good, bouncy rhythm, very cheerful. But listen to the words: the singer is a paralyzed war veteran (Korea, but when the song was written it could as well have been Vietnam), Ruby is going out cheating on him, and he’s begging her not to. “Oh, Ruby, for God’s sake, turn around.” It’s a serious song, about a difficult subject... but how many people don’t think about that, because the title is all they know and the tune is up-beat?

I’ll throw one more out there, from one of my favourite poet-songwriters, Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah” easily sounds like a nice, spiritual song, and many folks take it as such. But as with most of Cohen’s work, there’s a lot of metaphor, there are several layers of meaning, and nothing’s straightforward. Listen to the words next time. It’s not a gospel song.

Those of us who really listen to lyrics can cluck about the inappropriateness of a particular song, sure. But the mood is set for most people, and it works.


A'Llyn said...

As kids, we listened to all the words, although we didn't always know what they meant. The part about "Ruby" that always struck me was when the narrator says "if I could move, I'd get my gun, and put her in the ground."

Upbeat, all right.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Considering that Hallelujah is mostly heard nowadays over love scenes, does anybody really think it's gospel?

The Ridger, FCD said...

I forgot to mention - we were talking about syntactic ambiguities in Beatles lyrics over at Literal Minded, and I remembered the complete (and not syntactically ambiguous) disconnect in If I Fell In Love. That last verse really comes out of left field and undermines the whole song. "So I hope you see that I would love to love you, and that she will cry when she sees we are two!" Way to motivate me to fall for you, there.

Anonymous said...

It's not used in advertising, but it's worth noting that many people have chosen "Every Breath You Take" by Sting/The Police as their wedding song. Sounds pretty good, huh?

It's a song about A STALKER.

3 seconds in Google turned up a list of "Classic Love Songs" with it:

(This is not an ad for suite101. I'm laughing pretty hard about a wedding planning article suggesting Every Breath You Take as a 'classic love song.')

scouter573 said...

>> The question is this: Does it matter? Will anyone really notice, apart from a few of us who wouldn’t buy the car anyway?Let me answer your questions with a question: would Madison Avenue spend billions of dollars a year if they thought it didn't matter? These people (ad folks) study the effectiveness of ads with the fascination that kids apply to the equitable slicing of a shared pie. These people know exactly how effective an ad technique is and they use that information to justify additional ad spending.

So, yes, it matters, and, yes, people will notice enough to spend dollars.

Aside: This is why I've always rejected the arguments claiming that cigarette advertisements have no effect on children and non-smokers. Of course they do - that's why they advertise the way they do. That's precisely why the manufacturers spend millions of dollars on ads to promote smoking. They wouldn't waste that much money on something they thought ineffective.

Barry Leiba said...

Right, Andy, so I think you're agreeing with my take: that the point we're discussing doesn't matter. That the ad is effective despite the odd connotation you might get from paying close attention to the song's full lyrics.

It's got the beat, it sets the mood, it attracts the buyers they're going after. Never mind whether Major Tom ultimately dies; no one is paying attention to that.

°Zebra° said...

what i think is that the soundtracks used by lilcoln for the ad campaigns from the last year (david bowie and the coming home song from mkz ad) are targeted specifically to certain market (one that covers that age, targeted to all whom were young and listened to those tracks perhaps).

and about the comments, what ive got to say is "ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know mayor tom's a junkie"


and yes, marketers do take care of each line, color, track or sound used... and it is not that the ad is wrong or not well done, it is just not targeted.