Like many baby boomers, I grew up listening to rock ’n’ roll. My family did not have a television, but I had my own radio, which I always had tuned to rock stations. I remember clearly when I made the switch from the AM rock stations to the far cooler FM stations. As a result, my memory cells are chock-full of rock songs from the 1960s and ’70s.
This bit of personal history probably explains why I always sit up and take notice when television commercials make use of rock ’n’ roll classics. At first, I am usually pleased to hear an old familiar tune, but then I often feel disappointed in how the song is being used in the commercial. The rock star Melanie recorded a song in 1970 titled “Look What They’ve Done to My Song,” and that title captures my feelings when I see and hear these commercials.
I have long been a fan of Simon and Garfunkel, so I immediately noticed when Volkswagen started using in their commercials Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 hit “America.” This is a poignant and autobiographical song about a trip that Paul Simon and his then girlfriend took across America in search of the American dream. At its core, this song asks us to ponder what it means to be an American. The lyrics describe the experience of riding a Greyhound bus through America’s heartland and feeling empty and lost. But in the Volkswagen commercials the song is used as background music for a fun road trip. The commercials still deal with traveling the roads of America, but it is presented as a sight-seeing trip, not a quest to look for the essence of America.
I am also a fan of the British singer/song writer Donovan, and I have long liked his song “Catch the Wind.” This is a song about longing for an unattainable relationship. The phrase “catch the wind” is used to express the futility of trying to hold on to something that is already gone. However, in a recent Citi commercial, the song accompanies a message about Citi’s support for an offshore wind farm. Donovan’s poetic analogy is transformed into something very literal. Although I support the development of wind power, I hate to see the power of Donovan’s touching lyrics deflated.
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The worst example of a commercial that misuses a rock classic is the Cadillac commercial that totally distorts the Three Dog Night hit “One (Is the Loneliest Number).” The commercial uses the original melody, but the words changed to say that “one is the only number that you’ll ever need.” The original song is all about how we need other people to make our lives complete. In the Cadillac version, however, the song is warped to mean that we don’t need other people – we just need a fancy car. This message is absolutely antithetical to the message that comes through the original song.
In all three of these examples, the original rock ’n’ roll hits are trivialized in the commercials. Of course, some people will say that these songs are only rock ’n’ roll, but my generation knows better. The rock ’n’ roll of the 1960s and ’70s helped define our generation, and as such it deserves a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
West is chair of the Department of English at UNC Charlotte. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org