Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma

TV commercial makers know a good song when they hear one. It has come to Mister Boomer’s attention that recently there has been a virtual plethora of TV commercials that use songs from the boomer era. One of the latest to cross Mister B’s path is the song Brand New Key. Sung by Melanie in 1972, it now backs a Hewlett Packard commercial.

Melanie was one of those artists who had been around forever, playing with some of the greats of the time. In fact, she happened to be on the bill at Woodstock, yet comparably few people knew much about her until her first U.S. hit, Candles in the Rain, in 1971. A year later, Brand New Key was released. Some radio stations refused to play it because they perceived the lyrics to be a double entendre for sexual innuendo. It became a hit anyway, possibly — who knows? — because of it. (For Mister B, the song was pretty high on his dislike list, preferring her ironic Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma. Besides, he is still trying to figure out the lyrics to Louie Louie.)

Many of us gave a mighty boomer “right on” to artists like Bruce Springsteen for refusing to have his songs used in commercials. The whole 60s anti-establishment thing seemed the direct opposite of this type of commercialization. The words that often came to mind by boomers when referring to artists who allowed their songs to be licensed were, “sell out” and “sacrilegious.”

Now that decades have passed, it’s no longer a handful of songs that are being pressed into the service of commerce. Songs by Bobby Darin, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop (did Carnaval actually listen to the lyrics to that song?), The Shirelles, The Yardbirds, Johnny Nash, The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, The Ronettes, The Turtles, The Fifth Dimension, The Isley Brothers, The Partridge Family, The Association, The Spencer Davis Group (that one really hurt Mister B!), Barry White, Led Zeppelin, Donovan, Al Green and The Beatles, to name a few, have made their way onto our TV screens to sell everything from cars to cruises, mops to allergy medicines, and everything in between.

Double whammy: The Easy Rider himself and Gimme Some Lovin. Oh, the horror!

In case you haven’t played your scratchy Spencer Davis Group 45 in a while, here’s a version in a rare, priceless video:

In some marketing-universe way, it probably makes sense. After all, the boomer generation is the largest demographic the marketing world has ever seen. Still, many of these commercials aren’t aimed at boomers. It appears they are aiming at the two generations after the boomers — today’s homemakers and parents. What can we make of that?

In days of yore, people would play the Victrola in their homes, when they could afford the contraptions, at designated times and special occasions. For our parents’ generation, they most often heard new songs on the radio and in clubs. Boomers kept the radio tradition, but with the advent of rock ‘n roll, bought records to play at home in astonishing numbers. Once boomers started families of their own, their music went along with them. Many a child now in their twenties or thirties grew up listening to the great music that we boomers put forth, and thus will recognize the tunes on TV.

Mister Boomer has a friend whose son discovered Jethro Tull and King Crimson in his teenage years. Another swears her daughter’s favorite bands are The Beatles and The Mamas and the Papas. Many a child of boomer parents loads sixties music onto their phones and iPods, not because they have to, but rather because they like them.

So what are we to make of boomer music used in TV commercials? In an era when a new song used in a commercial can often mark it as an upcoming hit, the use of oldies — OUR oldies — obviously isn’t going away any time soon. Maybe we should look on the bright side. With the songs only a quick download away, the music of our era is alive and kicking, and some of those musicians even get to benefit from the uptick in interest.

Mister B will try and lighten up, too. He is now reminded that he has to go online to buy a few songs that didn’t make it to his vinyl record collection.

What do you think of boomer songs used in TV commercials?

4 thoughts on “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma”

  1. Very true! Top 40 isn’t making the cut for commercial use. Is it because of burn out and overexposure or a case of demographics? After all, parents would know a Justin Beiber tune by virtue of having to listen to it via their children, but will it help them make the right choice in buying laundry detergent instead of a song that hails from their earlier days? Mister B feels you are on to something when it comes to former misfits now being the marketers for our buying habits. Mister B can think of a hundred great riffs that would work in commercials, simply because we lived through the time and those songs are in fact more familiar than the current crop. Good thing Mister B isn’t making commercials.

  2. What strikes Mister B is how a song from 30 or 40 years ago — regardless of the lyrics or feeling — is appropriated for a completely different situation, almost as if the marketers were more interested in evoking the older era and lifestyle rather than setting a new tone; that is, trying to associate a cache from the era rather than eliciting a reason why this product is worthy of purchase. Companies like Apple have turned the old method of song appropriation on its head. It clearly wants to blaze a trail with their products, marketing them as either “of the moment” or “the next big thing,” and that is reflected in the musical choices of current (and certainly not Top 40!) — even unknown — music, which subsequently become hits in online downloads. Mister B is all about evoking memories, but still uncertain about the use of the treasured soundtracks of our youth.

  3. what i find interesting is that so many of the songs being prominently used come from the counterculture rather than from top 40 radio. the music that was looked down on by the mainstream and got you beat up in high school for listening to it. now it’s being used to sell stuff to the mainstream. is it the new normal or is it because all the punks and freaks listening to that music went into advertising and use the songs that they know?

  4. I think the use of boomer music in commercials is great. Who cares about selling out? Us boomers voted for Ray-gun, Bush, Clinton and Shrub before electing Nobomber and then cutting his gonads off the other day. Sellout? Make your money while cotton’s high.

    And I liked and still do like Brand New Key. Better than look what they did or didn’t do to my song. There are a couple of commercial uses of songs or quotations that hit me the wrong way, but not Key. Ans while we are on the subject , altho I can’t stand Chase Bank I loved their B&W commercials with the 60’ds music. We didn’t get a color TV till almost 1970, so I remember noir programs in living noir, and the Chase commercials (altho I cant stand Chase) brought back memories.

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