A new spirit (Where we stand, part 2)

The second of five posts about the current state of classical music. 

This one is about some good news. I think there’s a new spirit in the air — a new openness to classical music. I first noticed it in commercials. I could even go back a few years, to something I didn’t understand at the time, a commercial for the Starz movie channel that featured the big tune from Beethoven’s Ninth, with people singing, “Movies, movies, movies, movies.”

Try it for yourself. It’s insane. What were they thinking? Or so I asked myself. What’s the connection with Beethoven? Now it’s clear that they just used the tune because it sounded grand and festive, shorn of any classical music connection. And what I also didn’t see is that this is a good thing. Someone who knows and loves Beethoven’s Ninth may roll her eyes, but for the rest of the world, the point is that classical music no longer signified — as it so often used to — something exclusive, expensive, and elite.

But the commercial that really drove this home to me was more recent, something from one of the big fast food chains. McDonald’s? Wendy’s? I’ve Googled and Googled, with no results. Can anyone help? This commerical introduced a new sandwich, something we were meant to think was very special, something we should think a lot about. A guy was contemplating it, and on the soundtrack we heard (if my memory is right) one of the Bach cello suites.

Again, somebody’s going to say that’s an insult to Bach. Bach means more — much more — than fast food. (Or “Quick serve,” as I believe they prefer to call it in the biz.) But turn your telescope around, and now look at the commercial as if you didn’t know Bach. Now what you hear is an admirable, serious piece of music, something that shows you how you’re supposed to think about the new sandwich. A classical piece, in other words, is being used for its intrinsic qualities — for its sound, and for its feeling. The fact that it’s classical doesn’t matter very much, serving only, I think, to underscore the message that the sound is giving us. Yes, the sandwich really must be serious; they’re using classical music. But not: this is an elite product, not for the masses; you’re special if you buy it. (Cf. a decades-old commercial for Grey Poupon, using, if my memory hasn’t fled, the Sixth Brandenburg.)

Lately I’ve seen other examples in commercial music. A commercial for an XP computer, with Vivaldi, the music telling us how much fun the computer is to use. A Coke commercial, in which two Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons wrangle a third one, which is a Coke bottle. Music? A Rossini overture, telling us that we’re seeing something funny. This is surely modeled on old cartoons (like “Kitty Foiled,” a Tom and Jerry classic I ran across lately on TV), which often used Rossini for chase scenes and the like.

And then Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, where the theme music briefly — with very canny cutting — excerpts the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, apparently to set a tone that’s sober, but also edge-of-the seat dramatic.

And then finally — and for my purposes the announcement couldn’t be more timely — the Hyundai commercial we’re going to see on the Super Bowl, in which Yo Yo Ma will play Bach. From the Reuters story about this:

Classical music fans aren’t the most obvious target for a National Football League telecast or an ad campaign with an online video editing component. But advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which produced the Hyundai spot, said it expects the ad to resonate with many of those watching the game. Last year’s game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots drew a record 97.5 million viewers.

“I think the people that will respond to the Yo-Yo Ma piece when watching the Super Bowl won’t necessarily be classical music fans,” Goodby, Silverstein & Partners creative director Jim Elliot said. “Within the context of all the other advertising, which can be so chaotic that it almost becomes white noise, a quiet, gorgeous solo cello moment can be very arresting.”

“A quiet, gorgeous cello moment” — classical music (once again) used for its sound and feeling, not because it’s elite.

But this is only the beginning. Ever since my wife and I learned that 12% of all downloads on iTunes are classical, it was clear that people, especially younger people, are reacting to classical music in a new way. They’re happy to listen to it, just as they’re happy to listen to music of many other kinds. (That 12% figure badly needs updating, by the way. And confirmation! We had one source, a good one, someone in an excellent position to know the percentage. But is it still true?)

And how did this happen? I’ll propose two theories. First, our culture is shifting. Normally I say that to show that classical music is getting left on the beach as the cultural tide moves elsewhere (a mixed metaphor, I know). But in fact the cultural change is remarkably unbiased. It won’t give classical music the privileged position it insisted that it had to have, a generation ago.

But it also won’t reject classical music. Classical music simply takes its place among other cultural options, with special qualities of its own (“a quiet, gorgeous cello moment”), but with no cultural baggage otherwise. We need to go beyond “quiet, gorgeous,” since classical music has a lot more to offer (and my next post will touch on that), but let’s be thankful for what we’ve got.

Second theory: the many mainstream experiments with new kinds of classical concerts have had an impact. Ultimately they’re part of the same cultural change, a move toward accepting classical music on its own terms, without overtones of privilege and money, and without composers presented as marble busts. But I’m impressed, thinking back, on how many of these new presentations there have been. Classical concerts with video. Classical concerts in which musicians talk to the audience. Classical concerts with helpful comments on the music projected at the side of the stage. Classical concerts in informal dress. Classical concerts where the conductor and orchestra greet the audience in front of the concert hall. Not to mention presentations outside the mainstream, like classical music played in clubs, or played alongside indie rock.

I’ve rolled my eyes at many of these presentations, and deplored the way classical music institutions try them out, and then don’t follow through. But if I said that people who roll their eyes at Bach in commercials should think again, then so should I. I think that these more informal ways of giving concerts — all of them together — have had an effect. They’ve signalled a change. I don’t think we’ll see a new audience breaking down the doors of concert halls to go to standard classical concerts any time soon. In fact, I doubt we’ll ever see it.

But that a new wind is blowing, I have no doubt.

(Again, I’ll be grateful to anyone who identifies the fast food commercial. Why didn’t I take some notes the many times I watched it?)

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  1. Jason says

    You aren’t talking about the alternate lyrics to Beethoven’s Ninth in this Manwich commercial, by any chance, are you: http://www.splendad.com/ads/show/1517-Hunts-Manwich-Ode-to-Joy

    You should check out SplendAd.com; you can search for tv ads according to all manner of criteria, including what music is used. It’s not exhaustive, though; here’s Beethoven’s page: http://www.splendad.com/artists/show/126-Beethoven

    I don’t think this phenomenon of “reclaiming” classical music for pop culture is a new one. I suspect it goes back at least to the Bugs Bunny films from the 40s and 50s, if not before. I can think of a dozen more examples from previous decades, notably United Airlines’ ubiquitous use of Rhapsody in Blue since the 80s. And where would Karl Jenkins’s career be right now without those old diamond commercials? Even Olbermann’s use of the Ninth is meant to recall the old Huntley-Brinkley Report theme music more than anything else. (The Beethoven, along with his “good night and good luck” sign off, is all reflective of Olbermann’s desire to liken himself to the “classic” TV newsmen of old.)

    I’m kind of surprised that classical music still “sells” anything, but I would agree with you that it’s a good sign. Anything that keeps a repertoire in the public consciousness is good, especially when you consider a commercial’s ability to turn an obscure song into an overnight hit via iTunes. As a kid growing up in a not-particularly-musical household, there were a number of pieces that I became familiar with through cartoons, movies, and TV commercials — and I’m not at all ashamed to admit that!

    Good points. I do think the Bugs Bunny cartoons (and others from that time that used classical music) show us something else — that classical music was part of everyday consciousness, and didn’t have to be reclaimed.

  2. Tony says

    http://www.churchofbeethoven.org/ – This might interest you re: alternative presentation of classical music, esp. chamber music.

    Thanks! A good one for my collection. Reminds me of “Telling Stories,” a chamber series in Denver that mixes chamber music with literary things. I notice that the Church of Beethoven programming is very conservative — all masterworks, all the time, at least in the three programs listed on the website.

  3. Jason says

    …or if it really was Bach, there was this recent dog food commercial with the prelude to the first cello suite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTzh2p-Mg-I

    (I’m not sure that I’ve seen a fast food commercial that used Bach recently, though.)

    I think this is an example of a piece used for its sound qualities — especially the tempo of the recording and the fact that it’s a solo line — more than anything else.

    Lovely example, Jason! Thanks. Cute commercial, too. The music seems to package quite a lot of things — “This is good dog food, dogs are really wonderful, and [in the rhythm of the cello line] they’re pretty active, too.”

  4. says

    You hit on a very critical point, young listeners do not carry any baggage.As one who works in classical music radio we seem to constantly redefine the historic moment for our listeners, as if it is necessary every time to remind them where Bach or Beethoven was on thht particular Thursday. Young kids could not give a stuff. It is a good melody, they like it, they upload it. It doesn’t really matter if it comes from Brandenburg 4 or 5, they don’t really care.

    Yet I can see my associates now start to tremble.Why, this is heresy..Nope..It’s called music.

    Yes! What a good point. The sacred view (so to speak) of classical music says that it requires special understanding. You can’t just listen. You need to know the history, you need to comprehend the structure.

    And who loses, if this view starts to fade, and we start accepting classical music simply as music? I’m afraid your associates do. They lose some of their power and authority. They can’t be priests or gatekeepers anymore. For a wonderful example of what happens when this power is lost — and how delightfully the cause of classical music can be furthered — go to the website of WNYC, New York’s public radio station, and search for “The Ring and I,” their introduction, a few years back, to Wagner’s Ring. It’s my poster child for how to talk about classical music in our current culture.

  5. Richard Mitnick says

    O.K., last night during SNL, a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter candy, about seven notes-the whole commercial was just a few seconds- from a Holste planet, I think Jupiter.

    It did not make me go out and buy the Reese’s product, but the first music I put on this morning was The Planets.


    And late this afternoon I saw a Subway commercial, in which people eating a Subway sandwich are blown off their feet by the taste — to the accompaniment of the 1812 overture.

  6. says

    Do you remember the Citibank commercial with Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet playing to accompany some kids flying a kite, as the titles reminded us that we need to make sure to invest properly in the future? Salad days… And of course Subway’s latest commercial hectoring us to eat better (read: to eat Subway), which is playing on TV as I type this, features the 1812 Overture, although that kind of use was ever thus.

    One thing I’ll note is that actual human beings (as opposed to classical music professionals, hee hee) do seem to enjoy the pedagogical performances, including the younger specimens thereof. Admittedly, this is anecdotal, but when I went to the National Symphony Orchestra’s Composer Portrait of Dvorak, in which biographical information is interspersed with musical interludes, the three twentysomethings behind me were absolutely enraptured to be learning the various facts about Antonin, even as for me the ratio of old facts to new facts was about 5 to 1. They chattered about it all through intermission and then sat completely silent during the performance of the Eighth post-intermission. After that, they immediately began chattering again about Dvorak. One has to expect that the Composer Portrait worked there, at least for a few people.

    That may be an extreme example, but I’ve never heard people who genuinely don’t know much about classical music complain about these types of programs. Maybe the trick classical presenters need to master is similar to the trick Pixar has mastered of making films that appeal both to kids and grownups (note: this is not intended to imply a direct parallel).

    When I hosted a concert series with the Pittsburgh Symphony, designed to appeal to a new young audience, we found that established subscribers also liked to come, because they liked the relaxed atmosphere, and enjoyed learning things about the music.

    But can we draw people in, by offering these educational things? Maybe, if they’re really fun, word of mouth will attract more people. But I’m not sure advertising a concert as educational will make people want to come, except for people who are already interested.

  7. says

    Given the grim national mood, I’m surprised I haven’t heard snippets of Berg’s “String Quartet” or Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” used in any commercials yet. I wonder what the audience’s response would be. If Webernesque music can appear on “The Andy Griffith Show” and bits of Ligeti can appear in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and one of Radiohead’s chief frontmen can approvingly cite Messaien as a major influence, certainly we are at the point where music composed outside the Common Practice Period might underline the shaky efforts of capitalism, no?

  8. says

    Name me an actual product that can be sold with Berg’s String Quartet or Schoenberg’s “Erwartung.” Yeesh. The Ligeti in “2001” was supposed to convey an atmosphere of unease, which is not what you want if you are trying to sell a product to a worried populace.

    If I were looking to get more modern as an advertiser, I’d snippet me up some Michael Torke. (Or who else?)

    Fun additional fact: CBS’s college football theme music is stolen from Smetana’s tone poem “Wallenstein’s Camp.” Pretty much note-for-note until the CBS music adds a fanfare to end it. I am the only person I know to have realized this.

    (The captcha for this post is “exits temptation.” I wonder if that’s a descriptor or a directive.)

  9. Paul Helfrich says

    In the current Subway campaign featuring the 1812 Overture, folks eating burgers (from Subway’s competitors, we surmise) are popping buttons on their pants, collapsing chairs, etc, – with the idea being it’s a new year, time to lose some weight, presumably by eating the healthier options offered by Subway.

    Subway has been beating the drum of “eat our food unless you want to get fat” for some time. Nice to hear that music, though!

  10. says

    Red Bull is using Magic Flute. I leave the interpretation of that to others.

    The CEO of Red Bull loves classical music. That might — or might not — be one partial explanation.

  11. Suzanne Derringer says

    But kids DO come with baggage. They may be exposed to all sorts of music, but they can’t escape the cultural bias about classical music – that it’s old stuff or it’s serious or whatever. No music exists in a social vacuum. Music, like religion, is always embedded in a culture, and is a vehicle for that culture. Kids may be open to listening to classical music as part of the wallpaper of their Weltraum, but it doesn’t mean they’ll become consumers of classical music as they grow up.

    And what we’re talking about here is the consumer product, and how to market it.

    And this is the thing: classical music became a consumer product in the 19th century. It was sustained through much of the 20th century largely, I think, because it had a soothing quality (not counting the more Angst-ridden 20th century compositions, of course) – it provided a refuge from the horrific experiences of the 20th century, the two world wars, and then the threat of nuclear annihilation. “We will all go together when we go,” sang Tom Lehrer cheerfully, and all of us here on this blog, I would guess, have lived in the shadow of The Bomb – so much a threat in our youth (remember bomb shelters? air-raid drills at school?) but now this is taken for granted…But classical music was one thing that provided cultural continuity and a sense of stability during much of the 20th century. And now it doesn’t.

  12. Steve Ledbetter says

    I’m not sure if this example fits exactly with your discussion of classical music in ads, because it seems to be more of a parody than an actual ad, but a Japanese friend pointed me to this astonishing vocal rendition (unaccompanied) of Beethoven’s 5th by a group of Japanese singers debating what to have for breakfast. If you search in YouTube for “asagohan”, it’s easy to find (the word means “breakfast” in Japanese). Stunningly done, and huge good fun.

    Sounds delightful, and, parody or not, it takes classical music lightly, which is what I’m talking about.

  13. says

    Had a blackberry for years. When iPhone came out I felt lust, but refused to switch to ATT from verizon. After using my iPod touch and feeling total frustration when I thought of the possibilities, and to that I added the over the air sync through mobile me with my mac I ditched verizon and am now th proud owner o an iPhone 3GS.