The Sounds of Capitalism by Timothy Taylor

Masses, classes, brands, bands

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<i>The Sounds of Capitalism</i> by Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor’s latest book tracks the relationship between music and advertising from the early 20th century to the present. A professor of musicology—both ethnomusicology and the regular kind—at UCLA, Taylor has written several books on music, including Global Pop: World Music, World Markets and Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. He continues to examine the relationship between music and our economic system, especially the ways they contribute to and reinforce each other.

The Sounds Of Capitalism begins with the development of the radio, the first piece of technology that allowed the mass propagation of sound.

Initially, advertising companies didn’t know how to handle radio; they focused almost exclusively on print until they eventually figured out that the two could supplement each other. In contrast to the highly data-driven, niche advertising of today (earlier this year, New York Times Magazine ran an article that suggested big-box store Target has become so expert at predicting consumption patterns that it can tell when women are pregnant from their purchases, then tailor advertising accordingly), early advertising focused on “appeal[ing] to large and diverse audiences while offending the fewest people.”

As NBC put it, “Tell it to the masses, and the classes will understand.” And since “the great common denominator of broadcasting” was music, tunes served to attract those masses, regardless of class divisions.

The masses occasionally had wild reactions to these new radio advertisements. A Dixie Cup Company advertisement from 1928 that used a calliope—an unusual, air-powered instrument—caused “A dozen listeners in a Massachusetts town” to write a “letter pleading for at least ten minutes of the calliope instead of a few shorts blasts.” A farmer “drove twenty-five miles. . .to the brand office of a utility company to express his appreciation for its radio band.”

As early forms of market research developed (the first audience survey purportedly occurred in 1928), advertising grew more sophisticated, and radio big shots increased their efforts to command audience loyalty. Certain radio personalities, like the crooner Rudy Vallee, put their talents to use in the service of various products with programs such as “The Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour.” (Those interested in finding out more about Vallee should watch the 1942 screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story—he plays a vital and amusing role.)

When the Depression hit, a quicker, cheaper, and upbeat musical advertising pitch—the jingle—came into being.

The first classic jingle came from General Mills:

Have you tried Wheaties?
. . .
They’re crispy, and crunchy, the whole year through
The kiddies never tire of them and neither will you.

In addition to being quick and catchy, jingles also proved easily adaptable. When Pepsi reduced the sugar level in their product, they alerted people with: “Pepsi-Cola’s up to date, for modern folks who watch their weight.”

After World War II, consumption took on a new role in America, Taylor writes, as “a civic duty that differentiated Americans from Soviets.” Advertisers developed a new interest in determining potential desires of consumers, or better yet, creating and controlling those desires. Music became an increasingly important part of sophisticated methods used to manipulate buyers. According to one of the trade publications, ad designers found new flexibility “‘to emotionalize. . . your entire selling proposition. Through music, you are selling from the heart, to the heart. . . Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, and sell a lot of soft drinks.’”

Rising levels of regulation in the world of written advertisements added to the ever-expanding role of music in stimulating consumption.

In the ‘60s, advertising music began to mirror the pop and rock of the day, as advertisers worked harder to hook the young people who now ruled popular culture. The jingle that had seduced so many buyers for so many years began to seem stagnant, and it declined in importance, replaced by truly unstoppable cultural juggernauts: pop songs.

An industry man said at the time, “We have to be more honest in our advertising. More real. We use music that is real because the best ads are real. Pop songs are real.” By 1982, industry people suggested that “Music is the catalyst of advertising.”

After this point, according to Taylor, the advertising world and the music world became increasingly close and co-dependent. Advertisers started licensing popular songs and paying successful musicians to endorse products. Advertising Age described this process with a nice turn of phrase: “converting band loyalty to brand loyalty.” But the process also goes in the opposite direction—ad people, especially in recent years, look to break new bands to an audience. And as radio grows increasingly monopolized, musicians seeking to get their music to a wide audience must rely more on advertisements, television shows and movies.

In his introduction, Taylor emphasizes “the empirical basis” of his research, which largely consists of articles from advertising magazines, quotes from ad-men, and interviews with composers of ad-music. (Though these serve to support his narrative, they can be redundant, and spicing up trade memos isn’t always easy.)

By the end of The Sounds Of Capitalism, Taylor drops the empirical and turns instead to cultural theory.

He quotes the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu to suggest that people responsible for advertising now are members of “the new petite bourgeoisie,” a group that Bourdieu classified as those “rising individuals who have not obtained all the educational capital which, in the absence of social capital, is needed to escape the most limited of social positions.”

Dangerous as it is to dive into thickets of cultural theory, it’s unclear that Taylor’s change-of-course makes much sense. Taylor builds on Bourdieu’s idea that the “new petite bourgeoisie” foster “a fascination for ‘the avant-garde underground, which is their monopoly. . . as a challenge to legitimate culture.’” (Bourdieu may define “legitimate culture” somewhere, but Taylor doesn’t bother to.)

Relying on a dichotomy that separates “the avant-garde underground” and “legitimate culture,” Taylor writes that “The new petite bourgeoisie in advertising is not educating mainstream viewers about the glories of art, but instead is introducing them to the sounds of the underground.”

That point strikes me as both patronizing and out-of-date.

Hasn’t the avant-garde been the foundation of the legitimate for years now? This is certainly the case in many genres of popular music: Look at The Velvet Underground in the late ‘60s or the Talking Heads and other CBGB groups in the late ‘70s. See the rise of indie on defiantly tiny labels in the ‘80s. Check out the Riot-Grrrl movement in the ‘90s. What about the progression of hip-hop and electronic music from small-scale movements with local bases to hugely influential forces? Subversion is practically the definition of cultural movement in music.

And music is not alone—other forms of art show similar progressions. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and other artists started underground and avant-garde, only to have their work embraced as “legitimate culture” and sold for millions of dollars. In fact, doesn’t the corrupting power of commerce often require that legitimate culture gain its legitimacy from the underground? What better way can it incubate and develop free of the pressure of profit than by using its avant-garde origin as a test of its artistry?

Taylor finishes his book by suggesting that advertisers “fetishize[d]” their own creativity as “a way of attempting to survive the unprecedented voracity of capitalism and the iron cage of rationalization that accompanies it, even as they serve capitalism.”

But maybe he has things twisted?

As artists of aggregate demand, ad-makers put us in the cage. That’s where we rationalize desires we did not know we had only moments ago.

Elias Leight is getting a Ph.D. at Princeton in politics. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.