(New Link: http://www.adsthatsuck.ca/archives/2005/07/coopting_cultur.php
There is nothing more frustrating for me than seeing a commercial on television that would be perfect for this column, and then never seeing it again. This happened to me the other day when I saw the new Rickard's Red commercial with the monks singing about how great Rickard's Red is. Immediately, I hit record on my PVR, as it can record things you've already seen. Imagine my dismay when I find out that for some reason, the PVR only recorded part of the show, and not the part that had the commercial in it. Baffled, I was... and disappointed.
So, if you've seen this commercial, you might know what I'm talking about. If you don't - I'm sorry.
Basically, the commercial is as I described it. Half a dozen monks dressed in scarlet robes sing the virtues of Rickard's Red as it is poured. The song they are actually singing is from Carmina Burana - the first movement, O Fortuna. Even if you don't recognize the name, you've heard this song, I guarantee. It's standard end-of-the world music.
I have a lot of problems with this commercial... and all of them are on principle.
First of all, the monks change the lyrics to something like:
"Oh, Rickard's Red
So clean and smooth
We really like to drink it..."
(those aren't the actual lyrics, but they're similar, and they fit the rhythm)
The original lyrics, which are in Germanic Latin, translate to:
Fate - monstrous
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Yeah! Exactly what you're looking for in a beer commercial! The whole thing is about whores and how the world is dark and terrible. Granted, I'm probably one out of about 1000 that knows that, but still.
Second, I'm not sure what the monks have to do with anything. This particular piece was based on various poems and songs from the 13th century, some of them liturgical, but the music was written by Carl Orff in the 1930s.
Now, if it sounds like I'm nit-picking at this point, I am. All of my problems with this commercial go back to one thing, and that is co-opting culture, and that's what I'm going to rant about today.
I am not one of those people that believes that art and advertising should be mutually exclusive. In fact, I think there is room for a healthy relationship between art and the commercial world. This is something I take very seriously because I spend a lot of my time working in the arts, promoting theatre and music, performing and helping groups get their art to more people. When I see something like this, it makes me a little nauseous.
There are two kinds of relationships that art and commerce can have. The first is the ideal, and the one that I highly advocate for both sides. That is the symbiotic relationship, where art helps advertising, and advertising, in turn, helps art. You see this quite a bit, especially with a lot of the more progressive companies, and often, the companies with the smartest ad agencies. The example that springs immediately to mind is Volkswagen.
In 2001, they launched a campaign for the VW Cabrio that featured a song that most people hadn't heard of called "Pink Moon" by a guy named Nick Drake. I looked the song up, found out what it was called, and it remains one of my favourite songs to this day. I know at least two other people who found that song by the same means. Maybe they bought the CD, maybe they didn't, but the commercial gave a fairly unknown recording artist some international play. And, I'm sure they sold a few cars in the process.
The other kind seems more common, maybe because it screams at me whenever I see it, and that is the relationship we see here: the parasitic relationship where advertising co-opts a piece of music simply to sell their product. The artist gets no royalties because they're usually dead and the piece is in the public domain, and the music is already popular so it's not like the commercial is promoting high art. The result is people that only know Mozart's Moonlight Sonata as "the diamond song" and Beethoven's Ninth as "the milk song."
You see it all the time - President's Choice branding themselves with Michaelangelo and Raphael paintings is a perfect example. The company reaps all the benefit, and it uses up the art, commodifying it, and leaving it devoid of the meaning and beauty that made it last for centuries. I'm sure Rembrandt never conceived of The Girl With Pearl Earrings
shilling eye drops, and I doubt he'd be very happy if he was still around.
This example is one of the worst. It changes the words of something that was once a beautiful piece, and mocks it. Maybe that's the nature of advertising - to be so naturally reductive that any meaning beyond the immediately intended is undesirable. I'd like to think not, but if that's the case, leave art alone. When there's such an opportunity for advertising to promote art, abusing it like this is criminal.
That being said, if you have never heard the original version of this song, and you ever get the chance to see it live, take it. It is one of the most powerful pieces of music you will ever hear. I guarantee it.