10 Songs About Advertising

Treble staff

Does it seem like America’s shopping culture and retail industry push ever harder—and longer—to wrest money from our wallets during the winter holidays? This year it seemed like advertisers barely waited until seconds after Halloween became November 1st to start running their Christmas campaigns. There was one notable exception: Kmart, who started plugging their layaway program in freaking July. Even stores that are holding off on decking the halls seem to be investing a decent amount of capitol in advertising that. The frenzy of giving and buying gifts around Christmas, Hanukkah, and even Kwanzaa is a strange dichotomy— our most base and crass consumerist instincts woven throughout a period of holiness and thankfulness. Rather than wait for any last-minute crush, we at Treble figured now might be a good time to focus music’s lens on the art of the sell. So here’s our list of essential songs looking at the form, function, and failures of advertising, marketing, promotion, and publicity.We would have put more than 10 here, but this shopping cart’s only so big.

So here’s 10 Songs About Advertising. Listen along with the Spotify playlist below, and  use the comments to let us know your thoughts and songs you would have added.


Wednesday_Morning,_3_A.M.(Simon_&_Garfunkel_album_-_cover_art)Simon & Garfunkel – “The Sound of Silence”
from Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (1964; Columbia)

Closing out side A of Simon & Garfunkel’s debut– a modest LP relying mostly on joyful folk covers and originals closely mimicking their format– was “The Sound of Silence,” a beautiful sore-thumb of a ballad with a dark message: While global communication and marketing increase on a yearly basis, “silence like a cancer grows” on a person to person basis. To this date, the original cut of this track is probably Paul Simon’s most striking song, with Art Garfunkel doing his part to push the arrangement over the emotional edge.

Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., as it turned out, was a bit of a dud and the duo broke up about as soon as they had formed. It was ironically this mournful piece that saved the band’s career and launched them into commercial success when producer Tom Wilson held a session with the same backing band from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” to liven up the song with some decidedly more playful overdubs. While that remixed “folk-rock” sound would forever define the duo’s career going forward, the original’s stark message of loneliness within a flood of information is as applicable today as it ever was.– ATB


PiecesOfaMan_coverGil Scott Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
from Pieces of a Man (1971; Flying Dutchman)

 Rap music as we know it today would not exist without the fiery poetry of Gil-Scott Heron and all MCs– be they overtly “conscious” or not– owe him a great debt. “The Revolution Will Be Televised,” the opening salvo of his debut album, takes on the rampant, wildfire commercialization of the 1970s with one of his most passionate pieces, letting people know that change can only come like a sudden rock through the window in the dead of night. Images of brands, stars and political charlatans of the day cycle through the lyrics – everyone from Coca-Cola and NBC to Natalie Wood and Nixon administration fixers Spiro Agnew and John Mitchell. The revolution may not have come the way Heron predicted it, and in some ways it’s good he’s not alive to see how our world’s glut of commercialization has only become far worse. But, on the other hand, he might be pleased to see that hip-hop firebrands like Killer Mike, Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar as well as R&B and jazz iconoclasts like D’Angelo and Kamasi Washington are proud standard-bearers of his rebellious traditions. – LG


Kraftwerk_-_The_Man-MachineKraftwerk –  “The Model”
from The Man-Machine (1978; Capitol)

German synthpop pioneers Kraftwerk spent much of their time with their heads in the future, but one of the most recognizable tracks of their career happened to sit firmly within the present. While many of the songs here focus on advertising as a concept or industry, “The Model” instead humanizes the face of the industry by slowly following the daily exploits of an attractive advert model. The cultural critique here, if it exists, is subtle. But given Kraftwerk’s alien, emotionless presentation of the lines it sometimes seems as if the listener is supposed to take the simple lines in as absurdist. After all,  there’s certainly a lot of fuss being made about this one woman, even though she hardly does much of anything at all throughout the song’s four minute run. – ATB


EternallyThe Saints – “Know Your Product”
from Eternally Yours (1978; Harvest)

Punk, as an ethos, is generally skeptical and cynical about commercialism. And with good reason; just look at the various corporations that have used Minor Threat’s imagery without permission, for example. Yet few punk songs have made sneering at Madison Avenue’s bullshit sound quite as fun as The Saints’ “Know Your Product.” The leadoff track from their essential Eternally Yours, the song is as much Stax as it is Sex Pistols, with a horn section backing Chris Bailey’s indictments of the voices on the airwaves selling him wonder-products and brand new smokes. All those promises sound good, but Bailey knows that it’s always too good to be true: “You’re never gonna give me what I need.” – JT


Entertainment!Gang of Four – “Natural’s Not In It”
from Entertainment (1979; EMI)

Post-punk innovators Gang of Four spent most of their debut dabbling in funky, edgy punk music and various sociopolitical musings, but “Natural’s Not In It” is when they sunk their teeth the deepest into consumerism and commodification. But, in this song’s case, Jon King focuses more on the industry itself and how well-off citizens have so many options for entertainment and pleasure that they can never be satisfied. Or, as he puts it in the song’s climax: “This heaven gives me migraine.” The song itself features one of the spunkiest, most riveting grooves on the record– a bit of sugar to help King’s bitter medicine go down.  – ATB


TheClashLondonCallingalbumcoverThe Clash – “Lost in the Supermarket”
from London Calling (1979; CBS)

This classic cut from London Calling centers in on consumerism and how much it affects us. Joe Strummer yelps “I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily. I came in here for that special offer, a guaranteed personality.” He was quintessentially summing up consumerist ideals of the time, many of which haven’t changed much since the record’s release over 35 years ago. With the media focusing so much attention on new goods and products, it seemed like human interaction was simply fading away, and Strummer felt strongly enough to write a beautiful, yet sad, song about the dire situation. His words still reign true today as we consistently forget how important human interaction is. “Lost in the Supermarket” serves as an anthem for anti-consumerist sentiments, one grocery aisle at a time.– VC


220px-This_Note's_for_YouNeil Young – “This Note’s for You”
from This Note’s for You (1988; Reprise)

The 1980s were largely lost on Neil Young, littered as they were with albums full of stubbornness and failed experiments. His first bright spot of the decade came here. He had written activist rock songs well before this point, but “This Note’s for You” represented a significant increase in get-off-my-lawn frustration. He was surrounded by musicians young and old shilling products on TV for no good reason or belief other than a payday— Grace Jones selling scooters, for example, or Steve Winwood singing for his beer. His backing band’s grimiest playing on this album and his succinct pro-fan lyrics put Young high above that fray: “Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi/Ain’t singin’ for Coke/I don’t sing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke.” Matched up with a video parodying the likes of Michael Jackson and Budweiser pitch-dog Spuds Mackenzie, he scared MTV into banning it right up until it won the Video Music Award for Best Video of 1989. I like to think the energy of this song and the momentum of its controversy began the career renaissance that would fully bloom with Young’s next album, Freedom. – AB


Pavement_Crooked_RainPavement – “Cut Your Hair”
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994; Matador)

The fun of “Cut Your Hair” lies in its contradictions. If those inconsistencies weren’t immediately apparent from the song’s catchy, wordless chorus, they were driven home as soon as Stephen Malkmus uncomfortably took his spot next to Drew Barrymore on Jay Leno’s couch in support of the track, a single for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. For a song as vehemently opposed to the image-centric superficiality inherent in establishing a music career, “Cut Your Hair” got the band the closest to the attention and fame they were trying to deflate. But Pavement were never afraid to roll their eyes at their own success; “I saw another one just the other day, a special new band,” Malkmus snarls just two years after the runaway success of Slanted and Enchanted. But if “Cut Your Hair” is a reaction to the band’s fear of becoming a marketing gimmick, it succeeds, in retrospect, in how it both dodges and embraces that very fear. – SP


Gorillaz_Demon_DaysGorillaz – “Feel Good Inc.”
from Demon Days (2005; Parlophone)

Ten years ago, “Feel Good Inc.” was ubiquitous, thanks to those iPod ads that paired the song with a myriad of roller-skating silhouettes. As with many (if not all) of the songs on this list, there’s an irony to any music critical of consumer culture since that culture is often the medium through which those songs meet their audience. But pairing this song with an Apple ad meant that Damon Albarn’s (slightly abstract) message of the joylessness of “ephemeral style” and corporate dumbing-down (personified by the aggressive just-relax verses provided by De La Soul) went straight to the top. And, you know, having one of the most distinctive bass lines of 2000s pop music doesn’t hurt the single’s chances either. – SP


parkay quartsParkay Quarts – “The More It Works”
from Content Nausea (2014; What’s Your Rupture? )

If there’s any overarching theme to Parquet Courts’ career (or Parkay Quarts, depending on which mutation of their line-up we’re dealing with,) it’s in the struggle to find meaning in a culture constantly bombarding us with an overwhelming barrage of meaningless input. How do we maintain our identity in a sea of content telling us what we want? Is there even such a thing as individuality anymore? Andrew Savage might have been paralyzed by all the messages directed at him when he was stoned and starving, but with “The More It Works,” he takes a more proactive route, urging listeners to act counter to — or at least outside of — the marketing messages intended to control them. The irony, of course, is that the band have to play by their own logic: the chorus sees Savage repeating “The more you use it, the more it works” over and over, his delivery growing in desperate intensity as he realizes that, in order to break through that overwhelming wall of content, he’s going to have to play by its rules. – SP

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