Friday, March 28, 2008

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: An MPAA Guide

If you follow films at all, you quickly discover that some directors hit your buttons. That even their miserable failures you find fascinating and watch and even defend. Tim Burton has long been one of those directors for me. He has an amazing visual sense and is an extremely musical director (in fact, most of his films have been discussed in the scholarly literature on film music). Since I enjoy his films so much, I became curious about what the MPAA had to say about them. Most of the entries were prosaic at best, but the entry for his 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory struck me as both humorous and apropos:

Rated PG for quirky situations, action and mild language.

That's right, after seeing Burton's films for 20 years, the MPAA finally decided that they contained "quirky situations." That's like saying the Star Wars films contain lightsabers - it is true, but so generic, it tells you nothing.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sticky Commercial Jingles You Can't Get Out of Your Head

Yesterday's post got me thinking about commercial songs. For a laugh line, I threw in a reference to Hasbro's "My Buddy" jingle. I figured the song's ubiquity, particularly among people my age, would help make my point that marketing to our age group through nostalgia works. (and if you don't know the song, here it is along with the follow-up Kid Sister). What I didn't figure was that so many of you would curse my name for bringing that song back into your head.

Since one of my abiding research interests happens to be the use of music with moving images, it interested me how much power these short songs have. Repetition of them at an early age accounts for some of their staying power, but there are many commercial songs that get just as stuck in your head that were originally aimed at all ages and even a few aimed at adults. So I decided to explore a few that stood out to me as particularly sticky. Read what follows at your own risk.

Meow Mix

This is a perfect example of a sticky commercial jingle that doesn't work. You are supposed to pay attention to all the wonderful things that are in Meow Mix for your cat, but you end up staring transfixed at the weirdly moving cat's mouth and hearing "Meow, meow, meow, meow" over and over in your head. Afterwards, as though coming out of a trance, you have the song stuck in your head, but you aren't sure what exact brand of catfood just tried to lodge itself in your brain. Still, the stepwise motion of the melody that is simply sequenced can conceivably go on forever, which is perhaps why it does in your mind. We are used to filling in lost information in songs, and so our brain continues the sequencing up and down ad nauseum, making this a musically successful jingle, though not a commercially successful one.


This will always be one of the best commercial jingles both for stickiness and for commercial success. Why? Because the jingle actually teaches young children how to spell the name of the product. That way, when Mom is in the store buying lunch meat, the kid can spell out exactly what they want, and even if they are young and unable to read like Sam, they can recognize a string of a few letters and make sure you are getting the right product. The devious brilliance of this commercial jingle (along with the Oscar Meyer Weiner song) is probably why it has aired almost continuously for over 30 years. And, like the "Meow mix" song, the melody is nothing but a sequence, only this time of rising thirds instead of a scalar passage.


The completely sung commercial is rare, but can work wonders in embedding a product in the mind of consumers. I chose this one both for it being completely sung and for being one of the rare jingles that wasn't aimed at children at all. Notice how well the music and visuals correlate. The opening shots are in partial darkness and the vocal line is basically a monotone. But as activity in the visuals begin, activity in the voice part begins as well. What also interests me is how the shots of coffee are short - the camera cuts quickly to sustained takes on people's faces. The commercial wants to be sure you notice that this is about people enjoying coffee, not about coffee itself. The music mirrors this - it is a more complete song, something more human than a simple jingle (Although the last line certainly is a jingle. Notice how drastically the vocal line shifts at the end; it is tacked on to the end to stick in your head). In other words, this is all about you, about something you enjoy. We aren't trying to sell you anything. And if you like this feeling, buy our coffee.

Ok, one last one:

This commercial song remains one of the most effective. Notice how it starts: "I'd like to buy the world a home." No mention of coke even appears in the song until halfway through the commercial. Instead, you see all these fresh-faced people of every race singing and enjoying themselves while holding a coke, logo-side out. Notice how the music performs the visuals. At first, you have only one person, then three, but they are singing the same line. Then, as they begin to "sing in harmony," the music begins to perform in harmony. Notice too that the "harmony" section is the first time an African-American is shown onscreen, a not-too-subtle message in 1970 when the song was written.

This is one of those few commercial songs that broke through into popular song; many people called into radio stations requesting they play the Coke song. It was so successful that Coke tried to replicated the success in the early 90s with the Always Coca-Cola campaign. But, as the makers of Coke found out with New Coke in the mid-1980s, there's no beating the real thing.

After reading through my little list, I'm curious for your own opinions of Sticky Commercial Jingles. Suggest enough with a strong enough case and I'll probably do an additional post in the future.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Nostalgia and Movie Marketing

Take a look at this picture:What's your gut reaction? "What in the world is that?" "I'm not sure exactly what it is, but that looks like some sort of martial artist." "Is that a ninja?" "Hey, is that AskaNinja?" "I'm not sure what that picture belongs to, but ninjas are cool!" Or, "Are you crazy, that's Snake Eyes!"

If your gut led you to the last answer, you obviously are a child of the 80s. It means that you spent too many weekends hiding G. I. Joe figures all over your backyard and throwing them out of your treehouse with your Dad's handkerchief tied to them like parachutes. It means that this picture was released for you.

And me. I'm a child of the 80s who reveled in G. I. Joe, and, as a member of that generation of toy buyers, I know that Snake Eyes was the coolest of the figures. Releasing that character's design as the first offered to the public a year and a half before the movie comes out means that the makers of the new movie obviously know how we viewed Snake Eyes. It means that they are marketing their product to those of us in our 30s, not to teen-agers alone. And it means they expect us to take our sons to see the movie.

Not a bad marketing plan. It worked with Transformers last year. That movie was expected to be successful, but not as successful as it became. I believe that success came from members of my generation who wanted to see the movie out of nostalgia and dragged our kids along with us. Who knows if the formula will be successful again. But if it is, it will only be a matter of time before the My Buddy movie comes out. After all, that movie has built-in marketing. How many of you are already singing the commercial jingle?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sonata for a Good Man

A few weeks ago, Joy and I sat down and watched last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, The Lives of Others. I knew a little about it, but was unprepared for the physical, emotional reaction the film elicited from me. You must watch this film; I'll give no secrets away, but one small feature of the film struck me as a brilliant commentary on our current musical culture.

Surely you've seen the film's primary image, even if you haven't paid much attention to the movie itself. In this image, we see a small man with pointed features and a bald head almost consumed by a set of large earphones. He is listening, and so wrapped up in the act that he is oblivious to almost anything around him.

What he is listening to is someone else's life, the eponymous "lives of others." He does this because it is his job but also because his home life is sterile, a point underlined by the cool colors that populate his apartment and the blue wash through which the filmmakers shot those scenes. In contrast, the lives into which his ear protrude are full of warm colors and rich fabrics, lives full of love and connection. The listeners seeks this connection above everything else.

How like the listening man is our civilization? Everywhere you go you see earbuds or opportunities for listening to music, for sounds to take us out of our every day and connect with people we don't know and will never meet face to face. But we seek to live through those sounds often to the exclusion of what is around us.

But that small point is a side street on the road to my main observation. In the special features, the director mentions that he did not set out to make a film about East Germany or the Stasi. Instead, he started with a quote. Supposedly, according to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who wrote as well as directed the film, Lenin once remarked that he had to force himself to stop listening to Beethoven's Appassionata sonata because if he did not, he would never have completed the Russian revolution. Reading in Alex Ross' book last month I found a similar quote from Lenin: "I can't listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell."

It was this image, that music has the power to stop us from doing the horrible things we so often do, that inspired the film and my thoughts today. Think through the implications of that idea. Wars, murders, suicides, abuse, all stopped if we would only listen to the right music. It certainly happens in intriguing ways during The Lives of Others through a piano work titled, appropriately, "Sonata for a Good Man." And the notion of music's power is certainly not new - Plato argued in Book 3 of the Republic that "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with them" and Augustine in his Confessions noted the opposite of Lenin's comment, writing that music could easily sway his mind from things of heaven.

However, our culture has given us a new wrinkle in this age old debate: if music does have power over us, what does it mean for our society that so much of our listening takes place in isolation? We now create the soundtrack of our lives, jumping from one song to the next, one genre rubbing up against another, with little regard for the lives of others. Sure we can share that soundtrack by publishing our playlists, but the communal aspect of music has drastically changed through drastic reduction. Almost any sense of a shared musical culture is gone in favor of a rash of subcultures. The movie offers one thesis for how this situation ultimately plays out, but I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How to Know Your Mother is a Voice Teacher

We've recently been playing a game with Sam where we name a letter and see if he can come up with a word that letter starts with. We usually play this game with his letter books, though the Elmo computer game is a much preferable way to play because he gets to sit at the computer and push letters. He's getting pretty good at the whole "a letter equals a sound equals a word" equation, although it does lead to some interesting conversations. This afternoon, for instance, Joy asked Sam, "What does U stand for?

Sam's reply? "U is for uvula!"

Only the son of a voice teacher.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Introducing Analise Noelle Benton

I'm an absolutely horrible uncle who has failed to inform you of the birth of sonic granades' newest niece. So here, with great fanfare, is our announcement of our beautiful new niece:

Analise Noelle Benton

She was born Saturday, February 16 at 2:00pm and is healthy, wealthy, and, um, growing...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Carl Orff is Rolling in His Grave

I've always been fascinated by how we perceive lyrics versus the actual lyrics a singer is singing. English is a notoriously hard language to set to our traditional structures of melody and harmony, and the language isn't served much better by the people who sing it. Thus we get instances where the sound of the words a group is singing is so far removed from the actual words that we get humorous disconnects.

Some singers have embraced this ambiguity - Seal has long refused to put his lyrics inside his albums because he likes the fact that each listener hears a different song. According to his philosophy, if you like a song that says one thing to you and you discover that the songwriter intended another meaning, your personal meaning should be valid. Because of his stance, if you peruse lyrics websites you get all sorts of different attempts at his lyrics, from "I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grave" to "I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grey," two vastly different meanings of the chorus of that song.

But what of foreign languages? I've never considered how we as English speakers might understand, say, old Latin through our language filter. With this background, you can understand why I found this music video for Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, one of the most recognized pieces of music from the past one hundred years from movies and television use alone, hilarious and thought provoking. Well, maybe more hilarious than anything else. Once you follow the link, be sure to reload the page so everything syncs up perfectly.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

And So It Begins...

Yesterday morning, we received exciting mail at our house. "What?" you might be eagerly asking, "an shipment or unexpected money or Krispy Kreme coupons?" No, we received coupons for training diapers.

We hadn't really been thinking about potty training Sam yet; we figured with a new baby on the way and Sam taking to throwing himself on the ground when we thwart his will this might not be the most auspicious time to begin that endeavor. But when Sam saw the coupons, he immediately became intrigued.

"What are those?" he asked Joy. She began to explain, he asked more questions, they went to the bathroom so he could inspect the potty, and Joy thought that would be the end of things.

She was wrong.

By the time I got home yesterday afternoon, Sam was enthralled with the potty. He was carrying around the Thomas the Train underwear we bought a few months ago anticipating this day and proclaiming that once he learned to poop in the potty he'd wear Thomas on his bottom. During bath, we talked about how it felt to need to use the potty and in general had the kind of conversations you would be embarrassed to have in polite company. I thought that would be the end of it and that this morning, he'd be over the potty thing.

I was wrong.

He was so interested that this morning, Joy bought some training diapers at the grocery store. I was in at work, administering a comprehensive examination and when I got back to my office around noon, I had an excited phone call from Sam:

"Dada," he breathlessly intoned," I poo-pooed in the potty!" And so he did. This afternoon we went and let him pick out his own potty and he's been playing with it ever since. We'll see how all this goes, but Sam's a Granade, so when he gets interested in something, there's no changing his focus. And since he's talking about it all the time, conversations should be interesting at church tomorrow.

We'll keep you posted.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Music History Listening Journals: The Online Edition, pt. 2

It's the beginning of the month, which means my students have completed another round of listening journals and posted them to their blogs. Go check it out, read a few of the blog entries, see if you can find some new music that might peak your interest, and watch my students (hopefully) get better at discussing music in writing.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Surprising Beard Fact #874

Did you know that when it is below freezing outside, and you subject yourself to that weather for more than one minute, your exhalations out your nose momentarily freeze on your beard?

Did you also know that I'm tired of cold weather? Being in San Antonio this past week (where I was mistaken in the hotel elevator as an Obama staffer - go figure) made me eagerly anticipate spring.