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  • An Essay on Popular Music in Advertising: The Bankruptcy of Culture or the Marriage of Art and Commerce?
  • David Allan (bio)

This essay examines the union of popular music and advertising. The commercial use of popular music has inspired opposing opinions. It has been termed a “bankruptcy of culture” as well as a “perfect marriage of art and commerce.” This essay examines the alternative views that have been expressed about the commercial use of popular music.

It is a social and political indicator that mirrors and influences the society we live in (Garofalo 2001). To its proponents, it is a cultural product that entertains and inspires large segments of society by providing meaningful and chronological reference points. To its opponents, it is part of a vast economic system that hypnotizes and massifies segments of consumers through manipulation and commodification. It is popular music. But these descriptions could also be applied to advertising. Some argue that individually, advertising and popular music each provides a positive influence, both socially and economically. Others stress that the two fields create emotions, expectations, and false needs. Yet, when discussing the integration of popular music in advertising, most popular culturalists and theorists speak negatively, describing it as a “bankruptcy of culture” (McChesney 2001) or the combination of “corporation and culture” (“Merchants” 2001). Most marketers and advertisers, however, describe this production technique positively, as more of a so-called marriage of “commerce and art” (“The Newest” 2003). The question then, and the basis for this discussion, is why are there such varying opinions? If the opponents of the integration of these two communication vehicles, that by definition only become “popular” when they are mass distributed and commercially successful, agree that art and commerce have always been “wicked and bizarrely fused Siamese twins” (Mumford 2004) and that advertising affords new artists without a mass outlet some exposure (Howard 2003), why are they so adamantly against it?

This is an essay determined to find the unpopular. It will present the common ground from something so “commonplace” (Scott 1990, p. 223). It will show how much popular music and advertising have in common. It will argue that it is a marriage of convergence, not just of convenience. It will even attempt to suggest that the use of popular music to brand a product or service in advertising proves how much equity and respect popular music has in our culture.

It is clear that the debate and disagreement over the legitimacy of popular music and advertising begins at the definition stage, so that is where this discussion begins. A brief analysis of how popular music and advertising have been, and are being, described provides helpful insight into how much they have in common.

Defining Popular Music and Advertising

Popular Music

The task of defining popular music has always been difficult. Some researchers have tried to define it for what it is, for example: “music for common people” (Middleton 1990, p. 3); “mass art” (Denisoff and Levine 1972, p. 239); “standardized” (Adorno 1941, p. 25); and for what it is not, for example: not “art or folk” (Tagg 1982, p. 41). Others have tried to define it politically (Attali 1985) and historically (Simmel 1968). Many cultural theorists have found that popular music defies precise definition and origination. Shuker (1994, p. 5) suggested that the term popular meant “of the ordinary people” and was first linked with music in a published title in 1855, William Chapple’s “Popular Music of the Olden Times.” Shuker conceded that popular music encompasses both musical and socio-economic characteristics because it “consists of a hybrid of musical traditions, styles, and influences and is an economic product which is invested with ideological significance by many of its consumers” (p. 7).

Middleton (1990) focused on what popular music was but also found it difficult to define. “What is popular music is so riddled with complexities that one is tempted to follow the example of the legendary definition of folk song—all songs are folk songs: I never heard horses sing ‘em—and suggest that all music is popular: popular with someone” (p. 3). Middleton stated that at different historical moments, it was defined qualitatively (as well-liked) or...

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