Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's a pink, pink, pink moon

All day I have been preoccupied with translation, and I have very much had Nick Drake's Pink Moon album on my mind. As many will undoubtedly know, the public fame of that album and its title song grew exponentially when VW decided to use it in one of their commercials, targeted specifically at an anti-commercial-watching segment of potential VW-buyers...

A long chapter of the 33 1/3-series volume on Pink Moon by Amanda Petrusich is given over to a very full description of the creative and commercial process behind the making of this particular ad, so one can go there for additonal info.

This, not very successful book carries a very pretentious blurb, part of which goes like this:

Like nearly all prematurely buried cult figures, Nick Drake is reinvented each time he is rediscovered. In 2000, the sheepish, astral musings of "Pink Moon" became synonymous with backing a Volkswagen Cabrio convertible away from a raucous house party, as VW boldly sold American drivers on the notion of eschewing red plastic cups and bro-hugs for moonbeams and tree trunks (and a cute German car - sort of). The Cabrio ad inadvertently sparked an unlikely boost in record sales, propelling the album towards platinum status nearly 28 years after its release. But with each well-intentioned revival of interest, Nick Drake slips further and further out of reach, martyred and codified, superceded and consumed by his own tragic context. Since his controversial death in 1974, Nick Drake has become: the 26-year-old prophet, the diffident enigma, the tortured precursor to Kurt Cobain, the fallen hero, the folksinger-as-folksymbol, the self-sacrificing patron saint of lonely, disaffected teenagers - the One who died for our sins.
For now, just watch:

Note how the commercial contrasts nature and a quiet communion with it (river, darkness, fireflies - and, of course - moon) with youth culture of the noisy, imbecilic kind (loutish, drunken and disorderly behaviour). This is a tricky sell: one community has to be valorized (we are not interested in lonely drivers here); the other must be connoted negatively. A strategy that helps accomplish this is to associate the essential features of the car with the desired community and its harmony with nature. The car's stream-lined design details and its almost noiseless swoosh as it glides through the land all become natural features: the tail lights are at one with other light sources: fireflies, moon glow; the in-car stereo produces harmonious sounds that only enhance nature's singing (crickets), and do not drown them out. The price for this is that the commercial has to conjure up a fantasy world: after all one cannot really listen to acoustic folk music in most cars, least of all with the top down!

The actual lyrics to Drake's song are, of course, not really very suited for the purpose of selling a cabriolet car - or any product for that matter, with the possible exception of Prozac. They are in fact quite scary and haunting, promising us that forces of nature will catch up with 'you', the addressee of the song, i.e. us all, and do away with us:
I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all
It's a pink moon
It's a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.
The threat, revenge fantasy or prophesy spoken by these lyrics makes a lot of sense in connection with Nick Drake's own life, but clashes violently with the easy life and quest for peace and quiet of the young people riding the VW. The only way this can work is if our four friends in the cabrio can somehow be associated with the pink moon and its revenge on an other, unidentified party. This is accomplished through the film's timing of image and music, with the most aggressive part of the lyrics being sung just as the car pulls up in front of the house where the obnoxious party guests are already at it with their offensive, loutish behaviour. The VW drivers thus become allies with the pink moon in the future eradication of the louts... but for now they'll just drive on through the night, swooshing along to Nick Drake's whispered lyrics.

This use or abuse of a song that is basically a cry for help in order to sell cars has indeed offended many who were already fans of Nick Drake's music. On the flip side of that concern is the unquestionable fact that thousands of people who had never heard this music before began seeking it out because of the commercial. One testimony on YouTube captures the sentiment of several young people encountering Drake's music through the commercial:
I listened to all of Nick's songs, especially this one, when I drove from Atlanta to LA alone in my Alfa spider, the top down much of the way, most beautifully in New Mexico. For me, the commercial makes me yearn for those perfect youthful summers I never quite had, fresh aired freedom with lovely groovy girls and true blue friends and all of life's delicious possibilities rolled out before them. And who cares if it's a commercial. Copywriters and directors can be as soulful as anyone.
In a cultural studies vocabulary, this is the typical process of commodification and incorporation into the mainstream of a hitherto underground, or subcultural artefact or cultural phenomenon. The incorporation always comes at a price, but also opens up a potential space for usage of the product in new narratives, which themselves can still be subversive or un-incorporated...

This short analysis is one such narrative.


Fox said...

Thank you so much for your cultural analysis of the commercial, the song, and much of the reaction the introduction(or reintroduction in this case) caused. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and will always hold a special place in my heart for Nick Drake's music, and the commercial, that in my opinion, overcame, if even just so slighty, the definition of an advertisement to become a piece of art, and a symbol of beauty our society should never forget, but usually does.


Bent said...

Mike - glad you liked the post. I'm translating a new book on Nick, so be on the lookout for news on that...