For Sale: Pop Culture, Includes Soundtrack

For Sale: Pop Culture, Includes Soundtrack
A friend recently remarked that he no longer received much information about pop culture from television. Rather, he gleaned most of it from the internet. Add celebrity magazines and newspapers and there's pretty much no need to watch television at all. All it takes is a few issues of Entertainment Weekly and you can name the cast of Felicity without ever having seen the show.

So what television, if any, are people watching? Judging from eavesdropped snippets of conversation, commercials. You used to hear your bus mates rehashing last night'sSeinfeld , acting out all the parts until the jokes weren't funny anymore, now it's people reciting lines from Molson commercials.

There are some good things about the whole commercial thing. Some cool musicians are making a little bit of money off the proposition. And before you yell "sell out," who do you think is less likely to make a commercial record: A band that has a comfortable nest egg, yet hasn't gotten drunk at the well of fame; or four really hungry kids who need a hit or it's back to flippin' burgers? On the other hand, who can begrudge the poor a chance to be not poor? The Rolling Stones may have made a $12 million selling "Start Me Up" to Microsoft, but I'm sure Dmitri From Paris made a fraction of that for his car commercial soundtrack.

Not that there isn't a downside to this commodification, this hip advertising. It is advertising, after all. And advertisers are people who want you to buy things you don't need with money you don't have. As soon as some kind of fragile sub culture emerges like a flower growing between the cracks in the sidewalk, advertising is there to pluck it out and pin it to its lapel. Ravers, skaters, groovesters, computer geeks, you name it, the Gap has dressed them in khakis and a car company is using their music to sell those stupid-ass sport utility vehicles.

Not that any of this is new. Thomas Frank in his book The Conquest of Cool claims it started in the late '50s when Volkswagen used self-deprecating, anti-conformist ads to sell its Beetle. What's new about the hipness of ads today is that instead of reflecting changing cultural patterns, they have become culture. An example: A certain nine-year-old in South Western Ontario receives a polo shirt, swim trunks and a jacket for his birthday. He holds them up and asks, "Am I supposed to like these?" His mother replies that they are from the Gap. "The Gap," he exclaims. "Cool."

Commercials do more these days to sell records than videos. Most folks think Sloan's "Money City Maniacs" is called "that song from that beer commercial." Again, this is not new. In the late '80s record store employees were constantly queried about "that song, you know, from that beer commercial. The one with the alarm?" For the record, it was April Wine's "Oowatanite," not "Money City Maniacs," but the similarities are kind of eerie, now that we think about it.

So, what is to be done? Nothing. Succumb. Make the TV programming more interesting than the commercials, and, maybe don't watch any TV at all. Ban the words "cool," "hot" and "edgy." What's the alternative? Everybody in vests?