Monday, February 3, 2014

Coca-Cola's "America the Beautiful" Super Bowl Commercial - a Question of Musical Sincerity

Last night, Coca-Cola aired a commercial during the Super Bowl, which aroused some controversy.  The commercial begins with "America, the Beautiful" being sung by a solo voice, with a simple sustained-note string accompaniment, which continues throughout.  After the first line of the song was sung in English, different vocal soloists enter, singing various phrases of the song.  The same texture of solo voice over sustained string accompaniment continues through the entire song, until the end of the song - on the word "sea," several background vocalists enter with the five-note Coca-Cola "chime" (which I believe began with the "Open Happiness" ad campaign).

First, a word about the "controversy" – I'm actually going to go out on a limb here (a very secure limb, in fact, of which I feel no danger of collapse) and say that this is not even a legitimate issue.  It seems that some people are offended by the fact that an American song would be sung in any other language than English (which is immediately ironic in that English didn't even originate on our continent).  I'm not even going to embark on the argument that America's true language is any number of Native American languages, which actually did spring forth in this land.  As I said, it's a non-issue, and the only reason people make it an issue is because of their own ignorance, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, or any number of other unpleasant reasons.

The issue that I am pondering right now is one of musical sincerity.  Jean Giraudox once said, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made."  Most music makers and consumers agree that sincerity is an important part of music.  Some music consumers get up in arms about Auto-tune because we are no longer hearing the singer's "true" voice.  Some get bent out of shape from dynamic range compression, because we feel that the reduction of dynamic range is directly proportional to a reduction in emotional depth.

Well, when listening to this admittedly very emotionally-stirring commercial, I couldn't help but temper my response to the musical arrangement based on the fact that I know it was designed to sell a product.  Coca-Cola has used this same sales technique before in offering us the 1971 commercial "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," a simple but effective song that promoted a loving multicultural community.  However, even though the obvious aim was to sell Coke, people felt so strongly about the message (and the catchy tune) that the song itself eventually appeared on the Billboard charts.

Now, admittedly, just because something is created for a commercial doesn't necessarily mean that it is not a legitimate work of art.  Companies might be about selling products, and ad agencies are about selling ads to those companies, but that doesn't mean that the creators of the ads aren't creating sincere works.  In fact, I believe there was sincerity in the "America, the Beautiful" arrangement, and I believe that many Americans were moved by the beauty of the song's performance and message, but as a composer, I feel that one thing ruined it for me.  Why did they have to force that "Open Happiness" chime onto the end of the arrangement?!  I feel that the musical arranger that set forth to scoring and recording this piece was probably screaming that in his mind the whole time, as Coca-Cola executives demanded that this musical blight was necessary for tying the sentiment to the product (of course, the scenario could have been quite different, this is  just what I imagine).  Oh, how I wish they had not added that ridiculous chime to the end.  It would have removed that iota of doubt that I have about the sincerity of the music.

I have a feeling that musical groups all over the country will begin using the idea from this commercial.  I imagine that we will hear many versions of patriotic American songs sung by alternating soloists in their native languages by school choirs, church choirs, and other community choirs.  I look forward to it.  It will be a beautiful thing that will emphasize the connection that we all have as members of the human race, and maybe it will even move the hearts of those that were originally offended by the concept.  And I believe these performances will largely be sincere.  I am also quite sure that none of them will end with the "Open Happiness" chime.

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