While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sing One Thing, Sell The Other

When I first heard this song on a Sony Ericsson TV ad last week, I laughed. I thought I knew better: that Ray Davies' wrote 'People Take Pictures of Each Other' in 1968 as a criticism of the incessant snaps taken at family gatherings and their inability to truly capture important memories. He says this in so many words in his pseudo-biography, X-Ray, but a cursory read through of the lyrics makes his stance clear as well:

People take pictures of the Summer,
Just in case someone thought they had missed it,
And to proved that it really existed.
Fathers take pictures of the mothers,
And the sisters take pictures of brothers,
Just to show that they love one another.

You can't picture love that you took from me,
When we were young and the world was free.
Pictures of things as they used to be,
Don't show me no more, please.

But here was this rebuke of photography being used to advertise… photography. Specifically a cellphone that can take 8.1 megapixel digital photos. If Davies didn’t like photography forty years ago when it was a much more costly and time-consuming process, he must abhor the modern prevalence of snapshots and the every growing pictorial memory banks (facebook, picasa, flickr etc etc)… right?

Well, hold on a minute. This isn’t the first Kinks song to be featured in an ad. Let me quote from Times Online article from March 2006:

At their peak in the 1960s, the Kinks were banned from entering the United States for nearly five years because of their riotous behaviour. Forty years later, American television advertisers are paying the veteran rockers £6m to use their songs to sell washing powder, computers and pills…

All Day and All of the Night will be used by Procter & Gamble to boost sales of Tide detergent. I’m Not Like Everybody Else and Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy will feature in campaigns to promote, respectively, IBM computers and medicines sold by Abbott Laboratories. Lola, a song about a Soho transsexual, will promote La La, a company which allows subscribers to swap CDs by post.

'People Take Pictures of Each Other' isn’t even the first Kinks song about photos off The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society to feature in an ad. That honour belongs to ‘Picture Book’ which underpinned an entire HP campaign.

But again, the lyrics don’t actually endorse printing out your photos for posterity, but point to the futility of the images actually preserving emotion.

Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other a long ago…
Picture book, when you were just a baby, those days when you were happy, a long time ago

You were happy and people loved each other – but that was “a long time ago.” Isn’t that depressing? It doesn’t put me in a buying mood, at least. (My printer is a Canon, if you were wondering… which you weren’t).

There are two questions here:

1. What’s up with The Kinks availing their songs for use in advertising campaigns that wilfully misunderstand the intention of their songs?

2. What’s up with HP and Sony Ericsson wilfully misunderstanding these songs?

Let’s work backwards. The reason these corporations are happy to have songs that were subtle satires of the product there are flogging is: they think we’re stupid.

And they’re probably right.

A visit to songmeanings.net (like this blog, the site is rather optimistically named) yields the following appraisal of ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’:

I love this song.

It's about so many things, nostalgia, loss, the way life sometimes rushes by. It's funny how important photographs are, and how much joy and sorrow they can bring similutaneously [sic]

I need to be careful here, because my reading of these Photo songs as satirical and anti-photography is heavily influenced by a) my knowledge of the album (…Village Green…) on which they appeared, b) my recent exposure to the whole of Ray Davies’ oeuvre and the overwhelming number of soft satires therein, and c) my having read the aforementioned X-Ray. Without this bank of peripheral knowledge, I might have come up with a similar pro-photography reading of the lyrics.

Then there’s the fact that when you splice the song up for use in a 30 second commercial, it stops being satire, and starts being a jingle.

As a jingle, it’s pretty good. But there was once a lot more to the song.

I can offer a short, one character, answer to why the Kinks would allow their songs to be reduced to jingles:


But how’s this for an alternate hypothesis:

From the very beginning, Ray Davies had a chip on his shoulder. He thought he deserved more than he got in the 60’s and 70’s. See the way he vents his anger at the chew-em-up-spit-em-out machine that was the music industry in Lola Versus Powerman Versus The Moneygoround. While the song ‘Moneygoround’, specifically deals with the way artists are short changed (“The money goes round and around and around / And it comes out here when they've all taken their share”), it’s deeper than that. Remember, The Kinks were banned from the US for four years at the height of the British Invasion (for why: you can start here). That’s enough to make anyone feel the world’s against them. Again, ­X-Ray is a good place to go to hear all the ways Davies feels he has been wronged by the world.

But now that the corporations are knocking down his door to use his songs (and stuff his pockets with money), perhaps this is justice for Ray Davies?

While I doubt he’s changed his opinion of photography, one could argue that exposing the music to new listeners justifies the means. There are 12 entries on songmeanings.net for ‘Picture Book’ – almost all refer to the HP campaign as their introduction or re-introduction to the song. And, as the number of Kinks songs appearing on adverts continues to build, so too does the Kinks contemporary fanbase. There is a lot more at play here than ads, but I’d say they’ve played their part.

Or maybe, just maybe, Ray Davies has softened his opinion of photography. Maybe now that’s he’s entered his dotage, he flicks through the scrapbooks his fans have sent him and realises that, although they have their limits, photos are a useful aide memoir.

Somehow, that thought seems a little too human to be true for Raymond Douglas Davies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that the song was about photography was enough for the advertising agency. The actual meaning of the lyrics is a mere superficiality in the ad world. Remember, some years ago TV3 in NZ used Perfect Day, a song about heroin addiction, to promote their channel. And I don't think they were trying to be ironic.