Saturday, September 10, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance Alert: Mercedes Edition

Hola, amigos! It's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but there's been some crazy stuff going down with my ride.
[/Jim Anchower]

Seriously, I've been lax about this. It will happen again, but recognizing the problem is the first step toward avoiding dealing with it. Or something.

Anyhow, I write tonight not about Hurricane Katrina, or John Roberts, or the possibility of gay marriage in California, or even about some obscure piece of medieval music that most of you probably wouldn't touch with a ten meter cattle prod. No. Tonight, it's all about a wicked bizarre commercial I heard while running errands today.

Now, I don't listen to the radio much except when I'm in my car. When I do listen, it tends to be either NPR, or the local college jazz station, KCSM, or a classical station, KDFC. Since NPR and KCSM are commercial-free, they tend to have pledge drives a few times a year. Pledge drives make me feel guilty and angry. Guilty, because I don't give them any money (because, actually, I kind of need that money to drive to work and pay my utility bills) but I listen to them pretty frequently. Angry, because I don't like feeling guilty but I do like listening to "Morning Edition" or "Morning Cup of Jazz" and so forth, and I can't do the latter without getting the former. All of which is a long-winded explanation for why I was listening to KDFC most of last week.

Now, I have issues with KDFC, too, because they have commercials (which, hey, I don't like listening to. Yeah, I know they're a necessary evil. I still don't like 'em.) but more so because they take a really frustrating approach to classical music. They play short pieces, generally only one movement from a larger piece, and they favor "soothing" classical music drawn mainly from the 18th and early 19th centuries. If you like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, you'll find something you like pretty much every day. If you like Mozart, you've found a station that plays an hour of Wolfgang's greatest hits every morning. If you'd like to hear, say, a new recording of La Messe de Notre Dame, you're SOL. Talk to John Schaefer or something.

Still, it beats Limp Bizkit and Kelly Clarkson to hell and gone. So, I'm tooling around town, listening to classical muzak and then we go to commercial break.

This particular commercial begins with a sort of peppy, pop-rocky descending riff. It sounds like it's being played by the world's whitest second-tier bar band - deliberately un-funky. (Digression No. 1 - what's the deal with the music in car commercials? I mean, yeah, at this point I didn't know this was a car commercial, and for something like, maybe a Mini Cooper, this kind of thing would be OK. Or maybe not; it was pretty awful, in retrospect. This is, after all, a Mercedes they're selling. A Mercedes is supposed to be classy, elegant, expensive, high-quality - a luxury car. The kind of car that shifts itself. I'm associating that with - well, with classical music, actually. Maybe some cool jazz. Definitely not some crappy whitebread pop-rock. To whom are they marketing this thing? It's like the Chrysler (or was it Cadillac? I don't remember - nice marketing, guys!) commercials with Led Zeppelin. The only kind of car Led Zepplin calls to my mind is a tricked-out '76 Camaro with a glass-pack tailpipe. A high-quality luxury sedan, not so much. Also, I realize that baby boomers and their older children who might have grown up listening to the original Zep classics are getting older and ins some cases wealthier. But isn't buying a Buick (or whatever the heck it was - seriously, I got nothing here) pretty much admitting that, in fact, you aren't still cool, no matter what's in your 6-disc CD changer? That in fact, life has changed you (as it should, really) and that while you might still listen to the same stuff you were listening to thirty years ago - you just aren't the same guy who did the cruise and tried to get lucky in the back of a VW Beetle back in '75 with that waitress who could score the really good weed and the 'ludes? Jesus, man, grow up already. End digression no. 1) I will give them some credit for choosing music (using the term loosely) that id different from anything you might happen to hear on KDFC, so it has that going for it. Which is nice.

So but a couple seconds of unfunky descending arpeggios later, we come to the voiceover, which is of course a mellow, rich-sounding white dude. He's complaining about how we're surrounded by fake stuff. I don't remember his exact examples, but stuff like red food dye no. 4 and 5, and artificial sweeteners, and olestra, and maybe Velveeta. There were non-food examples, I swear, I just don't remember them. (Digression No. 2: What the heck is going on here? This guy's complaining because his life experience (or rather, he's giving voice to what is impliedly the listener's complaint about the listener's life experience) isn't real enough. It's inauthentic to be eating food that's been dyed or to wear synthetic fabrics. This is, to put it mildly, utterly bats. I'm sure you can trace back complaints about the "unreality" of things at least as far back as Marx - this is, after all, one of his big complaints with capitalism, that it alienates the worker. But in modern American popular culture, the complaint of inauthenticity calls to mind one epoch more than any other, and it ain't the plight of the worker in Industrial Age Britain. It's Punk Rock. Where else has there been such a passionate commitment to "authenticity" and such loathing of the "sell outs" who exchange their real experience for cold hard cash. Also, I suppose, rap - "street cred" is just another way of saying "authenticity," as far as I can tell. I can't imagine anything more bizarre to come out of the mouth of a rich white dude than to complain, a la Johnny Rotten or Public Enemy, about how the bourgeois world is fake. Particularly in the context of trying to sell me a $50,000 car. End digression No. 2) His point? In a world filled with fake stuff, isn't it nice that there's something real... the Mercedes ES300!

At this point, I strongly considered pulling off the road to get my head straight. The radio operator in my head was feverishly signaling "Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot." over and over again. W.T.F.? How is a car - particularly a luxury car like this Mercedes - any more "real" than the tits on a porn star? How is a Mercedes - which after all comes into being kata techne, rather than kata phusin - any different from Cool Whip? And yet this soft-spoken tool expects me to part with my all-too-real money for the "reality" of a car that is valuable primarily as a symbol, rather than for its functionality. Nobody buys a Mercedes to get from Point A to Point B; they buy a Mercedes to get from A to B in style. They buy a Mecedes to show off their taste, status, and most importantly wealth. There's nothing particularly real about that in the sense of authentic experience that the commercial relates the car to.

So not only is the commercial lying to me (which, hey, I expect) but it's doing it in spectacularly incompetent fashion. It wants me to think the Mercedes (valuable largely for its prestige value, rather than any intrinsic difference from the '69 VW Beetle) is a more authentic item than another, equally man-made (thus "artificial") item, and that I should therefore buy it so that my own experience will be more "real." Because authenticity is a commodity!

Anyhow, JTIS!


bobomai said...

Your analysis is, as always, cogent and superlatively awesome. My Lacanian criticial theory class is *in my mind* in awe of your postmodernist (and yet not deconstructual) reading of this ad, The difference between the Zizekian "real" and "reality" is located in the space between your gaze of the object-desire (the car) and your rejection of the advertisement/product...that is to say that your horror/nausea is due to the non-real relation of the advert to the actual/

If I've been spending too much time reading my crazy doctoral shit just let me know,


A. said...

My horror/nausea feels quite real right now, after two glasses of port.

Who the hell is Zizek?

matskralc said...


JG said...

Two words: Sirius satellite radio.
Wait. What?

Anonymous said...

Well I didn't read the whole thing, but I think you should go with a Jag- nobody drives Mercedes anymore. Just be careful because if you park it downtown people will try to steal the hood ornament.

bobomai said...

Just call or write and I am more than happy to exppound upon Zizek.

my bro,