Topics Covered: Music and the Moving Image, Music and Meaning
Beginning in 2007, the season John Lewis Christmas campaign has become something of a national tradition (Wallop, 2014) due to the sentimental and emotional chords the adverts have a reputation of striking. Typically, the adverts feature a Christmas-related narrative accompanied by a tagline related to the discourse, but perhaps more importantly, the adverts feature a single song each year. Each year the song has been a slowed-down cover of an older, ‘classic’ song. In 2012, the covers featured began performing well in the UK official charts, with relative unknown Gabrielle Alpin’s cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Power of Love’ (Johnson et al., 1984) reaching number 1 in the UK charts.
This year’s advertisement has carried considerable anticipation – teaser trailers have begun to circulate, and the artist and cover have been announced as The Vaults performing ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’ (Crawford, Sample and Jennings, 1980). It is interesting to look at the identity John Lewis have created for themselves by using music and video together – they have proven that as an advertising force this combination can be very powerful, recently winning the Grand Prix award at the IPA Effectiveness awards for proving how successful their emotionally-charged campaigns have been since 2012 (ipa.co.uk, 2016).
An interesting aspect of the campaigns are the uses of cover versions. The covers featured are often very stylistically different to their original versions – last year’s cover of Oasis’ ‘Half the World Away’ (Gallagher, 1994) went from an acoustic guitar-led rock ballad to an ethereal, minimalist pop ballad with Aurora’s version. Adorno’s theory of standardisation is an interesting framework to place this campaign in. For Adorno, the form of ‘the whole’ of a song is so standardised it is unlikely to distract from ‘the detail’, which is what audiences react to (1990). John Lewis’ use of cover versions is a perfect example of this – the whole doesn’t change; it is the details of the form, the change in voice, style and instrumentation that change and garner the emotive reaction. This isn’t surprising – Gendron also makes the connection of standardisation to cover versions, arguing that if you put timbre and connotation into the core of the song, rather than melody and harmony as Adorno would, the song becomes vastly different due to Western pop music conventions (1986).
Connotation is created from context; perhaps this is why the adverts evoke such an emotional response. The context in this case is the video itself – the narrative the music is providing a soundtrack to. Whilst the covers provide the audience with raw emotion, it is the narrative that both gives the audience an object to project their emotions on to, and contributes further to the emotion using what Jeff Smith coins ‘semantic ambiguity’ (2006). Whilst Smith is referring to musical puns in cinema, it is applicable here – the visual situation gives the featured song lyrics new meaning. 2015’s ‘Man on the Moon’ features ‘Half the World Away’ (Gallagher, 1994). The original Oasis version lyrically is about feeling trapped, with the eponymous line referring to youthful spirit. Within the advert however, the lyric “half the world away” refers to the distance between the man on the moon and a child looking out of their bedroom window – linking the lyrical content to the visual content creates a strong emotional response through essentially synchronising the meanings contributed by the involved media.
- co.uk. (2016). 2016 IPA Effectiveness Award winners announced. [online] Available at: http://www.ipa.co.uk/news/2016-ipa-effectiveness-award-winners-announced#.WCIGui2LTIU [Accessed 8 Nov. 2016].
- Adorno, T. (1990). On Popular Music. In: S. Frith and A. Goodwin, ed., On Record, 1st London: Routledge, pp. 301-314
- Crawford, R., Sample, J. and Jennings, W. (1980). One Day I’ll Fly Away. [7”] New York: MCA Records.
- Gallagher, N. (1994). Half the World Away. [CD, Cassette] Texas: Creation.
- Gendron, B. (1986). Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs. In: T. Modleski, ed., Studies in Entertainment, 1st Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 18-36.
- Johnson, H., Gill, P., Nash, B. and O’Toole, M. (1984). The Power of Love. [CD] London: ZTT Records.
- Smith, J. (2006). Songs and Allusion in Contemporary Cinema. In: A. Bennett, B. Shank and J. Toynbee, ed., The Popular Music Studies Reader, 1st London: Routledge, pp. 326-333.
- Wallop, H. (2014). John Lewis adverts from Christmas past. [online] Yahoo Finance UK. Available at: https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/john-lewis-adverts-christmas-past-173056309.html [Accessed 8 Nov. 2016].