God Only Knows....#3

I like Volkswagen, it’s important that you should know this. I’ve bought two of their cars in the last decade, it’s a reliable brand and I’d be happy to drive with them again. This is not about VW; it’s about the denigration of art by association, or commercialisation.

Naturally I’m aware of how pretentious that sounds, I know very little about art and not that much about music but I do know what the song ‘God Only Knows’ means to me, and it doesn’t have anything to do with a fucking van.

My last post (below or via this link ) dealt with the reasons behind what the music industry calls ‘synchronisation’ or ‘syncing’. I understand why acts do it, particularly new acts. I have less sympathy with older artists who have made their money and are now just throwing extra pennies in the pot.

I would like to blame the publishers or the money-men, or the labels – anything to spare me the thought that the people who created this majestic piece of music allowed it to be sullied in this manner. Sadly the artist always has the right to veto, particularly in these circumstances. That they chose not to actually tarnishes my feelings for them.

In truth I’d hope that everyone involved in this process feels some shame. VW have made a great deal and linked a very well known song to their product, albeit by some spurious ad-speak (the concept of being ‘in harmony’ linking driver, van and song and leading to me feeling genuinely sick every time I see or hear the ad). In the process though they’ve reduced a sublime and beautifully crafted piece of art into a backing track, a song that has always had the ability to reduce me to tears now does so for entirely the wrong reasons.

I suspect that classical music aficionados have put up with similar feelings for years, though the argument that using certain pieces in advertising has probably extended the range of appreciation among non-aficionados and partly led to the existence of Classic FM. Popular music is an entirely different beast, when used well (you could possibly cite the early Levi’s ads , Guinness/Leftfield and even the recent Lucozade Tinie Tempah execution) it can be inspirational, uplifting and iconic. Used badly and it’s just a badging exercise, an attempt to be credible or improve status by association. Used very badly (and I have to argue that the VW ad is this) and it’ll succeed in making the individual feel disdain for all involved.

Probably I’m just being precious. I have every right to be so, and would hope that artists insist upon it. They take time to create music, in some cases it comes straight from the heart. Do they really want everyone to think of commercial products when they hear it?

In contrast I don’t feel the same way about BMW’s use of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky (although it didn’t initially sound like the original version) or Vauxhall using Feeder’s Pushing The Senses, in the latter instance I am pleased as Feeder have always deserved a better and wider and bigger audience.

In the case of God Only Knows some of those involved in that process are no longer with us, and in their memory alone this deal should never have been made. The song itself was one of the most technically sophisticated pieces of popular music to be recorded at the time (1966), involving a process of creation that would defy belief even using modern studios and equipment. It is taken from an album that many regard as the finest ever made and the song itself is rated highly by most critics: Mojo magazine ranked it as the 13th greatest song of all time. Pitchfork Media named it the best song of the 1960s and it is 25th on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Paul McCartney is known to consider it to be his favourite song.

As a piece of music it is stately, harmonious and enchanting. In some respects it defies superlatives, it gives something new with each listen and is one of few that I could hear daily and never tire of. The lyrics and music adorned the walls of my bedroom for many years and I have owned it in multiple formats – including many of the re-releases Pet Sounds has endured.

God Only Knows is a rhapsodically, serenely, melodious, euphoric slice of heaven for those who don’t even believe in a higher order. It encapsulates the joy of love and life within the wonders of music and lyrics. It transcends genre or classification being wondrous, magnificent and timeless; it is a slice of perfection in a beautifully bound package. It is everything that you’d hope that music can be.

I guess advertisers take a risk using music at all, they cannot envisage the wrath or despair it induces in those who regard it so highly or personally. I have little doubt that VW thought they were creating a mini-movie, a history of people’s love for their product. Love for a car is a lot less likely than the love for an inspirational piece of music though, and I wish to a God that I don’t believe in that they’d used a different song this time.