Have the elder races halted? Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!
Walt Whitman (1819–1892), “O Pioneers,” Leaves of Grass
Years ago I had a plum job straight out of college working for a post-production house as an assistant video editor.
There were a lot of impressive features in my claim to this job: I was female (still am, last I checked, but one can never be sure), I was completely green, and I was respected. The respect came from my knack for picking up skills quickly, and my talent for faking it in sessions with paying clients (really, really paying clients. Hundreds of dollars-an-hour paying clients). Though my direct superiors knew I didn’t know what I was doing, their clients were blissfully unaware due to my rather remarkable grace under pressure.
In this way, I had what you could call “on-the-job training.” Yes, I had graduated from college with good marks, and a final year in film school. I had even heard of the high-falutin’ editing system that the offline editors worked on, but I didn’t actually know what “offline” versus “online” meant, which was where I was hired to assist. I had seen a patch bay briefly in college, but didn’t touch the thing; I had opened Photoshop but never did anything beyond make a poorly constructed collage out of a picture of my dad reading a book in front of Saturn. It did not qualify me for my job title.
But, perhaps because I’m more afraid of public humiliation than anything else on this green earth, I never let the clients see me sweat. The lead editor would lob me a slow ball and I’d rally, looking the picture of cool as I stumbled through menus in Photoshop looking for God knows what to design a layout on the fly; then the client would ask for something that I had literally never heard of in my life and I would, with subtle sign language from the editor, pull a rabbit out of my ass. We were an amazing team.
But I learned my job very well. I was adept at graphic design, I learned all the technical crap associated with the machine room; I learned how to patch any machine to any other machine via patch bay; I learned how to use color bars and what being “out of phase” meant. I ended up being very good at what I did. I earned my title eventually.
What I was not good at was leaving my high morals at the door. We were not working on Scorsese pictures; nor were we working on documentaries covering deforestation in Brazil or the crimes against humanity in Rwanda. We worked on the maiden roll-out of Tivo infomercials. We worked on Nike spots (featuring more often than not the recently disgraced patron saint of Nike, Tiger Woods). We edited a shockingly embarrassing children’s series called “Bibleman,” produced by and starring as Bibleman himself none other than “Eight is Enough” alum Willie Aames, who, despite his belief, still managed to be smarmy and creepy and totally full of himself.
There were high quality spots from some of the greatest ad agencies in the country, and some of the lamest dreck ever to grace late-night television in the form of “As Seen on TV” product pitches. Precursors to “The Snuggie,” we led the charge on such products as Bowflex, OxyClean (featuring our lost coke-head infomercial star Billy Mays in some of his early work) and early incarnations of the ShamWow craze (not, sadly, featuring Vince Shlomi, the guy who had his tongue bitten by a hooker but someone completely less memorable).
In this climate, I felt sullied. A little dirty. Crass. I begrudged the work we did, the high-flying feats of amazing editing and graphic prowess, our team’s remarkable grace and fluidity, put to onerous use by Beelzebub and his band of ShamWow shillers. The amount of effort that we expended in creating horrifying spots at the behest of our clients was just a little bit more than my Evergreen State College-informed views of media could handle; I lasted about three years in the business before I retired at the ripe old age of 32.
I don’t think about it much anymore, except to wonder at the amazing success my former co-workers and bosses have found. They are pillars in the field. And I’m very happy for them.
I’m also older, and a little less, shall we say, morally bound to strict ethical interpretations of how my skills are best put to use. I don’t think I would sneer so much anymore. I understand now, as I didn’t then, that sometimes you just have to step back and hold your nose until the noxious fumes of aesthetically devoid commercials dissipate. They’re gonna make the shit one way or another no matter where your morals lie; you just aren’t making a living if you get out of the ring.
But now and then I’m shocked anew at how advertising works upon us. I don’t know if working in the field, albeit briefly, gives me any special insight, but now and then I find the cultural critic in me wallowing up out of the depths of my long-dormant liberal college education.
I cannot help but be enthralled by the recent ad campaign called “Go Forth” from our Portland hometown heroes Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest ad agencies in the country. In two spots, poems are read with a certain creaky ancient charm, both clearly archival recordings, or an amazing facsimile. Paired with a dirge-like mono-tonal soundtrack and shockingly lovely images of eerily beautiful humans in all states of outdoorsy revelry, the spot entreats us to embrace our American heritage, our pioneering spirit to “Go Forth…”
…and buy Levi’s.
If you really want to be a part of the bleeding edge of our youthful American spirit, you’ll want to do it in some Levi’s jeans.
I was so impressed by the spots that I looked up one of the poems online, to glean a touch of understanding about whether or not it was a real poem, or a jingle crafted in the Dark Arts of ad copy. Imagine my surprise, and a little shame, that it was that most American of American poets Walt Whitman, himself reading his poem “America,” in a recording from so long ago that it was preserved on a wax cylinder.*
This set my mind racing. I couldn’t actually believe it.
The first thing I couldn’t believe was that I didn’t know the poem. As a person who prides herself on, if not bookish scholarship at least a well-rounded education, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this iconic poem from an iconic collection by the most iconic of American poets. What did that say about me? What did that say about my education? What did it say about education in the main?
It occurred to me in the dark wallows of the night that if I didn’t know the poem, most everybody else didn’t either. Which, if one can extrapolate, makes our first collective listening of our finest poet a recitation in a Levi’s commercial. Does this imply that we are being educated by commercials? That the erosion of the basics of American History and American Lit class leave us to the mercy of Wieden+Kennedy to provide our scholarship?
I tried to think of other poets, American or merely English-speaking. I tried to think of cultural heritage. I hate to say it, but I came up wanting. I know a number of American authors, classic or otherwise. I’ve read me a fair lot of Steinbeck and Faulkner and O’Connor. The only poet I could think of was T.S. Eliot who was such an old bigot that he didn’t even want to be American, even though his poetry is amazing.
But I could list an astonishing number of television spots. I could rattle off, with no problem whatsoever, the jingles of countless dozens of ads shilling everything from coffee (the Folger’s coffee theme still resounds in the morning when I’m desperate for my own cup) to soda (“I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,” “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) to the Super Sugar Crisp Bear and Tony the Tiger fighting for superiority in my brain while some Frooty Toucan duels with some ne’er-do-well Cap’n). I still quote those Budweiser assholes completely inadvertently (“Waaaaazzzzzahhhhp”) and sometimes hear the groaning bullfrogs singing their Budweiser chant completely unbidden. I can tell you about Superbowl ads from before the DotBomb, but cannot tell you who was in the Superbowl.
“Where’s the Beef?” “Got Milk?” “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” “Calgon, take me away…” Stop me, now.
It hurts me in a deep private place to admit that I’ve succumbed this way. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I could recall with any confidence one single poem that wasn’t crafted in a boardroom as a part of some campaign. I might be able to recite a little Shel Silverstein, that bitter bard of Seventies ‘tweens, or Dr. Suess books because I’ve read virtually all of them numerous times since our son was born.
So I’m left with the obvious: I heard “America” for the first time in a commercial selling jeans. And I liked it. How do I square that? Interesting that, once I began researching the commercial, I found hints of people being similarly mesmerized. People linked to it on YouTube, people discovered that the poem was by Walt Whitman. They blogged about it, they wondered what the poem was about (and, predictably, made completely erroneous analyses of the poem).
That is the mark of a successful campaign.
And I’m left wondering, how do I feel about being introduced to Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial? My life has been enriched by the experience; I never knew there were live recordings of Whitman and am happy to have heard one. The poem itself is a worthy introduction, under any circumstance I suppose. And an entire generation of dips like myself have also been introduced to Whitman, albeit through a pitch for jeans which apparently, upon their donning, will help one embrace the American dream.
So on balance, would Whitman understand what had happened to his poem? Would it matter to him one jot that he influenced a tide of Americans, not through Lit Class in fourth period but in a flashy, well-produced advert? He may very well reach more humans in that one ad than he’s reached in the last decade in English class. What is the moral or ethical barometer of that, when we are exposed to something great? Is the greatness diminished by its delivery? Is the fact that Whitman is being used to sell jeans an indication that we should close up shop and retire English Lit Classes forever and instead offer college classes analyzing the last several decades of the art within the advert?
Because I know, through working with commercials both great and small, that some of the greatest creative juices are being dumped into amazing 30- and 60-second spots.
There is something beautiful about the form, if you separate it briefly in your mind from its sole intention of selling you junk you don’t want. It’s like the haiku of film; all the humor or grace or sadness the director wishes to convey must be synthesized into a tiny little package. The writers are constrained by impossible boundaries to tell a story, and yet time and again they do it, not just successfully, but often with beauty, simplicity and poignancy. The bleeding edge of special effects are pushed further in the cause of creating 3D models of absorbent diapers and stunning animations of hamsters driving cars than they are in movies and tv. Why? Because the budgets are (used to be) in advertising.
So I’m being disingenuous when I suggest that we scrap American Lit in favor of “Sixty Years of Commercials: Art and Poetry in Advertising,” but only slightly. I didn’t end up spending my life in the field, only because I was too inflexible at the time to recognize the subtle beauty of that most pernicious of forms. But I recognize greatness when I see it, and I know that even though I won’t buy any Levi’s as a result of W+K’s campaign, I will inadvertently quote Whitman at strange times, maybe in tandem with the Budweiser frogs.
*There seems to be some question as to the provenance of the recording itself. In a comment, D.R. Hainey writes:
…a Google search led to the real deal. According to the accompanying information, it’s believed to be Whitman, and the recording is only thirty seconds long, which was as much as those who discovered the recording in the early 1950s could retrieve. As to the voice on the recording, which is thought to have been made in 1899-1890, one analyst has this to say: “It contains a subtle and quaint regional inflection–a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent–which has quite literally disappeared in our age. No one speaks that way anymore. The notion that someone might have set out to imitate such a nuanced archaic inflection strains credibility just a bit.” I agree. If this isn’t Whitman, who was born on Long Island in 1819, he must have sounded very similar.
Thus tipped off that my scholarship is not 100 percent, I did a little Googling myself, and found no proof that it wasn’t Whitman, but no proof that it was, either. My discoveries, in the short time I dedicated to the search, are in the comments. But should anyone want to take up the charge of the Whitman recording mystery, I think it’s a fascinating cause.
I choose to suspend my disbelief because I think it’s simply magical to hear Whitman. But I understand that in the search for truth, justice and historical veracity, it may be more important to others to keep up the quest.