Let us now praise... jingles

Insidious, annoying, and - just maybe - tiny works of art

By James Parker
December 6, 2009

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Until very recently, I regarded the notion of the “meme,” first advanced by Richard Dawkins in 1976, as an example of its originator’s grossly underrated capacity for science fiction. Memes, in case you haven’t read “The Selfish Gene,” are invisible units of culture that leap like viruses from mind to mind and so create the illusion called “everything.” They can be, in Dawkins’s words, “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” They transmit themselves, they propagate, they evolve. The strong ones prosper, the weak perish, etc. They resemble genes, Dawkins’s proper field of expertise, in every respect but one: He made them up.

Or so I thought. Last week however, on a slow afternoon, I performed the following experiment: While listening at high volume to Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” I attempted to remember the telephone number of the Illinois-based home improvement company Empire Today. I have never dialed this number, nor have I at any time committed it to memory. Home improvement, broadly speaking, interests me not at all. Yet somehow, drifting up in filaments through the eight-minute deep-space roar of “Stranglehold,” here it was. The whole thing. One, eight hundred, five, eight, eight, two, three hundred. And then, like a fanfare in my brain, the single word: “Em-PIRE!!!”

You know what happened, of course. That’s right: it was the damn jingle. The diddling little half-tune from Empire’s TV commercials, less a melody than a mnemonic, had swarmed out of the screen at some point and - to use the terminology of Dawkins’s colleague N.K. Bradley - “parasitized my brain.” What’s more, in durability and “infective power” it had proved itself unexpectedly superior to “Stranglehold.” Ted Nugent, the alpha-est male in rock ’n’ roll, king of the gene pool, was getting his memetic behind kicked by some anonymous sweet-voiced lady session singers. Em-PIRE!!!

But jingles are trivial, you say. Annoying. Not music at all, just some kind of biological code - the mating calls of consumerism. Perhaps, perhaps. Devised in his home studio by that secret Darwinian, the jingle-composer, the jingle has one aim, one raison d’être: survival. Wit, prettiness, fluency - none of these signify if the jingle doesn’t attach itself immediately to the host-brain and dig in. “National Lum-ber! Wait ’til ya see us!” “Have a good night’s sleep on u-us... Mattress Discounterrrrrs!” These are golden jingles. Why? Because I remember them. They have succeeded. They have, in meme-speak, “high survival value.”

You’ll notice that neither of them rhyme. Wordplay helps a jingle (“Trust Slee-pys - for the rest of your life!”) but it’s not a requirement. Sense, indeed, is not a requirement. As advertising, National Lumber’s “wait ’til ya see us!” is strictly meaningless. See what? Piles of lumber? And yet, melodically and rhythmically, it perfectly satisfies the expectation produced by the raised second syllable of “lum-ber.” It clicks, it catches, the hooks go in. It’s a jingle.

The first recorded jingle wasn’t really a jingle at all: It was a miniature song. “Have you tried Wheaties?/ They’re whole wheat with all of the bran/ Won’t you try Wheaties?/ For wheat is the best food of man.” Expressed in the barbershop tones of the Wheaties Quartet (an undertaker, a bailiff, a printer, and a businessman), this pious versicle went out in 1926 to radio listeners in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. And it saved the brand: When General Mills, which had been on the point of dropping Wheaties, realized that sales of the cereal were significantly higher in the territories where the commercial had aired, the company went national with it.

Thus did jingles begin their ascendance, or their descent if you like, their meme-creep from “ideosphere” into reality, inscribing themselves in the consciousness of each successive decade: “See the USA in your Chevrolet...,” “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer weiner...,” and so on. They refined themselves: Shorter, it was discovered, was sometimes better. Three little notes will get it done - “Green Giant,” for example. “Seinfeld” fans remember the episode in which George Costanza attempts to win over an uncooperative date by turning himself into a jingle. “Co-stan-za!” he trills as he leaves her apartment, almost out of earshot, to the tune of “Buy Mennen!” “All right, George,” she confesses a few days later, “I’ll be honest. The first time we went out, I found you very irritating. But after seeing you a couple of times, you sorta got stuck in my head....”

Limited, tenacious, parasitic, indestructible - like a million tiny George Costanzas the jingles move among us. And disprize them as we might, they are an art form. How many of your iPod favorites are just jingles in nice pants? Paul McCartney, for instance, might be the greatest jingle writer of all time. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” - replace “she loves you” with “Toyota” and shield your eyes from the resulting blaze of jingle-hood.

Observers of the advertising industry will tell you that the zenith of jingle composition has come and gone, that licensing a few bars of hip music is a better way to flog your product these days. (Volkswagen certainly thought so, when they notoriously attached Nick Drake’s fragile “Pink Moon” to their Cabriolet commercial in 1999.) The jingle is dated, they say - uncool! Well, it’s a vigorous enough counter-meme, but here in Massachusetts we know better. Here we remain gratefully colonized by a refrain that sounds as if it was performed in a senior center activity room - a baroque, polysyllabic, old-school jingle with a rhyme like an afterthought. A local treasure. Come on now, half-sing it with me. You know you want to: “Ber-nie and Phy-yl’s... Quality, comfort, and price! (THAT’S NICE.)”

James Parker writes regularly for Ideas and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.