Jingling the Night Away
by Brooke Nicholas
Jingling the Night Away
by Evan Backer
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The jingle is a form of advertising that remains relevant, persistent, and effective despite the significant changes in media technology since its inception. The jingle is a piece of music written for an advertisement that exploits the use of repetition in music to propagate a brand. It hinges on the creation of an “earworm,” a term coined by University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris describing the experience of replaying a repetitive song inside one’s head.1 This is to say, jingles force the listener to reproduce the advertisement on their own by creating something catchy and infectious. It is the primary goal of musical advertising and jingles specifically to implant an earworm into a listener.
In his commissioned work, The Jingle, musician and composer Evan Backer recreates the earworm effect by rapidly introducing material from different eras of jingle history through distracting compound sounds and quick cuts between sections. His source material included the first ever jingle, General Mills’ 1926 “Try Wheaties,”2 Alka-Seltzer’s 1976 “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz,”3 Coca-Cola’s infamous 1971 “Hilltop” commercial4, and a song created by the San Diego used car dealership Mossy Nissan for their local 1998 commercial.5These sounds are condensed and brought together in The Jingle, where Backer creates a rhythmic propulsion in which all spaces are filled with information, giving the listener little room to rest or think. In The Jingle, repetition extends to the lyrics with the use of an anagram for JINGLE in “Section C.” During the refrain at the end, the earworm consumes itself, dissolving into its own repetition. Backer creates a mild capitalistic hypnosis that can only occur with the right amount of information overload and rapid-fire nonsense.
The first second of Evan Backer’s jingle, the lyrics of which were co-written with sculptor Juliana Wisdom, begins with a misleading cascade of cartoonish synthetic noises. This ends abruptly—crumbling, melting into a dystopic jaunt through the musical history of the jingle. So begins the self-aware “Section A” titled, “The Ear Worm,” where the song reveals how horrified it is by its own ambition. The lyrics ask, “What’s the tune that gets stuck in your ear? Letting you know that there’s something to buy here . . .” borrowing from the child-like vocals and wonderment of “Pop, Pop, Fizz, Fizz.” In a nod to the directness of “Try Wheaties” and its use of barbershop quartet, “Section B: The Salesmen” responds to itself with renewed self-assurance, answering, “We’re selling! We’re selling! Nobody’s buying . . . But we’re selling! We’re selling!” The song dips into despair and picks itself up again, doubling back in an attempt to sell jingles as commodities in and of themselves. “Section C: The Anagram” literally spells out J-I-N-G-L-E through its lyrics: “Jingle In the Night Get Lost Everyday. (In the world of commerce.) . . . Jingling the night away.” Following the cue of the Coca-Cola Hilltop ad’s famous co-opting of hippie culture/aesthetic, this section mimics the notion that jingles must reflect the cultural register of the world outside advertising. Also tucked into “$ection C” is a ripping electric guitar lead inspired by the Mossy Nissan advertisement. It was placed here to obscure the vocal line “In the world of commerce,” referencing the use of subliminal messaging and hidden cues that occurs when artistic pursuits and advertising are brought together. The lyrics trail off at the end in order to infect the listener with the “tune that gets stuck in your ear . . .” With the song, Backer proves his point that jingles remain effective despite being one of the oldest formats of modern advertising. Overall one can sense The Jingle tripping over itself, its motives, its history, and the possible worry of having been outmoded in the era of the laptop and smartphone. In the end, the work successfully reproduces the affective mode of the jingle through literal and subliminal musical forms, focusing on the medium’s reliance on catchiness. A good jingle reminds the audience of a product or service, while a great jingle forces the listener to reproduce the advertisement on their own outside its original context on radio or television.
The first recognized jingle was created by General Mills in 1926. The creepy tune, “Try Wheaties,” promised a long shelf life and crispy crunch of Wheaties cereal, communicating solely through a haunting barbershop quartet with no backing instrumentals. The song was inspired by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century London street criers and food vendors, who also publicized their wares through song and without instrumentation.6Executives at General Mills were planning to discontinue the Wheaties product until they noticed a spike in the cereal’s popularity in Minneapolis, the first and only location where the jingle aired. As a test, the company aired the jingle nationally, whereafter sales of Wheaties tripled. Thus the market persistence of Wheaties was sustained through the clever use of jingle advertising, although it is shocking that the pure sex appeal of shredded wheat could not cut it by itself. Advertising was not permitted during prime-time radio programming in the 1920s and ’30s. Jingles, however, circumvented this regulation by linking entertainment with advertising. This created a loophole that allowed them to be played at any time of day. They were slotted into the beginning or end of radio programs and became associated with entertainment rather than strictly advertising. Jingles could mention a company or product's name without explicitly shilling that product. For example, the introduction toThe Adventures of the Jenkins Family program began with a sing-songy, "Oh, my! It's Eskimo Pie!" as the pleasantly melodic, easy-to-remember hook that has the attributes of a typical jingle.
Larry Compeau, a marketing professor at Clarkson University and executive officer of the Society for Consumer Psychology states plainly that, “The jingles aim to dazzle and transport us to the realm of mindless consumption. Musical memory has been shown to be one of the most powerful forms of memory. The jingle is a natural solution for advertising, as music is perhaps the most socially acceptable form of incessant repetition. By deploying an invasive ear worm that a listener is forced to internalize a commercial’s messaging.”
The jingle’s success as a medium can be traced alongside technological developments. It first cropped up with radio, like “Try Wheaties,” then made the jump to television commercials. The jingle format escalates in complexity and mixed messaging when paired with visuals. The iconic 1971Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial embodies this transition, conflating images of world peace alongside the experience of opening a fresh coke. Interpassivity, the displacement of an emotional feeling onto something else through a set of signifiers.
While the jingle may feel obsolete, even the most casual of market participants can conjure an example. For Millennials, likely examples might be Kit Kat’s “Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat Bar!” or “ba da ba ba ba, I’m lovin’ it” from McDonald’s radio and television commercials. These two examples also stretch the terrain from slogan to jingle, as well as detach the jingle from radio and move into the imagery of television.
There is a self-aware nostalgia embedded in contemporary use of the jingle register. This nostalgia is not only for musical aesthetics, but brings a simpler time to mind. There is a sense across contemporary examples that the jingle is desperately trying to cling to its own dissolving and shape-shifting identity in an American economy that is currently largely frozen. Thus in Backer’s conception of a jingle that epitomized the jingle itself, he sought to recreate the feeling of a machine on the verge of breaking down. Like the economy itself, The Jingle seems to be perpetuated only by artificial stimuli and memory.
Evan Backer is a Los Angeles–based musician and composer. His musical practice flits between darkness and levity, usually landing on a kind of humor that exists between the two. As a CalArts-trained percussionist, Backer often begins his compositions with rhythm. Sounds in The Jingle were created using drums, lip pops, cowbell, hi-hat, programmed harp and glockenspiel, Model D synthesizer, electric bass, electric guitar, Effectron II. The Jingle was produced in Backer’s home as he sheltered in place for COVID-19 in March 2020.
Lyrics by Evan Backer and Juliana Wisdom
Music by Evan Backer
$ection A: “The Ear Worm”
What’s the tune that gets stuck in your ear? Letting you know that there’s something to buy here
$ection B: “The Salesmen”
We’re selling! We’re selling! Nobody’s buying. But we’re selling!
$ection C: “The Anagram”
Jingle In the Night Get Lost Everyday (In the world of commerce)
Jingling the night away
$ection A’’: “The Refrain”
What’s the tune that gets stuck in your ear? x ∞
Intro - A - B - A’ - B - C - A’’
Voices Percussion: drums, lip pops, cowbell, hi-hat, programmed harp and glockenspiel, Model D synthesizer, electric bass, electric guitar, Effectron II