Sunday, July 25, 2010

You Will 1993/1994

In the US there's an ultra-sentimental stream of TV advertising: many ads are explicitly designed to make the viewer very emotional or even tear up, all in the space of 30 seconds. AT&T’s ads in the '80s and '90s were consistently like this, distilling the essence of Capra, Spielberg, and Zemeckis perhaps, often plaintively imploring everyone to ‘reach out and touch somebody’ and the like. See, for example, this ad from 1988.
The apotheosis of this tendency was AT&T's, sentimental-about-the-future, ‘You Will’ series in 1993/1994, which David Fincher directed:

This blog post clarifies, however, that Fincher himself mainly handled just the visuals, and that another creative group was solely responsible for almost all of the crucial decisions about the V.O. and music, and ultimately, as it happens, played McCartney to Fincher's Lennon.
The 'You Will' ads' had a unique zing at the time (which led David Letterman to parody them), and they're impressively haunting in 2010: they're prophetic but also wildly nostalgic for an original sentiment directed forward at where we stand today. It's plausible that all of that complexity is traceable to the complementariness of Fincher's gifts and those of his collaborators on the audio side. Fincher's occasionally dark, cool, Blade Runner-ish images are progressively warmed by a Solsbury Hill-style, acoustic theme in 7/4. As that musical object rotates smoothly through its nonstandard period, it gathers different timbres, building harmonically towards a luminous crescendo.[1] That intense moment is over almost before we can grasp it or hear it clearly, which is to say that it embodies musically the inviting, bright future we've just seen. That future isn't here yet, but it's so close; as close as Tom Selleck's voice in your ear. (Typical, basic response in 1993: Holy crap! That moved me. I love this. Can I see that again?)
Note that the ads' prophecy isn't limited to the specific tech they project; the ads also hit the 'You' hard. That's an early tech-commercial use of the grammatical signature of personalization and decentralization that Web 2.0 tech seized upon in the mid-'00s (as, e.g., Time rather gaudily observed). Microsoft tried to strike the same, ahead of the curve, proto-Web 2.0-ish note two years later with 'Where do you want to go today?', but that campaign failed. Convincingly aspirational, sentimental advertising, like a great pop song, isn't as simple or easy as it looks. And timing matters in advertising just as it does in pop. Whereas AT&T's ads arrived just before (or just as) the first useful browser, Mosaic exploded out of the gates (giving us the first draft of the web as we know it today), Microsoft launched its campaign just after it had emerged popularly as an ominous, legally suspect, effective monopolist that was out to crush Mosaic's iconic progeny, Netscape.
Back to the specific vibe of Fincher & co.'s 1993 vision of the future. (I recommend watching the ads again at this point. You know you want to.) The everyday will be exalted and serenely perfected. As members of this new fully digitalized, networked world we will have vaguely God-like, near-magical powers, but we'll think nothing of it. Why would we? We'll still have people to meet, babies to tuck in, and the like (and how often do you think about basic utilities now?). But our Millennial IT mastery will allow us to symmetrize and harmonize gender roles, to transcend racial and ethnic difference, to overcome the opposition between work and life, and to end both the Babel of languages and the tyranny of distance. You personally will see the end of history, and abundance, prosperity, and perpetual peace everywhere. Really.
And the company that will bring all this to you: The Catholic Church.[2] No, wait.
One last point: Fincher's forthcoming film is The Social Network. Ostensibly about the rise of Facebook, the film's buzz and trailers suggest that it's also a generally skeptical look at 'how we live now', esp. at the forms of sociality that Web 2.0 tech has enabled. The eerie soundtrack to the film's trailer? A version of Radiohead's Creep, one of the songs of (maybe even the song of) 1993.

Maybe it's too much to ask for the ultimate symmetry of I Can't on The Social Network's soundtrack (say in Christopher O'Riley's piano version), i.e., given that Fincher was there for the You Will. In general, however, even though the estimable Trent Reznor has apparently been engaged to construct the soundtrack, it's hard to believe that he'll come up with anything better than versions of Radiohead's various anthems of anomie and estrangement (Motion Picture Soundtrack and How to Disappear Completely, just for starters) and of knowing who your real friends are (The Bends). Radiohead just is the ideal, slightly cerebral, skeptical, musical counterpoint to seductive images of cavorting coeds and of everything that billions of dollars can buy.

[1] In roughly half the spots the crescendo features a wailing female vocal that's similar to aspects of Clare Torry's famous vocal part on Pink Floyd's The Great Gig In the Sky (from Dark Side). It's inspired to think of knitting together Gabriel and Floyd musical ideas, and musically executing that thought so well is impressive. AT&T and Fincher alike must have been thrilled.
[2] Less facetiously, The Great Western Railroad Co.. From 1845, "[T]he ultimate miracles of railways are obvious... The globe is in the course of being inhabited as one city or shire, everything known to and everything touching everybody. The consequences cannot yet be foreseen fully, but there is no reason to doubt that on the whole, the result must be good. It will give force to public reason, and thus give great advantages to civilizations over barbarism, and to truth over error." See Jerome Blum, In the Beginning: Advent of the Modern Age, Europe in the 1840s (1994), Chapter 1, esp. pp. 4-5 for this and many other pie-eyed encomia.

1 comment:

Terry O'Gara said...

Thanks for referencing my article, 'Future Friendly For David Fincher', about the music composition process for AT&T's 'You Will' campaign. I really liked reading your own engaging perspective on the commercials, not to mention a hilarious take on our once and now impossibly even more media saturated culture. And "Holy crap! That moved me. I love this" is meme waiting to explode. I'll definitely check out your archives.