As this ’80s Lincoln Town Car commercial proves, there’s nothing new about the practice of using classical music to sell technologically innovative products, from cars to computers to our current panoply of “smart” devices. The coalescence of old high brow Western music and the marketing of new gadgetry is at once a means of preventing the futurism such products denote from seeming alienating, while simultaneously gilding them in a soundtrack of purchase-inspiring awe. Writer/director Benjamin Dickinson’s SXSW hit, Creative Control, uses this mixture to an elucidating effect in his film about the questions that underlie tech branding. (Dickinson himself has done commercials for the likes of Ford and Google.)
Creative Control follows the process behind the branding of an augmented reality, seen through the newly-augmented eyes of David, the film’s advertiser protagonist (played by Dickinson). Control, out in limited release on March 11, sees David’s already-doomed Williamsburgian relationship with his yoga instructor girlfriend wither as he begins obsessing over a 3D sex avatar he’s created based on a friend’s girlfriend, via the augmented reality he’s advertising. As Dickinson explains to me in a phone interview, the movie — half of whose scenes involve brand strategizing — was itself made to look and sound like a commercial. “I thought, ‘If I shoot this movie like a commercial, the medium will be the message,'” he says. “I wanted to use the language of advertising to deconstruct advertising. [In Creative Control], the people in the commercial are arguing and unhappy and they’re anxious and they’re throwing up and they’re masturbating and they’re drug addicts.”
The score is predominantly classical — more specifically, it’s mostly baroque. Vivaldi and Bach dominate, while Schubert comes in, as Dickinson explains, “once David starts to fall in love with his creation — using the same piece that was used so effectively in Barry Lyndon.” The target of the film’s satire, the director openly declares, is “Brooklyn’s creative class.” This is a class, and a place, that you’ve seen satirized before, and perhaps never wanted to see satirized again. But while the film may take its aim at familiar targets, its aestheticized vision of “aesthetic bohemians” — as Reggie Watts (who plays himself in the film) has labeled them — brings out the disconcerting advanced capitalist functionality of both its setting and its soundtrack’s application to tech consumerism. It therefore hints at the ways computer technology swiftly colonized human existence and how Williamsburg’s creative capitalism swiftly overtook America’s cultural center — and how the latter is a lush breeding ground for the former.
The usage of classical music across real-life technologic ad campaigns is bounteous, and the favoring of certain composers and pieces is particularly telling. Perhaps the most ubiquitous classical piece co-opted as a gadget siren song is Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” “It makes a lot of sense that Vivaldi is the most familiar music for luxury ads,” says Dickinson, who likewise for his film used a Vivaldi bassoon concerto, which he found “doing deep research, because he wrote so many fucking concertos.” He explains the logic behind brands’ usage of the composer: “There’s nothing more baroque than Vivaldi. It’s a time of European history where people put on these elaborate outfits to do these dumb dances — it’s the most concerned era with appearances in all of Western History. It’s so single-minded and flowery.”
Catch, for example, “The Four Seasons'” Summer concerto in the above Samsung commercial, with the buzzing, disjunct strings cueing assorted close-ups of the Samsung Galaxy 4. Note how it uses strategic filming to turn the mini, metallic monolith into an object of symphonic complexity and beauty, focusing on the design of the smartphone, but also sure to throw in a couple of images of nature — as seen through the phone — to assert that, as with the usage of “Summer,” technology and nature aren’t mutually exclusive, and rather that the former augments the latter. Or catch (gasp!) this other bit of touchscreen technology’s usage of the very same 60 seconds of “Summer,” highlighting the suppleness of the images in the touchscreen’s display as they animate themselves out of their very screen to Vivaldi’s frenetic series of sixteenth notes:
Or this Intel commercial that uses Beethoven’s 5th while stylishly and bombastically rattling off technologic innovations, as if to say: this is something you recognize that is now intrinsic to your human experience, but it’s also a labyrinthine work of technical genius you’ll never understand. Beethoven provides the familiarity to make it seem like a given, and the mastery and mystery to make it beguile. Interestingly, these famous, belligerent opening notes are known as the “Fate Motif” — as fate knocking on the door, and so too does this commercial seem to wish to remind us of the inevitable rule of tech.
Though hundreds of commercials support the weight of Dickinson’s stylistic choice, a recent Apple commercial saw a new hybridization derived from the standard formula of “gadget + classical soundtrack = sale.” In 2014, celebrity conductor/composer Esa Pekka Salonen began an advertising campaign with fruit-shaped tech monopolist. The ads were specific and anecdotal — they notably opted not to depict what the general population could do with their iPad — that is, most people won’t use them to compose concertos. The commercial sees Salonen shaving as a stroke of melodic genius comes to him, and the commercial cuts to him working through it on his Pianist Pro App — then suddenly he’s traveling through various metropolitan areas, completing his Violin Concerto across the world with the mobility afforded to him by the iPad — and then suddenly it’s being performed by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.
The pairing of the famous composer and Apple was clearly a long time coming. Up until then TV commercials had been rife with classical soundtracks substituting the standard jingle for instant respectability or refinement. But in this commercial, the advertised virtuosic seamlessness of Apple products is not only paralleled by classical music — it serves as a vessel for its creation. For quite a while, classical music had been used to insert tech into history, to assert that tech is not merely the stuff of machines, but rather a human achievement parallel to these historical works of sonic complexity. Fear not, human, your ego is still in control. The Esa Pekka Salonen commercial flipped the score, suggesting the benefit is mutual: tech needed to draw from history to ingratiate itself to the masses, now history must draw from tech to stay relevant.
The effectiveness of the casual commingling of tech and these deified compositional examples of artistic achievement is similar to the type of convergence that’s led Creative Control‘s setting, Williamsburg, to become such a consumer capital. It is, after all, the o.g. trendsetter for the borough that’s become the most expensive place to live in the United States. Interestingly, Creative Control places famed and shamed Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes in its cast as a seeming marker for the accelerated capitalism of the neighborhood and its eventual subsuming of art into a massive tech brand, perhaps most visible in Vice’s The Creators Project (to which, full disclosure, I contributed on occasion), a site about the merging of art and technology that’s actually the merger of Vice and Intel.
“I think Gavin’s voice and sensibility had a lot to do with creating a certain aspect of Williamsburg culture,” says Dickinson. “Definitely the hedonistic aspect of it, less so the Andrew Tarlow, locally sourced food, do it yourself aspect. But Gavin represents a certain celebration of hedonism, and he’s no longer at Vice, but it’s something he started that’s slowly taking over Williamsburg. Advertising is moving in a Vice direction towards these all-encompassing media empires. That involves tech and art and advertising all under one roof. Before I got Gavin involved, Vice was the model for the agency called Humunculus [the central agency in Creative Control].”
Through Mcinnes as a hovering symbol, the film suggests the hasty transformation of Williamsburg from immigrant community to artistic center to consumerist/technocratic capital adorned in hollowed flourishes of its two recent former identities (just look at the shell of the Domino Sugar Factory, which was then turned into a socially vital art project by Kara Walker, which deliberately came before the site was stripped for the building of condos; or just look at the likes of an overpriced Brazilian restaurant called “Miss Favela”).
The omnipresence of yoga in the movie, like its classical score, implies a balance that’s struck to enable tech startup culture’s hasty coup over various facets of bourgeois existence. If you place emphasis on these artistic and lifestyle paragons of nature-connectedness, it’s not just that you’re disguising the alienness of tech (which, like tech, itself isn’t a problem but rather often lovely in its potential). Rather, it’s the fact that the comfort taken from this disguise is what makes us susceptible to the capitalist need to introduce and sell new products in ever-accelerating, selective obsolescence-heavy fashion.
“Absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism,” Western Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi once said in an interview at USC (as quoted in an article on corporate mindfulness in Salon). Fittingly, Dickinson says he “was trying to internalize the utopian tone of tech startups to satirize them.” In his recent piece questioning whether apocalypse is really the explosive thing it’s so often depicted as, Flavorwire’s own Tom Hawking emphasized, “We’ve arrived at the most mundane of dystopias: the world of late capitalism.”
The idea that the speed and aggression of tech marketing — facilitated by these flourishes that make it seem familiar, necessary, and awe-inducing all at once — precludes philosophical hesitation was, it seems, the key concern of Creative Control. “No matter how you design an augmented reality product, the first thing people would do with it would be porn. I was confident that no matter how well that thing was designed, that would be its first use,” says Dickinson, whose film then wonders what impact porn would have on “real” physical and emotional connection once it was implemented into our own 3D experience.
“Advertising wants you to think that whatever problem you’re having will be solved by the product they’re selling,” the director says, but in his film he flips the score: his hour-and-a-half, sonically and visually gorgeous mimicry of an advertisement for a Google Glass-like system called Augmenta is a human drama that sees the product augmenting preexisting problems of human interconnectivity. Like the ads, it’s set to music that we can’t help but affiliate with key historical advancements and triumphs of the human mind. It’s set in a place that encapsulates this coercive amalgam. Williamsburg, the flourishing center where technocapitalism co-opted art and swiftly overtook a culture.