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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Classical music makes great strides

By Norman Lebrecht / February 13, 2002

A stately 250-year-old piece by Handel is being used to sell jeans. It sounds crazy - but it might be a musical breakthrough.

A GAUNT young man stands before an open door. He hesitates, turns away. Impulsively, he reverses and runs headlong into the next room, which is bare. He gathers speed, bursting through the opposite wall into an identical room, then into another. This must have been shot, I guess, in a derelict hotel, or a government department abandoned on the day of revolution.

Levi's ad
Breaking out of conventional categories: the Levi's ad is a risk, but one calculated on the strength of the best market research money can buy

Not really, whispers the creative suit on the other sofa. It was filmed on "blue screen", against a blank background. The wall-bursting stuff was digitally animated.

Our hero pauses for breath. A girl, similarly attired in singlet and jeans, draws up beside him. Their eyes lock. In unison they run on, charging through more walls, coming out into a virtual jungle on a rickety Kwai bridge. They leap into the air. The music swells, the payline beams up: "Freedom to Move". Ah, now we know.

This is the new Levi's campaign, coming to your TV screens next month. Levi's is the brand that makes the running, that is what you are supposed to think.

But the Levi's advertisement is more than just a flogging horse for casual wear. Within advertising and beyond, it has come to be regarded as a barometer of cultural warming. Ever since Nick Kamen removed his shirt and pants in a launderette in 1985 to the sound of Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through the Grapevine, the Levi's advertisement has been a state-of-the-generation statement, articulating the perceptions and aspirations of the unformed 15-19s whose flickering attention every advertiser wants to capture.

No expense or wizardry is spared on this pursuit. Last year's multi-million-dollar Levi's advertisement showed gorgeous heads twisted backwards on desirable bodies. This year's is directed by 35-year-old Jonathan Glazer, maker of Oscar-nominated Sexy Beast, who devised award-winning surf horses for Guinness and the gut-wrenching "Last Orders" for Stella Artois - you know, the one where French lad returns from trenches with les copains who saved his life, but bar-owner Papa withholds his best beer.

That beautiful launderette ad worked wonders, and not only for Levi's. It put soul music back on the map and shot Grapevine to number one in the pop charts.

Whether the new campaign will do the same for its soundtrack cannot be foretold, since no record deal has been signed. The test of this 30-second bite of sound is not the pop charts but the popular perception of what kind of music consumers are made of.

The soundtrack for Glazer's Odyssey is the Sarabande from the Suite in D minor for solo harpsichord by George Frideric Handel - a work that could be described as pure classical were it not on the cusp of baroque. Levi's dropped the harpsichord - "too tinny" - and gave the Sarabande for rescoring to the hard-working John Altman, who maintained Handel's tempi and employed a late-classical chamber orchestra: 22 strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon, three French horns and tympani. He used no electronic manipulation, no John Williams-like smooch, no whizzbang - nothing that Handel himself would not be happy to acknowledge, down to the tangy little love theme for cello solo.

This is, so far as anyone can recall, the first time that classical music has been applied to sell lifestyle to under-twenties, and it breaks every rule in the advertising book. Classics traditionally evoke nostalgia (brown bread), safety (motor-oil), comfort (club class) and perfumes of every whiff. The mood music for young people is pop and rock.

Is that a fact? asked the brains at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), who have handled the Levi's account since launderette beginnings. "We put a pop track to Jonathan's film, but it sounded too aggressive," says creative director Stephen Butler. "Classical music turned the story into a piece of theatre."

Learned musicologists were called in and many scores were sampled, from Vivaldi to Bartok, before they hit upon the Sarabande and found that it fitted perfectly the pace of Glazer's work. "It's extraordinary when you get a piece of music and everyone nods: that's it," says Butler. "Pop may be the music of moment, but classical has the feel of experience."

Screened to focus groups in Berlin, Brussels and other cities, the music seemed to punch all the right buttons. "It's so pioneering," exclaimed one teenager. "So unexpected," said another. "Are you out of your minds?" said rival agencies.

"We try to be original," quavers Kenny Wilson, president of the Levi's brand. His anxieties were eased on reading three months ago in this column that categories are breaking down and people are seeking music of many kinds. "That's exactly what our market research has been telling us," he exclaims. "Young people dip in and out of different kinds of music. They no longer belong to one particular genre. They are open to adventure."

Most people nowadays, when asked what music they like, no longer specify hip hop, opera, hard rock, garage or baroque. They will name a favourite artist or piece, then another. They speak of "my music" in a possessive sense, as if each of us is made up of a stack of MP3s.

Musically speaking, we no longer live in little boxes, a reality that is dawning faster in some quarters than others. It is killing the classical record industry, which is unable to diversify, along with dozens of classical radio stations across America. It's a tough choice. Those outlets that - like BBC Radio 3 - embrace diversity risk losing their diehard following in exchange for a younger listenership. Those that cling to categoric fixity - such as Classic FM - risk being overlooked.

In the thick of the biggest technological, demographic and moral upheavals for two centuries, our cultural needs are changing gear. Classical no longer means what it did in the 20th century. It is not the elite preserve of the middle-aged middle classes, nor is it off limits to kids..

Advertising folk with the best trend research reckon that old music is no longer a deterrent. "Kids are exposed to so much classical-type music in the movies," says David Kershaw, founding partner of M&C Saatchi, "it doesn't jar on them. Perhaps they hardly notice it."

Kenny Wilson of Levi's believes they do, and they will. "We have the feeling that this is a defining moment," he says, "both for where youth culture is going and for the shape of advertising." I'll quote that back to him a year from now, but the evidence is stacking up on the side of pluralism. The music of the future will be multiple choice, not monolithic, and classical will form a part in the mass consumer's musical portfolio.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001