Usually, when a company is willing to fork over the licensing fees to use a classic pop song in a commercial, they’ve made some kind of connection between the song’s lyrics and the product they’re selling – even if it’s just a catchphrase removed from its context. I always thought it was funny how the Disney Cruise ads discreetly cherry-picked Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. But the new ads for Lee Jeans dispense with lyrics altogether in their use of The Cars’ awesome new wave hit “Let’s Go”. Instead, they pitch an Obama-worthy message about their jeans’ utilitarian qualities and modest price points (as opposed to designer jeans with triple-digit price tags) over the Cars’ distinctive synth-meets-guitar, retro-futuristic hook.
But just as we expect to hear the dearly departed Benjamin Orr sing “she’s runnin’ away”, or the song’s rallying call “I like the night life, baby!”, or even the handclaps that punctuate the chorus – clap! clap! clap-clap-clap! clap-clap-clap-clap! – or the sci-fi laser show instrumental break that follows them, the poor commercial’s over. This song is the very definition of power pop and I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another song which packs so damn many delicious hooks into three little minutes. So while it’s nice to hear the little bit of “Let’s Go” we do hear, it’s hard to fight my gut feeling that the song’s been squandered on this ad.
Of course, this got me thinking that “Let’s Go” – one of the Cars’ best (certainly my personal favorite), but maybe not their best known (with “My Best Friend’s Girl” serving as the title of a current multi-plex romantic comedy) – is now 30 years old. And the ad seems to be appealing to people maybe just out of school who are too old for their parents to be buying them clothes, but too broke to be forking over more than 20 or 30 bucks for a pair of jeans. That is, twentysomethings.
And I’m guessing that most twentysomethings, even if they’ve heard of the Cars (maybe from their parents!), probably have no clue what the song is that’s playing behind this ad. It just, y’know, sounds sorta cool. I hope I’m wrong about that, but an informal survey of a couple of my officemates born in the 80s (and who are both fairly knowledgeable about 70s and 80s music) suggests otherwise. Neither of them knew the song, and both only had a passing familiarity with the band who produced it. I might as well have been asking about the Routers song of the same name, a guitar instrumental from 1962 to which the Cars’ hit makes a couple of obvious musical allusions. (If the song had been recorded today, they might’ve used samples.)
Personally, I have very specific memories of “Let’s Go” that go back to the daily after-school trip we’d take each weekday to pick my Dad up from work in Kenosha. Whenever I hear the song, I think of riding in an AMC station wagon with the sun setting over Hwy 50 at its interchange with I-94, the Brat Stop restaurant (before it burned down and was rebuilt), and the Factory Outlet Mall, which was new back then. And I remember thinking that it was by E.L.O. on account of the violins on the verses, and Benjamin Orr’s Jeff Lynne-style falsetto flourish on the chorus. The ad’s target audience might not care, but that’s just the point. It’s weird and sad to hear such a fantastic song used in a way that presupposes listeners’ indifference to it; to hear it gutted of most of its intrinsic excitement and reduced to little more than semi-stylish background music for an ad about, y’know, cheap blue jeans.