Walking down the street the other day, I passed a billboard for Jobs, a forthcoming horrible movie in which underwear model Ashton Kutcher will star in the first-penguin-off-the-cliff misfire (think Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center) to dramatize the life of the great innovator. The thought I had, aside from all that, was, “I hope they don’t use ‘Baba O’Riley’ in the commercial. God, they’re going to put ‘Baba O’Riley’ in the commercial, aren’t they.”
Yes, sadly, they did. Not two days after seeing the billboard, I saw the Jobs commercial, and sure enough, there was The Who’s masterpiece laid out yet again as a haggard come-on. But even here, in the banality of this commercial, it was hard not to get lost in one of my favorite songs: the organ making its glittering leaps, the analog precision of the synthesizer scattering pitch like a prism scatters light. The thunder of Keith Moon’s drums, the earthy command of Pete Townshend’s piano. And under it — this time — was Kutcher giving the “Dude Where’s My Car” treatment to Mr. Jobs.
I hope Pete Townshend is lounging in the sun on his boat somewhere, enjoying the endless gift that this song must represent to his bank balance. For the investment of a few months at home with a new musical toy at age 24, The Who’s legendary guitarist and songwriter emerged from his private studio with a song that would end up as the lead track on 1971’s Who’s Next album and go on to become one of the most recognizable pieces of modern music in modern culture — and one of the most sold-out.
I should mention that I am a diehard fan of The Who. I once said in a job interview, when prodded to provide any further qualifications, that I could probably teach a grad-level class on the band. (I’ll let you guess whether the interviewer awkwardly laughed and then didn’t hire me.) As such, I have an uncomfortable relationship with the overplaying of “Baba O’Riley,” specifically in commercials.
“Baba O’Riley” hasn’t become a ubiquitous advertising fixture by conspiracy or accident. Taken out of all context, the song is a truly beautiful expression of (and soundtrack to) raw emotion, performed with bravado by the mighty Who and, for what it’s worth, recorded perfectly by Glyn Johns.
As far as its application in advertising, the song uniquely combines three elements. First off, its era of origin gets it categorized as “classic rock,” which seems to represent any music that can transport the aged-and-well-off consumer set back to their youth. (And few songs are as transportive as this.) The other two qualities are very difficult to combine, and are what I believe give “Baba O’Riley” its commercial currency: The intro section is instantly recognizable as a soundbite, and it is at the same time sprawlingly epic. So, we have an emotional trigger for a lucrative demographic that conveys profundity and breadth in the space of a few seconds. TV advertising gold.
The problem arises from Mr. Townshend’s promiscuity in licensing his songs. To all of you who don’t take it as a personal compliment when Who songs are played, take my word for it: They’re everywhere. They. Are. Everywhere. An asset as coveted as “Baba O’Riley” in that same portfolio never stood a chance.
My reaction to the Jobs spot stems from my ill-advised protective feelings towards “Baba O’Riley.” Part of me is worried that if the song is overexposed, its emotional power will dim. I don’t begrudge its use in commercials. The truth is, the first time I sought out The Who was after seeing an ad in which “Baba” was the soundtrack to a team of Nissans playing polo on a dramatic cliff. (Of course.) But if the song has become our culture’s musical shorthand for “epic,” rather than a piece of music that should be listened to and experienced unto itself, it by definition loses a bit of its evocative and inspiring power.
That’s why I was so happy to see the Twitter storm that erupted this week over One Direction’s new track, “Best Song Ever.” The song’s intro clearly — I mean, deny this if you need to — rips off the intro to “Baba O’Riley.” (Then again, so did The Who in 2006.) I won’t delve into the similarities, other than to point out how miserably a drum machine stacks up against Keith Moon. Someone on Twitter made this plagiarism known and started a rumor that The Who had taken legal action. One Direction’s hormone-addled legion of lemming-fans came out martially against the suit, and against The Who. (There is no lawsuit. The AV Club has a funny summary of the events here.) It actually made me feel a lot better about the song. If these zillions of tweens were unable to instantly recognize a “Baba O’Riley” ripoff when they heard it, then maybe the Who's classic wasn’t as overplayed as I’d feared. I guess another commercial couldn't hurt.
In the end, what I’m really protective of is my personal relationship with the song, and that's under no threat. I have many memories set to “Baba,” and those can’t be taken away. The song’s constant use has been, if nothing else, a top-notch envoy between my favorite band and our generation, 40 years down the line. Jobs can have its trailer, and One Direction can have its song. Hopefully a few of their young fans will linger on the YouTube page the Twitter historians link them to, and decide to let the stunning music play.