Little Boxes

I spend most of my work time listening to music, playing music to other people, trying to make music or trying to get music I have made used for various things, including advertisements. In the last couple of years I have also spent a lot of time trying to work out why music doesn’t seem to be as important as it used to be.
Now, I think that it is partly to do with the ease with which it can be acquired. A digital file that can be copied infinitely will ultimately have no value. When music was hard to find and had to be bought on a physical format it was much more something to be treasured. It was a rare commodity with a high value, and that high monetary value added to the emotional impact of the limited number of songs that you could listen to. When you found something that resonated with you, you listened to it again and again, from beginning to end.
It’s also because we live in a visual culture. Most of our interactions are on a screen and a screen, by definition, needs images. Sound is good too, but it’s not essential. Music is often an add-on to enhance the image rather than the end in it’s own right. Look at any serious review of Lady Gaga and it is likely to say – well, her music is gash electropop, but what about her image. Wow, she wears different clothes each time she goes out.
Then there’s something less tangible, harder to define, something to do with cultural force, something to do with mindset, something to do with outlook and integrity. Music has often been used to make, or at least been a soundtrack to, a cultural shift. The most obvious example of this was in the 1960s, the folk movement that spawned the protest songs of Bob Dylan and the anti Vietnam war movement. There were also the hippies of course with their peace and love, then punk and the acid house lot, who thought they could dance their way to nirvana, and plenty more.
Now everything is available from the history of music, all the time, a new song with a message, or an old song that had a particular meaning, is so quickly assimilated and decontextualized, it’s hard to find stuff that hits you in the guts. Stuff that really connects with the feeling of the times.

In 1962 Malvina Reynolds wrote a simple folk song called Little Boxes. It was about suburbia, the sprawl, about rows of houses “all made out of ticky tacky,” rows of houses that “all look just the same.” It was about a life mapped out before it starts, kids being groomed for the ‘right’ kind of future, going to university, going into the professions, getting married, raising kids and the wheel spinning round again with nothing really changing.
It was, perhaps, more of a satirical song than a protest song. If you were being critical you might call it a little smug, beatniks in bad jumpers giving it to ‘the man’. Nonetheless, it had an impact, it made it’s point and, on top of that it was really hooky and stuck in your head for days.
In 1963 Reynolds’ friend Pete Seeger had a hit with his cover version of the song and one or other of these versions somehow resonated through my childhood, first because of it’s simple tune, then, when I was older, because if it’s simple message. I grew up in a very little, very English version of one of those little boxes, a little estate on the edge of a small town, and it somehow felt like the song was about the people around me, following the rules, trying to get on, not really thinking for themselves. It summed up, in a few words, something understood about growing up and going to grammar school and watching the posh people do their posh thing.
This year, the song has been adapted for an advertisement by the 02 telephone company.
Now the song is no longer about people, or society, or the way we live. It’s about how you can get some sort of deal on stuff from shops if you do something with your phone. It’s called Moments, like getting stuff is a memorable, beautiful thing, or something.
Perhaps this ad worries me because I try hard to get my music used by those same advertising people. Perhaps it’s the the ad execs being double ironic and really rather clever. Perhaps they are taking the piss out of 02 and all their subscribers, perhaps it’s saying, look at you, following the rules, the wheel turns, you do as you’re told, same as it was in the 60s, same as it is now.
Either that or the song, like so many songs before it, has lost it’s cultural impact, it has become another piece of hooky, background fluff, with pretty images and no meaning.