Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Right Notes

Apple’s fun new music spots are not as simple as they look

In 1970, when the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” was a hit single, my brother persuaded me that the song’s opening line was, “You and I must make a pack.” So, during the “Where there is love” part of the lyrics, I always pictured wolves.

This came back to me when I saw the remarkably simple, fresh and lyrical spot for iTunes featuring a young woman, Nava, singing that very same number. She stands shyly against the white space, her freckles illuminated under the light, cradling her iPod and raising her voice in song. Unlike most people singing with earphones, or your typical deadly karaoker, she has a delicate, lilting voice and sings on key. The purity of her tone made me think of Michael Jackson in a new way—that he was only 11 when he sang it and sounded so old and wise. After singing prettily, Nava gets self-conscious and laughs and stops.

That’s a lot to get out of a spot selling legally downloadable music for 99 cents a pop.

On the surface, these commercials seem so basic, like “Switchers” but without all the angst and the tics. Those also featured people standing against white space. (Do Apple and the Gap each own half of the white-space trademark?) But “Switchers” sold the big-ticket items and featured real people and their tech stories, full of PC fury. Here, the song is the story, and the spots promote a great new, cheap service (the online music store provides the first digital delivery sanctioned by all the major record labels, allowing users to choose from 200,000 tracks). So this campaign is much more fun. It’s not as simple as it looks, though, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so good.

Music is a potent memory jogger—up there with certain Proust-like smells. So just as this campaign sells individual songs for individual tastes, it also effortlessly targets different segments and demos, and moves Apple into a whole new mind space.

Take Floyd—please. Singing The Who’s “My Generation,” he’s a Jerry Garcia type who will appeal to Deadheads and Meat-heads, and the people who love them. With his grizzly-bear size, graying goatee and John Goodman-like comfort in his own skin, he will also offer much grist to those who hate self-satisfied baby boomers and the music they “groove” to. (He doesn’t have a ponytail, thank God.)

He does a great job putting over the lines, “Things they do look awful c-c-cold/Hope I die before I get old.” But, of course, he doesn’t. He hopes to get old and die singing The Who. Floyd is actually an actor, which surprised me, because he seems so natural.

The other actor here is Nic, an obnoxious white guy who raps Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” If Adam Sandler is the wedding singer, Nic’s the bar mitzvah rapper. “I like big butts, and I can’t deny it,” he begins, and ends with a few butt-facing-the-camera shakes.

Jacob is the only one who might stir some controversy: a kid around age 10 doing Eminem’s “Slim Shady.” He has great presence and moves, and makes a brilliant point with the lyrics about the millions who “walk like me, talk just like me,” since there are legions of tween Em-itators, who also, by the way, own iPods.

In the first two weeks of business, more than 2 million songs were downloaded. So while the spots are easy and joyous, they also are truly the tail wagging the dog: More downloads means more iPods sold means more people buying Macs. For Apple, I’d say it pretty much brings salvation back.