I Got the BP Blues

Call me a purist, but I don’t think that music should be a part of advertising. To me, as well as thousands of other music junkies, a good song is so much more than a few bars with a catchy hook, or something to hum to pass the time. Good music is a living, breathing part of being human. A great song is one of the few places where a person can validate the myriad emotions and instincts that we are otherwise forced to repress and ignore. In other words, it helps us cope with and make sense of a confusing and frightening world.

Advertising, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. The sole function of a commercial is to divert attention away from reality and toward an image of trendiness or practicality. And in this upside down system, where millions are spent on marketing thirty different brands of toothpaste while countless children go without basic dental insurance, image is one of the only things the corporate hacks can rely on.

So when British Petroleum launched an ad campaign using a catchy, blues inflected tune to get us to ante up at the pump, I could only shake my head at how utterly cheap everything is to the suits at BP.

One has to hand it to them: the commercials themselves are pretty damn cute, and the song itself is so catchy that I still can’t get it dislodged from my brain a full day later. The ad is computer animated, showing four babies (!!!) driving a car, singing along to a tune by a little known group called Message of the Blues. “Say hey,” the refrain goes, “make the day a little better.”

I admit knowing absolutely nothing about Message of the Blues. And until this ad campaign started, I can guarantee neither did most other people. Their Myspace page lists them as unsigned, and they don’t appear to have a massive fan base for a local group. The songs on their page are nothing mind-blowing. They’re hip, laid back bits of jazzy pop-rock that, as I have said, are undeniably catchy; and I wouldn’t mind at all having them on my iPod.

The song in question was originally an ode to Los Angeles, with “LA” in place of the commercial’s “say hey.” Needless to say, the original is much better, with the ad not even including the groovy instrumental break — the song’s best part. Overall, this is a band with talent and solid musicianship.

Then it occurred to me: that the BP ad campaign is probably the best thing to ever happen to Message of the Blues. For an unsigned band searching for recognition, getting a song in a commercial must be like finding a genie in a bottle. It’s a one-way ticket to mainstream exposure.

How tragic is it that the only way a genuinely creative artist can only get a hearing is by going through the soulless edifice of corporate power? It’s the sad truth of being an artist in this world. But the extra tragedy comes from that this is a company with even more blood on its hands than most.

By now, it’s become almost cliché to rant about the evil of oil conglomerates (not that you’ll hear me complaining), and execs at BP have been trying to distance themselves from a near-demonic image in the mind of the public. Their previous campaign tried to put them on the map as an environmentally conscious firm. But saying BP is less exploitative compared to other oil companies is like saying Trent Lott is less of a bigot compared to David Duke.

Underneath the image BP is trying to cultivate, they are still part and parcel of the modus operandi of any oil company. They built their original empire on the back of the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadeq government in Iran during the fifties. Today, they are supporters of the vastly unpopular Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline that runs through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. This pipeline has been the target of environmental, labor and indigenous rights activists since its inception. Their neglect for safety standards directly led to the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and the deaths of fifteen workers. And their presence in West Papua has bolstered Indonesia’s brutal occupation of that region. And the list goes on.

This is a far cry from the cool, happy-go-lucky image that the ads, and Message of the Blues’ song, convey. It is not “cool” to decimate the environment of a region. It is not “chill” to disregard safety standards. And it is certainly not “hip” to support brutal occupations and governments from Indonesia to Colombia.

It is hard to blame to Message of the Blues for jumping at the opportunity to get exposure. For countless talented artists and acts, those opportunities are few and far between. On the other hand, BP is making a move that is typically Machiavellian for an ad campaign. Ultimately they view the band more or less the same way they do their workers; as commodities; expendable and cheap. When they are done with the group, they will throw them away.

But the unfortunate upshot is that if Message of the Blues wants to achieve any measure of credibility and success, then the unfortunate fact is that from now on they will be forever trying to shake off the label of “those guys that did the BP ad.” That’s a hard rep to get rid of.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.