Step Right Up

After listening to select tracks from Tom Waits' back catalog, I'm still finding great tracks like "I Wish I Was in New Orleans" and "Better Off Without a Wife." Despite hearing songs like "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Ol' '55" many times in the last few months, I can't get enough of them. Also on this list is a little bebop tune called "Step Right Up" from Small Change.

If you've never heard this track, let me clue you in: the lyrics are made up of almost every sales pitch you've ever heard. The funny thing is, you never know what's exactly being sold. Rather, the lyrics paint a picture of a man standing out on a corner desperate to sell you this something.

I think the whole song is great, but here are a couple of my favorite lines:

That's right, it filets, it chops
It dices, slices, never stops
lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn
And it mows your lawn
and it picks up the kids from school
It gets rid of unwanted facial hair
it gets rid of embarrassing age spots
It delivers a pizza


Removes embarrassing stains from contour sheets
that's right
And it entertains visiting relatives
it turns a sandwich into a banquet
Tired of being the life of the party?
Change your shorts
change your life
change your life
Change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy
get rid of your wife

Now I don't know how long infomercials have been around, but the lyrics sound like a mash-up of various ones. As somebody who is not a salesman, I really enjoy what Waits has to say and what he has done to prevent his songs from being used in commercials. "They want to plug your head into that and change the circuitry," Waits explained to the AV Club a few years ago. "While you're dreaming about your connection with that song, why don't you think about soda or candy or something? It's too bad, but it's the way of the world. They love to get their meat-hooks in you." I totally agree.

The deal is, with a Mojave 3 song being used in a Hummer commercial, a Kings of Convenience song used in an AT&T song, a Kinks song used in an IBM commercial and so on, this is kind of exposure is like its own format. Commercial radio isn't going to play this stuff nor will commercial music channels. So, in one way, this is a cool way of introducing great music to more people, but that comes with a brand attachment. While I'd rather imagine Neil Halstead singing and playing his guitar whenever I hear "Bluebird of Happiness," I remember the Hummer commercial that featured the song. (Gulp!) I'm not going to buy a Hummer any time soon, but the sales pitch has entered the private room of listening to and enjoying music.

Recently, EMF's "Unbelievable" has been used in a Kraft commercial, re-recording the hook of the song as "You're Crumbelievable!" A few years ago, Pringles reworked C&C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now" to "Everybody's Pringles" (I think). Turning hits from my sixth grade year into jingles makes me wonder when "Ice Ice Baby" will be used in a soda commercial.

Though I don't remember the actual jingle, but Waits successfully sued the Frito-Lay company for making a soundalike version of "Step Right Up" in a Doritos commercial. Waits alleged that the company wanted to use his song and he said no, so a knock-off version was done and was used as a jingle. Waits received a nice sum of money in return.

The reason why I don't like invasive advertising is that it's crowding my personal space. Though no one else can see what I consider this space, I still get very cold around people that invade it with a sales pitch on something I don't want. Maybe that's a price to pay with being around people. Door-to-door salesmen selling their version of Christianity or lawn services, pushy cashiers telling me that I can receive eight free issues of a flimsy magazine, and bums begging for money at a gas station are just some of the boundary crossing. As somebody who repels from doing this kind of activity myself, I repel from people that do this.

A former co-worker of mine once told me about when he sold cars. He said his intentions were to sell a car to somebody that didn't want the car. Maybe I'm just really protective of my own boundaries, but I could not do this. Sure, there's a lot of money in sales, but I would feel really dirty about ripping people off. I know not all sales are about ripping people off, but when I know I'm selling a widget that benefits me way more than somebody else, I can't get behind that.


Anonymous said…
"Step Right Up" dates from the days when commercials were 30 seconds long, and the idea of turning them into 30-minute pitches was considered financial suicide. That said, it's still a great tune. Have fun on your trawl through the Waits catalog -- have you heard "Kentucky Avenue" yet?
Eric Grubbs said…
I've heard "Kentucky Ave." many times in the last few months. One of his best ballads.