Pop-Sizzle & Video-Steak

Mark Ronson's "Move To The Beat"

published in Real Time No.111, Sydney, 2012

The official theme song for the London 2012 Olympic Games was Muse’s "Survival". It’s a truly strange song, channelling Scott Walker at his most atonally melodramatic, fed through a Bowie/Visconti mock-Rock-opera arrangement, blossoming into a sparkling homage to Queen through Mathew Bellamy’s vocal histrionics and his emulation of a stratospheric Brian May guitar solo. Think "We Are The Champions" staged by late-period Sondheim in a post-Radiohead world of pop.

One of the eleven Worldwide Olympic Partners for the 2012 Olympics was Coke-a-Cola™. They produced their own corporate brand song and a promotional video which was shown extensively on television and cinemas in the lead-up to the Games. "Move To The Beat" was composed and produced by British DJ/producer Mark Ronson, and features vocals by Katy B. The arrangement is built around a sluggish ‘de-Housed‘ Pop-stomp dressed in banks of pre-set soft-synths emulating a quarter century of ironic/not-ironic string ensemble effects. ‘Sports audio specialist’ Dennis Baxter provided the sound effects of Olympians (sprinting, hurdling, shooting arrows, playing table-tennis and taekwondo) which are sampled and edited into rudimentary loops to underscore the song’s rhythms. In its pale imitation of Kraftwerk’s "Tour De France" (1983), "Move To The Beat" is as frighteningly banal as Muse’s "Survival" is surprisingly progressive.

But might this be deliberate? For what is at stake when a multi-national corporation like Coke-a-Cola™ produces a theme song designed to exist simultaneously in all its global territories? "Move To The Beat" is not about content and effect; it’s all about context and placement. The chorus is tellingly droned by Katy B: “Everywhere in the wor-or-or-orld.” The paradigm is Warholian in its simplicity: if the Coke-a-Cola™ corporation makes Pop, then that Pop will be like Coke™.

Coke-a-cola—early on tagged as a ‘taste sensation’—was one of the first ‘refreshing beverages’ to analyze not the physics of taste, but the physics of sensation. It’s what post-war advertising rhetoric famously referred to as “the sizzle, not the steak”. Coke—a bizarre hybrid of effervescent coca, tannin-edged soda, sarsaparilla bite and caffeine aura—was targeted at the brain in the tongue. It sends in an invasion of nanobots of simulated flavourings working in hive-mind to territorialise the tongue’s bed of sensory readers. Its addictive crux lies as much in the way it contrasts the feeling of artificially induced flavour against the procedures by which organic flavours work with the ‘tongue brain’. After Coke™’s sizzle, biting into an apple becomes a sagging event of flavour.

Replace ‘tongue’ with ‘ear’ and you have a version of how Pop music phenomenologically exists. Pop music prides itself on sensation, and an awareness of that—not to mention a studious approach to craftsmanship—enables either strains or random instances of Pop music to be an exhilarating non-cerebral sonic art. It’s something that literary types will never comprehend, social theorists will always misapprehend, and serious musicians spend their lives avoiding or suppressing.

"Move To The Beat" is no trail-blazer in the art of Pop—but this is because it’s essentially a trumped-up jingle pretending to be Pop music. The song signifies itself (the purpose of all ‘marketing’) as having everything it actually lacks. The rhythms are perfunctorily edited, the percussive textures lack bite, the synths hover like background scaffolding, and Katy B’s vocals throw a congested blanket over the whole squirming mess. In contrast to how mainstream Pop recoups the pre-fab concentrates of Dubstep, Rave and R’n’B in oft-derided figures from Justin Timberlake to T-Pain to Skrillex and makes them sonically sizzle, "Move To The Beat" is perplexingly absent of any effervescence.

The cinema version of the video-clip (and the official 4-minute extended version) is filmed in one of those impressive outdoor stadiums with lighting like Albert Speers on crack. A massive audience has been assembled; a phalanx of roving cameras capture every micro-itch any living being makes; a wall of screens project rapid edits of Olympians soaring, posing, thrusting; and the whole show has been edited to such a degree that it implodes its own purpose. In fact, every shot of Katy B singing is out-of-synch with what she is actually singing on the track at that point. The subliminal effect is that the clip disregards its own music.

And this is precisely where Pop reveals itself in the clip’s audiovisual spectacle: the song is treated as transient fabric, insignificant textures, a meaningless apparition. In the hands of Coke-a-Cola™, the song is presented aurally as it is—dull and flat—while being presented visually as all it isn’t—flashy and exciting. Song-steak with video-sizzle. The widescreen pizzazz of the clip (I saw it at one of Village’s full-digital cinema complexes) attempts to generate an ocular overload as if such a procedure pushes one’s perceptual limits. Instead, one can experience with clinical precision the ineffectiveness of such a spectacle.

Proof of how Pop music here is corralled into prancing around as a phantom of itself on the televisual stage lies in how the clip suggests that the Olympians are actually ‘performing’ their sound effects live in this delusional circus of imploding Pop. At one point, the archer shoots an arrow from the back of the auditorium to a target on stage, and hits the mark—with perfect MIDI timing to boot. Of course it’s not intended to be believable, but it insists on theatricalising in the real space of the stadium an architectural logistical staging of how the sounds in the song are produced and mixed. Mark Ronson appears on stage (dressed in red and white, following subliminal colour-coding 101) and conducts these ‘performers’. His fey arm jerks are among the most limp-dicked conductor poses I’ve even seen a Pop performer do. Ronson’s lack of physical prowess and Katy B’s stiff waddling and twirling are contrasted with Olympians being forced to perform like monkeys in drag, wildly flicking and bouncing on the stage and along special cat-walks reaching into the audience. Frankly, no-one comes out good in the debacle. "Move To The Beat" is glaringly allowed to be the one thing Coke would never allow itself to be: flat.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Coke-a-Cola.