Most of us have had an ear-worm at some time or another, those irritating snippets of tunes or songs that go round and round in your head, that won’t go away no matter how hard you try to ignore them or distract yourself from them. For nearly twenty years I’ve had a recurrent ear-worm, a fragment of a pop song that has occasionally free-wheeled itself around my head. Where the hell did it come from? It’s not the sort of music I usually listen to, but bit by bit I pieced together a long-forgotten memory of a TV ad from the late 1990s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zl1a_ldhoQ) . This particular worm was trying to tell me something.
A young woman with an anxious expression walks down an empty platform at Paddington Station. A clock stands enigmatically at 5-15, and we see the woman is accompanied by a young boy, presumably her son. As she walks down the platform she is swallowed up by crowds of strangers walking in the other direction. The two figure are buffeted by the crowds, but still she carries resolutely on. This woman is not going to be put off. But her expression becomes more anxious as the crowd becomes even more threatening; a grim-faced man with a shock of white hair and beard to match glares out at her.
Now the couple are walking up a wide expanse of steps, with a horde of strangers coming down towards them. A shot from above pulls out as she looks up and around anxiously. She is surrounded by the mob, which grows in size and becomes even more threatening. The boy loses hold of her hand, and the couple are separated. They both look around for each other, lost. And all the time a catchy guitar riff twangs along, accompanying a cool female voice, my ear-worm.
Suddenly the screen clears and the words “expectmore” appear in white on a black background as the song’s chorus kicks in “You gotta be bad…”. A face appears. It’s so out-of-focus it has no eyes, just black hollows (did John Carpenter direct this ad?). A hand extends towards the boy. The face comes into focus, smiling, presumably the boy’s father. He takes his son’s hand, picks him up and places him on his shoulders. The woman sees this and smiles broadly. We see the man lowering the child to the ground reflected in the shiny window of the Ford Focus, which we see from above driving through the faceless crowd which parts like the waters of the Red Sea to let them escape.
The song, You Gotta Be, was released in 1994 by Des’ree. A few years after I first saw the ad, I started reading about neoliberalism , Harvey’s (2005) Marxist analysis, and Chomsky (1999) of course. Then I finally got round to Foucault’s (2008) lectures, and realised that neoliberalism is a political ideology that, amongst many other things, has a potent influence our understanding of the sort of human subjects we should aspire to be. I’m not going to attempt to define neoliberalism here. This is a blog, not an academic piece. In case you want to know more here’s a link to an informative piece that sets out the basics https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world .
The song featured in a number of TV adverts, including the one for the 1999 Ford Focus. Its use in the car ad resulted in yet another re-release in the UK, when it reached number 10 in the charts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Gotta_Be) . In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the singer song-writer Des’ree (Romero, 1995) is described as “…a walking testament to the power of positive thinking…”. The article goes on to describe how she “…woke up one morning with an oddly positive feeling…and I told my manager to send my demo over to the chap who signed Terence Trent D’Arby to CBS.” (all Romero, 1995, emphasis added). A week later the musical ingénue was signed by SONY.
The inspiration for her song came after the painful ending of a relationship. She was feeling really sad and unhappy, and in an attempt to cope she read Creative Visualisation a best-selling self-development book by the New Age American personal trainer Shakti Gawain. Amongst other things the book advocates the use of daily affirmations, the repetition of positive statements about yourself, which according to ‘brain guru’ Dr. Arlene Taylor helps to “rewire” the brain to produce new clusters of “positive thought” ( http://arlenetaylor.org/brain-care/953-affirmation ). Des’ree found daily affirmations helpful to pull her out of her sadness, and shortly afterwards (doubtless as a consequence of all those new clusters of positive thoughts from her re-wired brain) wrote the lyrics for the song. It’s upbeat, positive message made it a popular soundtrack for a number of TV ads. Stuart Elliott, until recently the New York Times advertising columnist, described the song as “…an infectiously sunny tune about the affirmative powers of self-confidence…”, so positive, in fact, that ABC used it in a media campaign to rebrand their flagship morning TV programme, ‘Good Morning America’. All very well and good, but where does neoliberalism fit in?
Being positive and happy is central to the neoliberal zeitgeist (Davies, 2015). Neoliberal subjects are responsible for themselves. I sink or swim by virtue of my own decisions. If I alone am responsible for my successes (like the audacious Des’ree), then the flip side of this means I alone am responsible for my failures, my inability to get on in life, to be successful, to get or keep a job. And if I am to tend for my entrepreneurial self I must be positive and confident, autonomous and independent, self-responsible, and most important, self-caring. Why else since the 1980s has this new age of neoliberalism witnessed a flourishing of personal trainers, life coaches, well-being experts, happiness gurus and positive psychologists to oil my ego to keep me in employment, so I can smile and consume more, so I can be even happier (you gotta be bold).
And if I’m unemployed, if I’m struggling with poverty and my benefits have been stopped again (you gotta be wiser), it’s all my fault. Maybe a bit of positive psychology might just rub off on me (you gotta be hard) and motivate me (you gotta be tough), get me off my negative arse and into a zero hours contract job (you gotta be stronger). The fact that I hate myself and the world because school and my childhood fucked me up is irrelevant (you gotta be cool), and nobody wants to hear my story (you gotta be calm), because nobody cares or has the time to listen or to do anything about it, so you gotta stay together. And it’s back to the science of positive psychology and the wheel of wellbeing so I can live life to the full as I play my do-it-yourself happiness game. Happiness doesn’t cost very much, especially when I can do it by myself in front of the mirror each morning, after I’ve cleaned my teeth (if I can afford the toothbrush and paste), and, most important, it keeps the economists and politicians happy.
Chomsky, N. (1999). Profit over people: Neoliberalism and the global order. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. London, Verso
Elliott, S. (1995) Pop music takes center stage in a ‘Good Morning America’ campaign to attract younger viewers. New York Times, March 6 accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/06/business/media-business-advertising-pop-music-takes-center-stage-good-morning-america.html 2nd November 2017
Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979. (M. Senellart, Ed.; G. Burchell, Trans.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Romero, M. (1995) Des’ree and her daily affirmations Entertainment Weekly, Feb 17th accessed at http://ew.com/article/1995/02/17/desree-and-her-daily-affirmations/ 2nd November 2017