“Songs for Screens” (formerly known as “Synch This”) is a Variety column written by Andrew Hampp, a VP at New York-based music sponsorship and experiential agency MAC Presents and former branding correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column will highlight noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that we deem ripe for synch use.
Remember slow news days? Me neither. Where the latest news cycles have become relentlessly negative as the world does some serious soul-searching, pop music has become either deliberately escapist (witness Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” the entirety of Taylor Swift’s “Reputation”), innocuous (the back-to-back Hot 100 No. 1s of Cardi B and Post Malone) or downright nihilistic (hardcore rap).
As ad agencies and TV showrunners alike wrestle with how to incorporate the current political climate into their latest commercials and prime-time hits (some more successfully than others), a new niche is being carved out for music that can address our current perpetual state of unrest.
Active Child’s “Cruel World” belongs at the center of that niche. Written earlier this year and released in May, after being “broke[n]” by the latest current event, the musician otherwise known as Pat Grossi pours his celestial tenor over a hymn-like arrangement of strings that builds toward a cathartic chorus of hope in the face of despair. “Keep your head up/ Hold your head up/ It’s a cruel world/ Count your blessings/ You won’t need them/ when you’re gone.”
The song is a bit of a departure from the sound Grossi cultivated on his first two albums as Active Child, where he cultivated a harp-driven blend of trip-hop and pop-soul that was more James Blake than Joanna Newsom. Ellie Goulding even helped him make a dent in the synch world when her haunting cover of 2011’s “Hanging On” was featured in a 2012 Victoria’s Secret campaign, which perfectly paired Grossi’s cherubic plucking with the brand’s signature winged models.
But for “Cruel World,” Grossi ditches the strings and lets the song’s bittersweet message speak for itself. “We’re thrown into this life / no raft no savior” he sings on the second verse, before turning the song into an ode to a person who’s helped him persevere in spite of life’s wickedness (Grossi announced his marriage to a longtime girlfriend in March.) It’s a gorgeous, post-apocalyptic “Wind Beneath My Wings” for the woke hipster set.
The song would be a perfect end-credits score for a buzzy TV drama or movie where characters overcome a particularly heinous obstacle (Hulu’s oft-criticized music supervision of “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes to mind), or perhaps a commercial for an insurance, technology or banking brand looking to inspire customers with a message of rebuilding and persistence.
Grossi will return with more music and a proper follow-up to 2015’s “Mercy” in the coming months, but “Cruel World” is a sumptuous hold-over worthy of the same levels of exposure his collaborators like Goulding have already enjoyed.
SYNCH OF THE WEEK
Few dance cuts come with more musical pedigree than Deee-Lite’s 1990 classic “Groove Is in the Heart.”
Fronted by Pucci-printed singer Lady Miss Kier, the track featured an all-star trio of bona fides from hip-hop, jazz and funk in the form of guest rapper Q-Tip, saxophonist Maceo Parker and bassist Bootsy Collins, whose floor-filling riff was itself an interpolation of a Herbie Hancock track from the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film “Blow-Up.” Perhaps because of those timeless elements, “Groove” is also noteworthy for being of the few ‘90s club cuts that has managed to avoid the fate of a pale-imitation modern hit remake, unlike hits by Snap!, Robin S., or even Right Said Fred.
Considering “Groove”’s many charms, it’s a marvel that Sonos chose to build its entire three-and-a-half-minute holiday commercial around the song in nearly all of its glory, not just its hooks. Helmed by music video director Jason Koenig (Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us”), the spot shows how a little Deee-lite (and, OK, the voice-activated technology of the new Amazon Alexa-assisted Sonos One) can bring the most screen-addicted of families together this holiday season. What follows is some of the most joyous ad dancing since the days of The Gap’s “West Side Story” spots from the early ‘00s.
“It was inspired by ‘Beetlejuice’ and other cinematic moments where people are almost possessed by the music,” says Sonos’ VP of Global Brand Dmitri Siegel. “The campaign is about how Sonos can instantly transform the mood in your home using the voice, so there was a lot of personality we wanted to bring to the idea of your body being taken over by the music.”
Siegel and the team at Sonos worked with Deee-Lite’s publisher Downtown Music Publishing to get the song approved before the commercial was even shot, and even threw in an Easter-egg shot of a snow globe featuring footage of Lady Kier dancing in “Groove”’s music video. Though “Groove Is In The Heart” has appeared on several movie soundtracks over the years, it’s only recently made a dent in the ad world, with uses in a 2012 international spot for Swatch, as well as a cover by The Roots and Charli XCX for Target in 2015.
“Deee-Lite is about positivity and hopefulness. The band takes great care to ensure their music and image are aligned with productions that reflect these messages, and have turned down many advertising requests. They’re glad to represent a product like Sonos,” says Sean McGraw, SVP-administration at Downtown Publishing.
The Sonos spot will run in cinemas throughout the holiday season, as well as in :15 and :30 form as a digital pre-roll for online video ads. And for Siegel, the campaign’s visibility may soon create a holiday gift for Deee-lite. “I definitely hope we see some crazy streaming of the song,” he says.