As omicron begins to fade, and Americans shake off the coronavirus winter blues, advertisers are returning to the Super Bowl with big, bold campaigns. This year’s soundtrack veers from 2021’s tonal themes — muted, soulful or comforting — offering uplifting, and even humorous, usages.

For this weekend’s Super Bowl LVI, some advertisers chose iconic songs for their instant recognition factor, or for their irony, or because the tune aligned well with the products they’re selling. But most music publishers agree that this year marked a return to normal in the space, with more upbeat songs requested by brands as the nation seeks to turn the page on a waning pandemic.

“Brands are back spending on music to enhance their commercials and pricing was very healthy this year — up from prior years,” says Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony Music Publishing. “The majority of our licenses [this year] were for catalog, as iconic catalog songs can be a powerful tool within commercials because the audience has lifelong memories associated with them.”

Among the major music publishers, Sony led the pack this year, with 15 song licenses for national in-game uses, while Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) was close behind at nine placements so far confirmed, and Warner Chappell Music and Kobalt both have around seven spots in the big game confirmed as of early Friday (commercial placements can change up until the last minute on Super Bowl weekend).

“So far this year, we don’t have any ballads in the game,” says BMG’s vice president creative synch, advertising, Charlie Davis, who also adds that BMG boasts three in-game synchs during this year’s Super Bowl. “Every year we see requests for big recognizable songs that are nostalgic in some sense with some level of cultural cache that people can tap into as viewers, but tonally, there is a little bit of a shift away from comforting songs to the more uplifting [this year].”

Rob Christensen, co-head, synch and brand Partnerships at Kobalt, echoes that sentiment, saying that “songs are more upbeat this year, but the common thread is still that the majority of brands are looking for recognizable and iconic songs.”

For brands, Super Bowl LVI marks a return to massive spots for larger audiences (NFL playoffs ratings leading up to the big game were the highest in years). One advertiser who sat out last year’s Super Bowl but has returned to the proverbial field, is Anheuser-Busch, who chose Gary Clark Jr’s “Numb” to aurally augment their commercial.

“Our soundtrack is comprised primarily of Gary Clark Jr’s iconic cover of the national anthem as well as other pieces of his work, including ‘Numb,’” says Daniel Blake, group VP of marketing, Budweiser & Value at Anheuser-Busch. “The passion and emotion which are so evident in his music provide the perfect sentiment for this story of resilience, determination and inspiration.”

Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob brand also has a spot airing this year, the already buzzing bowling-themed ad which features actor Steve Buscemi (and Serena Williams and Peyton Manning, among others) and which memorably uses Electric Light Orchestra’s 1973 track “Showdown.”

“The ELO catalog has endless appeal in the synch world thanks to that timelessness as well as the breadth of themes and emotions across the many hits,” says Jessica Shaw, SVP, sync licensing at Sony. “’Showdown’ sets the stage for the spot not just by being a perfect fit lyrically, but by lending a timeless cool factor as well.” Shaw adds that “Showdown” wasn’t one of ELO’s bigger chart successes in the U.S., but was a hit in the U.K., Netherlands and Norway when it was released.

“Our goal was to make the commercial feel like a scene plucked from a feature film, so we knew we needed an iconic song,” Michelob ULTRA VP of marketing Ricardo Marques tells Variety. “Beyond simply loving the track, lyrics played a huge part in our choice. … We were looking for something that could set a cool vibe, but also add some tension and tease the ending a bit.”

For agencies, searches for songs that proved the right ‘fit’ for products were as intense as ever this year, and TBWA\Chiat\Day believe they found the perfect groove for Nissan’s new Z car: Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

“We wanted something with a classic coolness that wasn’t telling people how cool it is,” explains Sumer Friedrichs of TBWA\Chiat\Day. “When the track opens, it lets the listener know something is building, but it never does so in a ‘look at me’ way — Its strength is in its authentic smoothness, just like Eugene Levy.” (In addition to Levy, Brie Larson, Danai Gurira, Dave Bautista and Catherine O’Hara also appear in the ad.)

“This year seems to be going big on light-hearted and comedy-driven creative, so there’s a lot of feel-good and fun songs,” adds Marty Silverstone, SVP creative and head of sync at Primary Wave, co-publishers for Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

Super Bowl LVI heralds something of a return for car companies, as a fruitful last 12 months for auto sales (despite a semiconductor shortage) and increased competition from upstart EV brands has spurred legacy automakers to step on the proverbial accelerator to match consumer demand.

Korea’s Kia Motors decided to capture potential car buyers’ attention by licensing a big, instantly recognizable song, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” to introduce Americans to their new all-electric EV6. “It’s a classic song that all listeners can relate to,” says Russell Wager, VP of marketing for Kia America. “We like how the melodramatic tone of the song quickly raises the listeners emotions as Robo Dog shows its longing for a human companion. … The lyrics continue to connect with the narrative of the driver who we hope will ‘turn around.’”

Like last year, the tech sector spent big, with Amazon producing one of the most talked-about commercials this week — an ad featuring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost for the Alexa virtual assistant. The viral spot, which has logged over 20 million views on YouTube so far, features a short but pivotal snippet of Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 release “Little Lies,” which UMPG helped license.

Interestingly, just because the ad uses a tiny portion of the song (around five seconds), its usage wasn’t any less expensive for the client. As Tom Eaton, SVP of music for advertising at UMPG, explains: “When licensing songs as iconic as ‘Little Lies,’ the duration of the use will rarely affect the pricing. Even though ‘Little Lies’ is only used for a few seconds in this commercial, that is all the time it needs to effectively deliver the desired punchline in a memorable way.”

In line with recent Super Bowls, snack foods (and fast food brands) were again major buyers of ad time. One of the bigger music-themed spots this time around is Frito Lay’s Doritos and Cheetos brands’ spot for their “Flamin’ Hot” chips, which features Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” with an assist by Megan Thee Stallion and Charlie Puth.

“It’s one of those songs that’s got a real ‘wink’ to it… we all know what it’s about, but it could also be about a lot of other things,” says Keith D’Arcy, SVP of sync and creative services at Warner Chappell Music, which handles publishing for the song (a favorite of TV ads, like this classic for Geico). “You cannot help but smile, and Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella are such beloved icons that it carries through the song, even with a cover.”

Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell surprised hungry music fans this year with its just-released Super Bowl spot which features a cover of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” by Doja Cat. Kat Basolo, VP of creative synch at Kobalt, who represents two out of three songwriters of “Celebrity Skin” (Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson), says both of the song’s co-writers were “involved and aware from the very beginning on the creative side.”

Basolo further adds that, not only were the songwriters excited about the usage, but the entire synch department was energized by Doja Cat’s cover. Ultimately, Basolo tells Variety, “to have such an iconic song being covered by such a huge contemporary artist … breathes new life into an iconic copyright.”

“Doja Cat felt this was the moment [for her] to cover a song that was far from the expected pop/hip hop genre she is known for, and we went through many songs together before we had the idea for ‘Celebrity Skin,'” adds Tracee Larocca, Taco Bell’s head of brand creative. “We’re hopeful that encourages our fans to try a little something new, too.”