21
Jul 09

It meant that you were a protest singer

FTPost a comment • 329 views

The music video for Sons Of Maxwell’s “United Breaks Guitars” has racked up almost 3.5 million hits in just over two weeks. You can’t buy the MP3 anywhere and it’s by a band you’ve almost certainly never heard of: to put this in some kind of perspective the current US number one, Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”, is running at around two-and-a-half mil views.

The story behind the video is quite simple – the song outlines it very crisply. Band fly United Airlines – baggage handlers at O’Hare break their gear – after much ducking and weaving by the company they take their complaint to the web, with spectacular results (at least in terms of amplification).

The incident will be cited as a case study for years to come – the social media, branding and marketing blogospheres have certainly done their bit in making “United Breaks Guitars” a viral hit. But though I work in social media I wanted to think about this as a music writer.

At first this seems (even to me!) a little quixotic, since it’s not obviously apparent that its millions of viewers are responding to the song as music: song is simply the vehicle that lets these guys deliver their grievances with a little imagination, right? But nothing is accidental – there are stories wired into the form and genre that help explain why this video has resonated so much.

For a start you have the idea of a faceless corporation hurting not only a little guy, but an artist to boot. And also a craftsman – the guitar the tool of his trade! (I guess it’s possible that 3 million would turn out to see a carving made by an aggreived master carpenter called “United Breaks Adzes” – but probably not.) The story appeals to a particular ideal of the musician – someone who is not only a creative spark but also a hard-travelling journeyman, out on the road paying his dues.

How about the genre? Well, country is a storyteller’s music – it puts an emphasis on lyric which a lot of musics don’t. “United Breaks Guitars” is smooth-rolling country-rock with a hint of more recent Americana; the melody lines remind me a little of REM’s “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”. Storytelling isn’t all there is to it, though – had a hip-hop act recorded “United Breaks Turntables” the storytelling might have been in place, but would it have taken off? I doubt it.

No, what helps give Sons Of Maxwell their viral lift is country’s value set: hard-luck stories and straight-talking are in the music’s DNA. There are two sides to every complaint, after all, but the fact they’re playing country music immediately sets the band up as honest and believable, because that’s part of the genre’s appeal and it shapes the audience’s expectations and reception.

If you’re writing a song with the aim of getting a message as specific as this across, what you ideally want to do is circumvent your listeners’ inner music critics. The technical question of whether you’re any good at what you’re doing mustn’t overtake the story you’re trying to tell. If you got shafted by a company and performed a bad rap about it, the badness of your rapping would be as much the draw as the poor service. And if you recorded an amazing pop song, or an irresistible dance track, the very irresistibility would also work to drag attention from the message. Sons of Maxwell are competent, and competence is absolutely their ally here.

What all of this suggests to me is that this is a perfect storm of incident, artform and genre and that while United may have got their just desserts here, they were also a little unlucky: most corporations won’t have to fear anything similar, or at least not remotely on this scale.

That’s not to say this track isn’t setting a precedent, even if it’s not a brand management one. The last question I’d ask is – what kind of music is this? What role is it playing? There’s a communal element in the response to “United Breaks Guitars” – 14,000 YouTube comments mostly expressing support, bitching about United and other airlines, swapping stories. The song is acting the glue for an ad-hoc community (people pissed off about airlines) which was always nascent and needed a social object to realise itself. That community is likely to dissipate rapidly, but that’s not really the point: music which is made by and for a community is folk music, and so it’s tempting to see “United Beats Guitars” as an example of social folk. Not the last, even if this specific purpose and trick is unrepeatable.

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