Culture Rover

#112 - America, Truck Yeah?

"America, Truck Yeah!"

Deftly paraphrasing the theme song from Team America: World Police, Jalopnik captures the ham-fisted patriotism of the recent television spots for Chevrolet Silverado. These advertisements use John Mellencamp's new song, "Our Country," to associate Chevy trucks with the typical fare: wheat fields, flags, burly working-class men -- all in sepia-tones or soft focus.

Repeated viewings, however, begin to reveal other dimensions to this ad campaign. Its peculiarities raise questions about how the history of America is portrayed in the dreamlife of television advertising. Silverado is no longer "like a rock," as Bob Seger used to grunt in prior commercials as a pickup poked through some virgin landscape, free on the frontier (except, perhaps, for the unseen Indians that it had just run over). That imagined purity has been replaced. The Chevy truck now rumbles through an American history of greater complexity and compromise.

The commercial begins. We see troops coming home from World War II, a record spinning on an old phonograph player. A hula hoop circles skirted hips. John Mellencamp leans against his Chevy, strumming his gee-tar. Okay, this is the usual celebratory (and celebrity) nostalgia.

Then, suddenly, we see...Rosa Parks (on a bus, of course, not in a Chevy pickup truck). We see a white family in Super-8 home video footage, and a peaceful suburban street (um, in a segregated neighborhood?). Then, Muhammad Ali knocks out his opponent, the African-American boxer Cleveland Williams as Mellencamp sings that he "can stand beside / the idea of stand and fight." Immediately, the ad cuts to a shot of Vietnam as a U.S. helicopter swoops over a rice paddy field (a war, we should remember, that Ali sacrificed his career not to fight -- all right, I suppose that was a kind of standing and fighting in of itself).

Hippies are dancing. It's the late 1960s. Wait, that's the Washington monument. We are back in 1963 at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes the usual "I Have a Dream" speech appearance. Antiwar protesters march, their faces not visible on the camera. Richard Nixon flashes the "V for Victory" sign as he boards Chopper One for the final time in 1974.

Cut to the present. A child pretends to ride a bucking bronco. A vintage Chevy has an American flag in the back window of the cab. A hand pretends to fly in a car on the highway. Wait, we're back in the past again as astronauts land on the moon.

"From the east coast to the west coast," Mellencamp sings. We see lobstermen (presumably the east coast) and then we see...burning forests (for the west coast, of course). Then Dale Earnhardt zips around a NASCAR racetrack on his way to death.

"Down the Dixie highway back home," Mellencamp continues in Woody Guthrie fashion. And we see images of Hurricane Katrina. A black New Orleansian with his truck. A caravan of Chevy pickups. A group raising the frame of a new house against a peaceful blue sky.

Then, flash to New York City as the Columns of Light beam up from Ground Zero at night. Then, a vista of the Grand Canyon (are these both now sublime natural landscapes?). Cut to tired firefighters (in front of their fire truck, not a Chevy pickup -- are they from 9/11 or the fires on the west coast?).

A Silverado is parked in a wheat field. A small boy in a cowboy hat gazes up from the front seat. The grill of the "all new Chevy Silverado" fills the screen as the Chevy slogan appears: "An American Revolution."

What is going on with this strange amalgam of images blinking along to Mellencamp's Springsteen-lite song? Jalponik explains that Chevy wants the ad to "showcase the good and bad of the past half century and show how America's made it through the difficult times." The original version of this advertisement, in fact, contained more graphic images of 9/11. It even included atomic-bomb mushroom clouds, ostensibly referencing the bombs dropped on Japan to end World War II (as Jalopnik and Kicking Tires both note, the latter can also be understood, wryly, as Chevy's wish-fulfillment against Japanese car companies moving in on the American truck market).

Why this sudden turn to highlighting the bad as well as the good in American life? And wait a minute, have we really made it through the difficult times? On his website, Mellencamp weighs in with his own take on letting General Motors use his song: "About a year ago, I wrote this song to tell a story about some of the challenges our country faces and how our beliefs and ideals can help us meet them. This partnership with Chevy -- an American company that is creating jobs and supporting our communities -- makes perfect sense for a song that is all about standing up for working people who are the backbone of our nation."

Hmm? What are those "beliefs and ideals" of which Mellencamp speaks?

As with the flood of recent advertisements for retiring baby boomers, this commercial repositions postwar American history as baby-boomer nostalgia. It incorporates the dissent, ruptures, corruption, inequality, and shortcomings of the United States during the past fifty years -- "the challenges our country faces" -- into a new narrative of the past that acknowledges dissension.

But the solution for these problems? The dominant message of the ad is: yes, we battled it out when we were young, but everything worked out in the end, so we do not have to do anything now to change the country other than consume. The way to mend the wounds of discord? This is "Our Country." We're all in it together, consensually. So, go buy a truck. Oh, and make it a Chevy truck as opposed to any other brand while you're at it.

Yet, the more I watch it, the more the ad whispers other messages beneath its roar of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" The ad starts to become weirdly apocalyptic: the militaristic pickup truck storming over the deserted rural landscape; the trauma of incoherently-related fragments of the past and present rapidly flashing one after another all helter-skelter. The disconcertingly cheerful song that shines and sparkles with a bit too much populist righteousness, all in the name of selling a truck.

The mood of apocalypse begins to overwhelm the positive vibe. It is as if Chevy is trying to associate the Silverado with the post-traumatic fever-spell of patriotism and unity that the nation fell into after 9/11. But in is goal to "own the hearts of the American pickup buyer," as Kim Kosak, G.M.'s general director of advertising and sales promotions, told the New York Times, the ad unleashes other energies, other messages. Trauma can be tricky for the rationalization of desires in the marketplace.

There is something subversive lurking in "Our Country. Our Truck." It's a mood that starts to nag at you. It haunts the all-American patriotism, gnaws at the American soul, picks away at the scab over the generational wounds of baby boomers. There is a drone humming in among Mellencamp's glimmering acoustic-guitar strums. This drone is quiet, but persistent. It intones: something still ain't right.

The ad insists that by acknowledging our nation's errors, failures, and shortcomings, by making heroes of a few iconographic figures (Parks, King, Ali, Alan Shepard...Richard Nixon?), we do not actually have to fix the underlying problems. Those struggles are all in the past, supposedly. But the more the ad insists this, the more the traumas of the past start to explode in the present. The more things stay the same, the more they need change.

Mellencamp becomes the crucial figure here, the hinge between the dominant and the subversive elements of the ad, the protagonist who substitutes for his audience, for us all, the person who faces a choice.

That choice is this: Is our Farm Aid hero, are we, simply shilling for the man? Is what's good for GM good for America, after all? Or is Mellencamp riding his Chevy Silverado to another kind of message? Does the television spot become a Trojan Horse, sneaking subversive messages of distress about racial inequality, global warming, political activism, and rotten civic discourse into the shared, mainstream dreamlife of the nation?

In short, is the song "Our Country" a jingle for Chevy, or does the Chevy ad become a vehicle for a song about "Our Country"?

What kind of American revolution is this, anyway?

6 October 2006

Corrections, 10/22/06: Culture Rover originally thought that Ali was knocking out Jerry Quarry, but the clip is of Ali's fight with Cleveland Williams. The astronaut clip is of Alan Shepard playing golf on the moon in 1971, not of Neil Armstrong during the first moon landing in 1969. Thanks to Don O'Day for the correct information.

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