Music can bridge generational divide

Have you seen the most recent commercial for the VW Cabrio - the one that opens with an aerial shot of a convertible travelling a moonlit road? Riding in the car are two couples, sporting late '60s Beatles haircuts, staring up...

Have you seen the most recent commercial for the VW Cabrio – the one that opens with an aerial shot of a convertible travelling a moonlit road? Riding in the car are two couples, sporting late ’60s Beatles haircuts, staring up into the sky with the words and music of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in the background.

I saw it written and I saw it say

Pink moon is on its way

And none of you stand so tall

Pink moon gonna get you all

It’s a pink moon

It’s a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.

They roll up to the parking lot of a crowded, rowdy and somewhat menacing roadhouse/bar and upon examining the scene, decide to turn around and head back out onto the moonlit highway. Clearly, it’s more fun to ride in the car than go to the bar.

I am infatuated with this commercial. I never tire of watching it. I have concluded that it is the commercial’s choice of music, with its vague, early ’70s flavour that reminded me of a period in my life when music was everything and everything was possible. It was the commercial’s carefully crafted demography that produced such creative impact. Of particular interest is the commercial’s cross-generational dynamic. The VW Cabrio passengers were gleams in their baby boomer parents’ eyes when Nick Drake wrote Pink Moon.

Nick Drake was born in 1948 in Burma and lived from the age of two in the sleepy British hamlet of Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire. When he became a teenager, Drake – like so many of his peers on both sides of the Atlantic – showed a keen interest in folk and rock music, especially the Beatles. He bought a six-string acoustic guitar and within a year was writing and performing. He was a very talented young man. His haunting melodies, unique singing style, open tunings, Travis picking patterns and floating arrangements resulted in a contract and recording studio resources by 1968. ‘Five Leaves Left’ (1969) was the first of three tiny, perfect LP releases which included Breyter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972). Nick Drake was only 26 when he died at his parents’ home on Nov. 24, 1974 from an overdose of Tryptizol, a prescription antidepressant.

Twenty-six years later, the VW commercial has created posthumous awareness of Nick Drake and his music and that has translated into new record sales and a cult following.

This is not the only example of how the media, this year, have attracted today’s youth by tapping into the power of a musical era that existed one full generation ago.

Most of the kids in my daughter’s high school have seen Almost Famous. This modest, no name, semi-autobiographical film, directed by Cameron Crowe of Jerry Maguire fame, was unknown a few days before it hit the top 10 markets in North America. The movie is noteworthy because it contravenes two longstanding media rules-of-thumb.

The first relates to the ability of a motion picture to cross the age divide in such a dramatic fashion. It is likely that the movie was designed to appeal to those who were in their late teens and early twenties in 1973, the period when the movie takes place – people like me. Instead, the movie seems to have hit a nerve among teens 15-18 as well.

And the second, which Almost Famous clearly shatters, is the notion that the music of my life could have such a dramatic impact on my daughter’s life. Set in 1973, Almost Famous features music I adored when I was 23. Immediately upon seeing the movie, my daughter purchased the soundtrack, featuring selections from Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Todd Rundgren, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Cat Stevens. The kids at school are humming along to America, Sparks and Tiny Dancer. If you concentrate hard enough, you will remember that there was a time when Elton John was cool.

What’s happening here ain’t exactly clear, but one hypothesis is this – a musical renaissance occurred in the Americas and in Europe from 1965-1975. Those of us who were in our teens and twenties at the time have always believed this. But today we have proof. The period produced music that was so good, and so powerful, that it successfully bridged a generation.

I think my daughter’s peers find the time of Nick Drake and Almost Famous attractive because it was an era of inclusiveness – it was a time when we were all related because we all knew the words to the songs because the music was so good.

And of course, there’s a marketing moral to all of this. The VW people figured it out and so did Cameron Crowe. Never underestimate the multi-generational pulling power of a truly creative time.

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada’s largest media management operations. Send your comments via e-mail to