Inside the bizarre world of industrial show tunesNovember 8, 2012: 11:47 AM ET
IBM's famed jingles, such as "Hail to Thee, IBM," are fairly well known. But what about General Electric's trippy "The Answer?" Or American Standard's surreal "My Bathroom is a Private Kind of Place?"
FORTUNE -- For nearly six minutes, "The Answer," a filmed version of an industrial show tune by General Electric, drills its sunny message of silicone straight into the base of your brain. It lodges itself there for at least half a day:
When you've got a problem, think silicones,
When you've got a question, think silicones,
Because, you see
Silicones from G.E.
That's the chorus. The verses, which change up almost to the point of being separate movements, explain the many properties and uses of GE's (GE) various silicones. They resist all resistible things -- heat, cold, water, flame. They're even "corona-resistant." And they're used in everything from household products to the astronauts' lunar boots, and from -- ick -- instant coffee to "the coating on your waistband to make your waistband hold."
To depict that waistband, the film displays a pair of pants that could easily have been worn below a tight knit shirt on a Sunday afternoon by Mike Brady, patriarch of the TV's eponymous Bunch. That's because the film was made in 1973 -- so the pants look like they might well be made of silicone, too. Visually, the film resembles a strange mixture of a TV commercial from that era and Woody Allen's futuristic comedy Sleeper, which came out the same year.
It's quite a production, and probably pretty expensive. Of course, this was well before Jack Welch took over the company and started looking around for costs to cut. GE was already well known by then as a bloated, profligate multinational conglomerate with so many layers of management that top execs might never have even heard of this project.
Stumbling upon this wondrous thing inevitably raises the question: what other such works exist? And the answer is: countless -- enough to comprise a genre all their own. There are even whole compilation albums devoted to them, such as Product Music Vol. 1: Industrial Show Tunes In Praise Of Products We Trust.
"My Bathroom is a Private Kind of Place," from American Standard, is a wistful, elegiac ballad sung by a woman as an ode to "the only place where I can stay, making faces at my face" and "where I can wash and I can cream. A special place, where I can stay and cream and dream and dream and dream."
American Standard put that cut on an album it produced in 1969 as part of a sub-genre -- the industrial musical. This one was called The Bathrooms are Coming! American Standard explained it this way in the album's liner notes:
The Bathrooms Are Coming premiered a new decade of bathroom fixtures born out of exhaustive human and product research by American-Standard. The story began with the introduction of a mythical Greek goddess Femma, the epitome of all women's attitudes, reflections and desires and the leader of all women's movements. In the play Femma is called upon by other women to start a bathroom revolution - "Join the fight for bathroom safety, Femma ... the fight for beauty and luxury. We need freedom from bathroom oppression. Join the fight for better bathrooms."
Makes perfect sense. Why flush money away on developing, say, a water-saving toilet or a more durable valve when you can put on a faux-counter-culture, pseudo-feminist musical in praise of the powder room? Other tracks include: "My Ultra Bath" and "Look at This Tub."
Around that same time came tunes like "Westinghouse Power Flower" and Squibb Pharmaceuticals' "The New Generation," a folk-rock tune that is all about love, peace and togetherness but never once mentions Squibb. It doesn't even mention pharmaceuticals. Though, they seem to be implied.
Perhaps the most famous company songs came from IBM, which were collected in the hymnal "Songs of the IBM" in 1931 -- the most famous tune being "Ever Onward" which employees sang at company meetings, ostensibly to boost morale. The genre flourished mainly in the mid-20th century into the 70s, as both the modern corporation and Madison Avenue were ascendent, though the tradition lives on today. During that period, Broadway songwriters were often drafted to come up with the tunes.
What separates such songs from simple ad jingles are length, complexity, and the fact that they're generally aimed not at consumers, but at employees, stockholders, or corporate customers. They generally are, to one degree or another, cringe-inducing. Witness this entry from a few years back, where the last person anyone would ever pick to sing a Barry White-like tune sings (or rather, lip-syncs) a Barry White-like tune, "Reach that Peak," for drugmaker Agilent. (Sample lyric: "Yeah girl, you know what I'm talkin' about. I'm talkin' about pharmaceuticals.")
As America entered the Age of Irony sometime in the '90s, many corporate songs were made to induce cringes on purpose, or at least to acknowledge that red-faced embarrassment was a valid reaction. For the ultimate in post-modern corporate music, just have a look at "We Built This Starbucks" which was quite knowingly a rewrite of a song that's often cited as the worst song in the history of recorded music: Starship's "We Built This City."
But the most amusing songs are generally the older, self-serious ones. "Up Came Oil" by the Exxon (XOM) Singers was written for a 1976 musical called Exxon: Spirit of Achievement. It's best to keep in mind when listening that this was produced during an era of perennial energy crises, and the dawn of environmentalism. The opening lyric:
Oil's been around for centuries, sure
Floating in springs, in lakes, and in streams
The Indians used it as a medicine cure
But never in the wildest of dreams
Did anyone think that black sticky stuff
Always in short supply
Would ever have power enough
To gush its way to the sky
Here it is with a satirical video treatment by the anti-corporate agitprop group The Yes Men, who said it came from "one of George Bush's favorite musicals":