Richard Wagner, the German musical genius of dubious personal behavior, wrote and produced some of the most stunning and memorable operas ever performed. Among others, “The Flying Dutchman” and his “Ring Cycle” of four operas, running a combined total of over 20 hours, contain soaring musical passages of delicacy, undulating waves of image inspiring oceans of strings, clarion calls of horns and pulse-pounding evocative heroic heart-swelling themes. How ironic and bizarre, then, to hear the magical strands of Wagner accompanying visions of pepperoni on Mountain Mikes pizza commercials during televised Giant’s baseball games.
It’s not that pepperoni’s unimportant; to the contrary, for some a pizza without pepperoni is nearly unthinkable. And it is also true that Wagner’s music has a mixed reputation; Wagner was Adolph Hitler’s favorite composer, after all, an issue which still rankles music lovers. Wagner himself, was reportedly a cad; an arrogant, womanizing narcissist whose reputation for treating others badly was nearly as famous as his music. But honestly, a whole generation of Giant’s baseball fans are going to grow up thinking the background music in Mountain Mike’s pizza commercial was written by Mountain Mike.
We live in the age of commodification, wherein anything of meaning will be exploited by commerce for profit. The expansion of media technology requires a commensurate exploitation of culture past and present; ads and commercials can only be repeated so often before an audience becomes bored or inured to their effects. The continuous generation and force-feeding of cultural artifacts down the commercial gullet of the consuming public, an unseemly process not unlike that used to create the enlarged goose-liver of foie gras, is the foundation of advertising. The intended effect on people is reportedly the same as that on the goose: an insatiable desire for more.
People are fickle cultural feeders; we tire of the same old thing quickly and are easily lured by new temptations. It is for this reason hucksters change their pitch so often, but never stop talking. Bearing the continuous pressure of competition and an overwhelming desire for gain breeds both creativity and manipulation; of these two, manipulation is the easy route. Musical tunes that enjoyed historical popularity as to ultimately become sentimental favorites are irresistible to those with something to sell. For this reason, hits twenty, thirty or even 100 years old are mined and redeployed to exploit their magic once again on an emotionally vulnerable public.
The reintroduction of older forms of art within newer forms has been going on for a long time. Copyright laws were introduced precisely because of the temptation to horn-in on someone else’s great success. Walt Disney used the older idea of Steamboat Willy in his first animated Mickey Mouse cartoon, as did Buster Keaton in his silent film “Steamboat Bill.” When Andy Warhol silk-screened multiple copies of his reproductions of Campbell Soup cans the issue of re-use regained currency. The same issues arose when DJs started “sampling” snippets from LPs of copyrighted music. For all we know, Michelangelo swiped ideas left and right as well.
Fact is, the past products of human culture always provide the fodder for new human culture. Like Narcissus, entranced with his own image reflected in a pool of water, we are endlessly fascinated by representations of and by ourselves. And who knows, maybe Richard Wagner loved pepperoni.