FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

How BP Harnesses Music to Its Message

There is nothing more sincere than a guitar. A few simple chords, plucked or picked one note after the other at a gently swaying tempo summon reflexive feelings of trust, comfort, love, and hope. This elemental musical style works for the lullaby and the love song, the meditation and the memorial. Few musical tasks are easier to learn than grabbing a chord with the left hand on the frets while the right hand moves across the strings. Still fewer musical techniques give you more bang for your buck.

This mode of gentle guitaring provides the new soundtrack to the oil catastrophe as staged by BP on its “Gulf of Mexico response” website, which posts new videos every day of how swimmingly the clean-up is going, how satisfied the residents of the Gulf are with BP’s claim system, and how committed the scofflaw corporation is to “making things right.”  A canny lot, the BP filmmakers know full well that the earnest-looking BP managers confronting the camera with the most fantastical tales of environmental justice and technological triumph over accident and adversity would be hard even for children to take with a straight face.  Enter the mournful minstrel. His honest lyre will make us understand how BP really feels.

The August 4th video features Keith Seihan, BP’s head of beach cleanup along the Gulf Coast. Before we see this young-ish man with receding hairline, rimless glasses, a yellow polo shirt, and beige slacks on screen we hear the guitar—the calming sonority of BP’s oil spill media campaign. The guitar precedes Seihan’s appearance by about one second, but that is plenty long enough to project the company’s seriousness of purpose and resolute compassion. What we hear on the soundtrack, and before the projection of any image, is a G-minor chord rising up from its bass note.  The minor mode and restrained pace of the arpeggio assure us that this is not a glib exercise in public relations.  From out of the depths, this oil-soaked minor cries, “I know this was a tragedy. I understand your pain.” Just one chord and we are made to feel certain that BP takes its cleanup task with profound seriousness and compassion for humanity at large. The guitar speaks directly to the soul without the clutter of text, sung or spoken.

With the guitar still rolling through that resonant minor chord, the first image comes up: a hand-held camera swings onto a boardwalk between a parking lot and a wide, sandy beach. We see an image of Seihan listening carefully to a big-bellied man in uniform talking to him. Seihan nods. He wants to hear what this guy has to say as they stroll along the sand, empty of people and oil.

Seihan’s southern-accented voice-over enters above the lingering minor chord, and tells us, “I’m from the gulf coast. I vacation here. My family spends a lot of time here. I have a personal vested interest in ensuring that we get this job done right.” He feels the pain, too.  With regarded to “vested interest,” Seihan doesn’t disclose his salary

As Seihan continues introducing himself, the bass descends to E-flat and the harmony fills out that chord. The music has almost surreptitiously shifted to the sunnier major mode.  With this simplest of musical means, the BP troubadour—perhaps a Gulf Coast hippy paid off to calm the savage beast of public opinion, or more likely a big-city studio musician—signals that although a great tragedy has occurred, BP has taken full responsibility. There are far more gallons of hope in the Gulf and than there are of oil. After the opening minor chord three major ones proceed in logical order, following a tried-and-true chord progression that many a 17th-century composer and modern-day weekend strummer have found their way through. It is not only the warmer, major sonorities that imply a rosy future for the Gulf. With its logical, almost ineluctable succession of major chords the music conveys not only optimism but progress as well. Has BP recognized the seriousness of the catastrophe, and its minions are moving forward with a series of positive and successful measures.

The filmmakers time things with great precision. The first pass through the four-chord guitar’s cycle, each of which lasts about ten seconds, coincides perfectly with Seihan’s litany of his bona fides. As Seihan stresses his “personal investment,” the harmony is poised on an F-Major chord ready to resolve to B-flat major from where it has just come. But instead the music moves unexpectedly up to the original G minor, closing the circle of the progression, allowing it to beginning again where it started.

In music theory this is called a deceptive cadence, because from the so-called Dominant chord, which in the vast major of Western pieces precedes the final sonority (the Tonic), the ear expects the bass to move down the interval of a fifth (or up a fourth) to come to a close. For a tutorial in this venerable musical convention listen to the close of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the composer alternates between Dominant and Tonic chords at epic length. The BP catastrophe soundtrack would seem to want to send us from the F Major back to B-flat Major. But BP knows it is too early for even a dash of the triumphant heroism of Beethoven’s Fifth. Instead of the full cadence, the bass moves upward by a step, thwarting our expectation, and bringing us to back to the minor. Never was there a deceptive cadence in which message and musical means were more perfectly aligned. It’s precisely at this point that the screen is filled with the ad’s first tag-line: “Making this Right. Beaches.” This exercise in corporate deception should answer any doubts that even the simplest of instrumental music can project meaning.

We next see Seihan on the beach with hotels rising behind him.  Talking directly into the camera now, he introduces himself as head of BP beach clean-up, then recites lines about BP having taken full responsibility for the mess. The music and message are looking towards a bright future: “You may have heard that oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf. Less oil is coming ashore every day.”  This assumes that the job can be done, that oil can be cleaned from grasses and marshes and sediments and vast stretches underwater. The music laps at our consciousness like gentle waves.

By returning to the minor chord again and again through this deceptive cadence, the cyclic soundtrack expresses an underlying message that BP is not going to take the easy way out. There is still much work to be done: “When oil is spotted we get right to work. We still have thousand of people ready to clean up [the oil] when it does [come ashore].” The down-to-earth-guitar strives and strums to lend credence to this corporate fantasy. The music slogs on, moving ceaselessy from concern to hope and back to concern. It is music for the long haul, never tiring, never giving up. But while the mood is firmly confident, it is too early to celebrate on camera, even if the boardroom is dancing to a very different tune as the stock price vigorously rebounds.

With each successive chord plucking relentlessly at the listener’s credulity, the BP guitar wants us to believe in the corporate message of commitment and candor. But the soundtrack’s effect is both more insidious and more instructive than that. Beneath the sheen of sincerity, this music lulls and comforts. It numbs the faculties. All the ads end with one or another of the BP spokesmen, in this case Seihan, saying “We’re going to be here as long as it takes to make this right.” By this point, the hypnotically rocking guitar chords have already becalmed the ears, and the vision blurs against the dancing flames of the flare-stack. Sleep descends and the minstrel steals from the room.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

WORDS THAT STICK
?

 

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

July 01, 2020
Melvin Goodman
De-Militarizing the United States
Kenneth Surin
UK’s Labour Leader Sacks the Most Left-Wing Member of His Shadow Cabinet
Ruth Fowler
Then as Farce: the Commodification of Black Lives Matter
Kent Paterson
Crisis After Crisis on the Border
Rick Baum
The Pandemic and Wealth Inequality
Michael Welton
“Into the World of Bad Spirits”: Slavery and Plantation Culture
James W. Carden
The Return of the Anti-Antiwar Left
Dan Wakefield
Charles Webb Enters Heaven
Julian Vigo
A Call for Radical Humanism: the Left Needs to Return to Class Analyses of Power
Binoy Kampmark
A Trendy Rage: Boycotting Facebook and the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign
Michael D. Knox – Linda Pentz Gunter
As Monuments to War Generals Come Down, Let’s Replace Them with Monuments to Peace
Cesar Chelala
Attorney General William Barr’s Insomnia
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
Is Bolsonaro Plotting a Self-Coup?
Mandy Smithberger
COVID-19 Means Good Times for the Pentagon
Joe Emersberger
On Pablo Celi, Ecuador’s super shady “Auditor General”
June 30, 2020
James Bovard
Bill Clinton’s Serbian War Atrocities Exposed in New Indictment
Bianca Sierra Wolff – Lisa Knox
ICE is Leaving Immigrants to Die in Detention, and Retaliating When They Speak Out
Don Fitz
Should NYC’s Wall Street Be Renamed “Eric Garner St.?”
Chris Hedges
My Student Comes Home
Richard C. Gross
Obamacare Vulnerable
John Feffer
The Hatchet Man’s Tale: Why Bolton Matters
Thomas Knapp
Afghanistan Bounties: Pot, Meet Kettle (and Turn Off the Stove!)
Charles Reitz
Anti-Racist Engagement in the Kansas Free State Struggle, 1854-64: Horace Greeley, German 48-ers, and the Civil War Journalism of Karl Marx, 1861-62
Howard Lisnoff
A Student Murdered in Cold Blood and a Kids’ Bike Ride Through Queens, New York
David Swanson
Hey Congress, Move the Money
Aparna Karthikeyan
Memories of Pox, Plague, and Pandemics in Tamil Nadu
John Kendall Hawkins
Democracy Chasers in a Badly Injured Nation
Binoy Kampmark
Wasteful, Secret and Vicious: the Absurd Prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery
Norman Solomon
Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee Could Defy “the Madness of Militarism” as Co-Chairs of the Democratic Convention’s Biggest Delegation
Jon Hochschartner
Imagining a Vegan Superman
Arianna Amehae
ESPN to Follow “Somebody’s Daughter” in Bringing International Attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Tragedy
CounterPunch News Service
An Osprey Forest in Humboldt County is Being Defended by Treesiters
June 29, 2020
Patrick Cockburn
The Blundering British Political Class has Shown the Same Incompetence in Both Fighting Wars and Coronavirus
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Heat Overwhelms Green Infighting Issues
Kathy Kelly
Battleground States
Eileen Appelbaum
The Pandemic Shows the Importance of Funding Early Childcare and Education Infrastructure
Gregory Elich
Will South Korea’s Moon Defy Trump and Improve Relations with North Korea?
Dean Baker
On the Recession, Stimulus and Economic Recovery
Sam Pizzigati
Defund the CEOs
Mitchel Cohen
Bolton and the Pandemic
Paul A. Passavant
Protest and the Post-Legitimation State
Ralph Nader
Congress Must Hold President Trump Accountable!
George Wuerthner
Missouri River Breaks: How BLM Neglect Threatens a Wild and Scenic River and National Monument
John Feffer
The De-Trumpification of America
Christopher Brauchli
Great Minds Think Alike: Bolsonaro and Trump
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail