How BP Harnesses Music To Its Message

by David Yearsley, August 11, 2010

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.)

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