The Cruel (But Effective) Agony of the Kars4Kids Jingle

Kars4Kids, YouTube
Kars4Kids, YouTube

It can happen suddenly and without warning. Driving in your vehicle, a commercial break comes on. In addition to the standard pleas to use a specific laundry detergent or contemplate debt consolidation, the voice of a preadolescent, out-of-tune child materializes. Your grip on the steering wheel gets tighter. The child begins to warble:

1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kars for Kids, 1-EIGHT-SEVEN-SEVEN-Kars-4-Kids, Donate Your Car Today …

An adult breaks in to repeat the lyrics. The two begin to sing in unison:

1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kaaaaars for Kiiiids…Donate Your Car Today!

In roughly a minute, it’s over. You go on with your day. But the song’s repetitive melody sticks to your brain like sap. You hear it when preparing dinner. While brushing your teeth. As you put your head on the pillow. When it's finally worked its way out of your brain and you've started to forget, it reappears.

The song is engineered to be obnoxious. And its producers wouldn't have it any other way.

 
 

Since 1999, an untold number of Americans have found themselves reduced to mewling heaps of distress following exposure to the Kars4Kids jingle. The 501(c) nonprofit organization based in Lakewood, New Jersey, spends up to $17 million annually making sure this earwig of a commercial is played across the country. While the purpose is not expressly to annoy you, the fact that the song is irritating is what makes it memorable. And successful. And more than a little controversial.

Kars4Kids began in 1995 as a way to capitalize on the trend of automotive owners donating their unwanted cars in exchange for a tax deduction. Owners who donate their vehicles are able to get an IRS write-off—though typically for only a percentage of the current value—if they declare it a charitable donation. Kars4Kids arranges for the vehicle to be towed away and sold at auction, with proceeds going to afterschool and summer programs for students.

According to the organization, business was slow until one of their volunteers had an idea to craft a commercial song. The melody was purchased from a singer and songwriter named Country Yossi, and Kars4Kids enlisted a child to perform it at an in-house recording session. It debuted in the New York market in 1999, and spread like the plague to the West Coast by 2005 and nationally by 2007.

Aside from Yossi, however, the company has repeatedly declined to identify anyone else involved with creating the song. The reason? Death threats. The tune has apparently enraged people to the point of contemplating murder. Speaking to SanFranciscoGate.com in 2016, music cognition expert Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis said that the combination of repetitive structure and the overly simplistic message was engineered to grate the listener's nerves.

“This simple melodic line is also probably responsible for some of the annoyance,” she said. “These kinds of three and four note lines are often the ones specially crafted for kids learning how to play instruments ... It probably conjures up associations of painful practice sessions.”

 
 

The line between irritating and memorable is often blurry. Kars4Kids has repeatedly pointed to the song as being effective in driving telephone traffic to their number. When they debuted a television commercial in 2014—complete with lip-syncing kids who subsequently got bullied for their participation in the spot—donations went up by 50 percent. To date, the company has received 450,000 cars. In 2017, contributions totaled $39 million.

Surprisingly, people have reserved animosity for something other than the commercial. In 2017, Minnesota's attorney general chastised Kars4Kids for not making it clear to donors that many of the children who benefit from the fundraising are located in the northeast: Kids in Minnesota received just $12,000 of the $3 million raised in that state. Other times, the organization has been criticized for leaving information out of their solicitations. In 2009, both Pennsylvania and Oregon fined the charity for failing to disclose a religious affiliation. (Most of the funds raised go toward Orthodox Jewish groups.) Oregon’s Department of Justice said that Kars4Kids needed to disclose such information in its ads.

Those speed bumps aside, the jingle shows no signs of leaving the airwaves any time soon. Rather than run from the negative response, Kars4Kids marinates in it, sharing hateful diatribes from others on social media.

“Newer people join the [media] team and when they are first exposed to the level of hatred on Twitter they'll be like, 'Are you sure you think this is a good idea that we should keep on playing this?,'" Wendy Kirwan, Kars4Kids’s director of public relations, told Billboard in 2016. “And we've looked at that time and again, and we've come to the conclusion that it's definitely worth sticking with.”

Los Angeles Philharmonic to Perform a Piece of Music that Involves Dropping Melons on the Ground

iStock/VinokurovYury
iStock/VinokurovYury

This weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform a piece of music that involves dropping melons from a great height and listening to the sound they make.

That’s nearly a word-for-word description of the performance instructions for Ken Friedman’s 1966 piece, Sonata for Melons and Gravity, which will be performed on Saturday, November 17. The instructions simply say: “Drop melons / from a great height. / Listen to the sound.” [PDF]

The performance is part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Fluxus Festival. Staged in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute, the melon-fueled Fluxconcert will be “one of the largest Fluxus events ever to be put on by a major symphony orchestra,” according to a press release.

Fluxus defies definition. The progeny of Dada—the anti-art bad boy of the early 20th century—Fluxus was a rebellious experimental art movement that took pleasure in mocking the idea of “high art.” Generally, it employs mixed media and absurd humor to challenge ideas of what is, and isn’t, art. (Case and point: Fluxus co-founder George Maciunas once composed a piece entitled Solo for Balloons.) More than make you giggle, these irreverent works aim to break down the stuffy boundaries between everyday life and the concert hall.

With that spirit in mind, the L.A. Philharmonic is the perfect place for a Fluxus concert. The Philharmonic is an institution known for breaking the barriers of what an orchestra can and should be doing. For the past few years, the group has been defying the stereotype that an orchestra is a domain dedicated to the desiccated works of dead men: This season, the L.A. Philharmonic will feature works by 61 living composers—including more than 50 entirely new pieces—plus 22 works by women.

(For comparison, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's current season is programmed to include pieces by just four living composers and a total of zero women. Brian Lauritzen of Classical KUSC points out that, in 2017, the L.A. Phil programmed more compositions by women than the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra combined.)

In addition to the melon drop, there will be a performance of Alison Knowles’s Wounded Furniture, Shoes of Your Choice, and Nivea Cream Piece as well as George Maciuna’s Solo for Conductor. And while there’s no word what kind of fruit will be used for Sonata for Melons and Gravity, we’re placing bets on honeydew.

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

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