Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Sing the Blue Jeans Electric: Walt Whitman For Levi's

"Hi, Walt Whitman for Levi's. A fustian cloth, rough-hewn, enduring, yeoman, riveted,
the fabric of America. These are my pants.
Boot-cut. Perfect fit. Get into them, O shapeless, unformed youth!

American poet, Walt Whitman, has been drafted by advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy of Portland to lead the battle cry, i.e. shill, for the American economy in general and Levi’s jeans in particular in an effort to get the demographic of the young into the venerable working-man’s pants that Whitman likely wore.

“America’s poet was an optimist at a time when it as easier to be a pessimist. He lived through the civil war, one of the darkest periods in American history, and drew strength from the struggle. He saw the potential for greatness that lies in each of us, to flourish in our personal search and build our brave vision of this country. Please accept his words as a small ray of hope.”

So reads the blurb on the website that Levi’s has devoted to the campaign.

While the prospect of young men in his pants is likely pleasing to the spirit of Whitman, I wonder whether he is pleased by the tone of the television campaign.

Whitman’s poetry can be edgy but the edge is always softened by the old-soul calmness and gentleness of his voice in print. Here, the voice-over talent and direction projects a stridency absent on the page, the quiet. primal yearning of the poet transformed into a an urgent, shout-out poetry-slam, flag-waving hipster performance that I suspect would make Whitman wince.

Whitman’s actual voice can be heard on an early wax-cylinder recording reading four lines from his poem, America, used in the Levi’s commercial below:

The voice is old and rough but the gentleness remains.

Contrast that to the voice heard in another commercial in the campaign, a sort of Burning Man incantation of Whitman’s O Pioneers!:

While I’m sure that Whitman would appreciate the pagan-nature/wild-child aspect that is projected, I suspect he might be a bit creeped-out by the hints of the ominous that are manifest in the television ads. And the let-your-freak-flag fly interpretation of Whitman could not be more superficial.

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