Last time I talked about Sarah Vaughan’s still popular cover of “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” and the power of music to enact real cultural and social change. This post I’d like to discuss another form of cultural work done by music: selling stuff! In particular, how “Whatever Lola Wants” has been used in advertising.
But before I move on to commercials featuring Vaughan’s “Lola,” I’d like to begin with this great video of Patti Page singing “Whatever Lola Wants.” It’s not a commercial in the traditional sense of the word, rather an excerpt from Page’s syndicated television show, called The Patti Page Show, from 1955.
By this point in her career, Page had cashed in on her image as a blond, blue-eyed, very sweet girl next door and scored a series of hits, including the novelty tune “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” Like Vaughan, she recorded with Mercury. Unlike Vaughan, however, her rendition of “Lola” is less sultry and seductive. Aside from the opening nod to the “little man,” represented by the creepy looking puppet of an older man with a mustache and tails, this video is about Page’s desire for material possessions: first a luxurious fur coat ($15,000), then a beautiful evening gown ($950), next expensive jewelry ($50,000), and finally a fancy convertible, no doubt an Oldsmobile, the show’s sponsor.
In the context of this video, Page’s interpretation of “Lola” is all about shopping, probably with the little man’s credit card. Its feel and tone is very different from Vaughan’s “Lola” and very different from the first time I heard Page perform “Whatever Lola Wants.” Years ago while researching at the Library of Congress I ran across an unreleased USO recording of the tune intended for broadcast to troops overseas. Page was sharp, hip, and powerful as she belted out the lyrics. She was wailing. So much so that the audio technician helping me that day couldn’t believe that he was actually listening to Patti Page. But I digress.
In this video Lola has been tamed. The sexually empowered, assertive Lola has been replaced by a more innocuous feminine ideal, the happy shopper. Despite her powers of persuasion, the little man most likely maintains control of the purse strings. It’s likely that this version of Lola was more in line with Patti Page’s public persona as an all-American girl next door, not to mention the agendas of show producers who needed to incorporate product placements into the segment (they wanted to make sure that viewers got a good look at the shiny Oldsmobile!). And this performance of “Lola” is certainly more in line with the emerging mid-century American ideals of suburbia, home, and commercialism.
Now let's fast forward to 1999 when Vaughan’s cover of “Lola” was the driving force behind this commercial for Levis Jeans.
Vaughan gives voice to a beautiful artist who uses men to create works of art, which just happen to incorporate the Levis worn by her former loves. These men are not only the objects of her desire but also her canvas. It’s a return to the seductive, empowered Lola, mixed with a touch of rebelliousness. It works. Even though Levis resorted to the tried and true, albeit clichéd, advertising strategy “sex sells,” they chose the perfect soundtrack. Vaughan’s “Lola” evokes a sultry, empowered sexiness that is then elaborated upon on screen. (The commercial doesn’t leave much to the imagination.) And the humor, that playful wink, of the original is captured by Lola’s conquests, the men, at end the end of the commercial. They don’t seem to mind being Lola’s subjects one bit.
Another skillful pairing of music and commerce is Sofia Vergara’s 2011 commercial for Diet Pepsi.
Again Vaughan’s “Lola” is the perfect soundtrack. It complements Vergara’s sex appeal, while playing up her skills as a comedian. The commercial is a playful, tongue-in-cheek take on the Lola character, deftly performed by Vergara, as she schemes to get what she wants: this time a cold diet Pepsi, with a side of David Beckham. The ad inverts how we hear Vaughan’s cover. It plays up the humorous, witty side of the tune while relegating the sexy, seductive message to the background, like an undercurrent.
Both commercials masterfully use Vaughan’s “Whatever Lola Wants” to sell their products. They are both clever, well done, and a lot of fun to watch. And they both reignited interest in Vaughan and her music. This is a good thing. But I’m still trying to decide how important it is that Vaughan, a black woman, gave voice to two Lolas embodied by white women. What does this say about our larger cultural assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality? Does it matter? What do you think?