by Fisher Qua, WHF Director of Health 3.0
A teen pop sensation was born last month when the music video for Rebecca Black's "Friday" went viral. It has since become one of YouTube's most watched (and "disliked") videos of all time with over 130 million views. Aside from the train-wreck nature of the absurd lyrics & accompanying music video there must be some other reason for the song's explosive popularity.
One hint might come from its underlying - and undeniably catchy - compositional structure. "Friday" is based on the familiar I-VI-IV-V 1-VI-V-1 chord progression made famous during the `50's pop boom and replicated by well known hits like "Unchained Melody," "D'yer Mak'er," and "Earth Angel." That particular arrangement of sounds creates an irrepressible earworm that just sticks.
The "stickiness" of that pattern is well known to marketers and is the source of phrases like "sonic branding" (think "Red Robin... Yumm"; "Why buy a mattress anywhere else, ding!"; or the Oscar Meyer Weiner song). As an aside - olfactory and taste branding aren't far behind (see the Subway smell myth and the ominous sounding field of "coercive atmospherics"). The research that goes into this type of elaborate marketing and branding - from authoring jingles to writing pop songs - is quite complex and involves large teams of interdisciplinary scientists and designers. The Music DNA project for instance purports to have unlocked the key to the perfect pop song.
While on the surface all this stuff seems kind of cool, the underlying motivation behind it all is less-than-rosy. The goal of branding, marketing, and pop-music-by-rote is to simply get us to buy more stuff - more iTunes downloads, more mattresses, more hotdogs. The concept behind sonic branding is rather simple: Whenever you think "hotdog," the Oscar Meyer song will immediately jump into your head and you'll make a corresponding purchasing decision based on that association.
This type of "biomathematical" research that goes into writing pop songs isn't too different from what happens in the food industry... where, you guessed it, the goal is the same: to drive consumption not produce better health. "Friday" was written to be catchy & impulsively purchased - not to be a master work of art (for the debate about whether art, at its heart, is a commercial enterprise watch Exit Through the Gift Shop).
The difference is that driving consumption of bad pop music isn't detrimental to your health (though it could have undocumented repercussions on your emotional and mental wellbeing). On the other hand, foods that are designed for mass consumption have been implicated as major factors in the obesity epidemic. There's a phrase in the food industry that refers to salt-sugar-fat as "hitting three points of the compass." Food manufacturers know that we have the same irrepressible biological reaction to s-s-f that we have to earworms. Once we've tasted something rich in s-s-f that sensation gets "stuck" with us. Think about the Pringles mantra - "once you pop, you can't stop."
And the food industry continues to poor R&D dollars into developing these "designer foods." Taco Bell just recently tested a new shell made out of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Nestle has a built a giant artificial gut to test how the nerve center in our bellies work (we have a "second brain" cluster of neurons next to the stomach). So what are we to do? How can we as individuals stay on the straight-and-narrow to better health when our own biology is being used against us?
The Washington Health Foundation's Health HoME concept can help. By empowering people to take back control - over their relationships with the medical care system, over the food they eat, over how they define health happiness and wellbeing - Health HoMEs give people a framework to better understand health and make decisions and act in harmony with their values and beliefs instead of having those choices artificially made or limited for them.