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Songs For Sale: The Era of the New Megahit

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The music industry is dead, and good riddance to bad rubbish. Just as we reached the apotheosis of disposable product and inflated prices at the beginning of the decade, peer-to-peer file sharing and the explosion of blogs offering downloadable mp3s made it possible for any computer-savvy music fan to have all the music they wanted for the low, low price of ... free. Revenue streams have gone bone dry, leaving only a few sad ringtones flopping around in the dust.

Furthermore, our method of consumption continues to change dramatically. The record stores are disappearing, and the rise of the internet as a 24-hour clearinghouse for music (and its ugly cousin, music publicity) has corresponded directly with the decline of what is now derisively referred to as "terrestrial" radio.

I remember distinctly being 12 years old and waiting for Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" to hit WMET, my finger trembling over the pause button, wanting desperately to make sure I got the whole thing. Now, virtually every 12-year-old knows how to use iTunes (or Limewire, or Pirate Bay) to access the entire Quarterflash discography in seconds. Not that they'd want to, but they could. How can music retain its mystery, its majesty, when we are all granted unlimited access? Who wants milk when even the cow is free?

We, the listeners, have become a nation of disc jockeys. We cherry-pick the songs we like from TV shows, blog posts, car commercials, and NPR segments. But this has robbed us of the great shared experience of the Megahit, the song that rings out of every open car window and becomes part of our communal vocabulary. Who among us can forget the halcyon summer of 2002, when Nelly's "Hot In Herre" was so ubiquitous, it was if it was being broadcast from space? Or the next year, when we were assaulted with "Crazy In Love" and "Hey Ya" as if we were holed up in a farmhouse in Waco? Sure, there is still the occasional übersmash - I heard "Umbrella" in a Venetian espresso bar last year - but by and large, each of us is walking down the street with our headphones on, oblivious to what anyone else is listening to.

As in any ecosystem, a new and parasitic mutation is coming to fill the void, giving us the tunes that will become part of our lives, our history, our shared cultural identity. I speak, of course, of the jingle.

Certainly, catchy little numbers espousing the qualities of toothpaste, automobiles, and household cleaning products have been with us as long as radio and television themselves. Haven't we all asked ourselves at one time or another: what would I do for a Klondike bar? But as we become a more and more fractured listening audience, these bite-sized morsels of audio junk food have become more firmly entrenched than ever in our collective unconscious.

After putting together some highly unscientific polling data, I can say with confidence that the biggest hit of 2008 has to be Subway's "Five Dollar Footlong" , a minor-key paean to the titular sandwich. This groovy tune has been on the lips of anyone not living "off the grid" since early spring and shows no signs of slowing down - in fact, the company is offering a free "Extended Dance Remix" from their website right now. Because who among us has not wanted to cut loose on the weekend to thumping anthems saluting assemblages of cold cuts?

This year's other giant smash has to be "Free Credit Report Dot Com," with multiple versions clogging the airwaves. The real toe-tapper is the seven-note phrase that punctuates their radio commercials, its placid female harmonies beckoning to us like the sirens of Experian. The hit, unfortunately, is the television version with the three slacker-ish dudes lip-synching offensive palaver that manages to insult both middle-class values and true love. See? It is like listening to Nelly!

The jingle world is not without its novelty hits as well. Those of us who listen to AM radio (baseball enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, and the dangerously lonely) have been treated to an earworm named "1-877-Kars-4-Kids", performed by the least likely voices to hit the radio since Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets." If you've heard it, you know what I mean. If you haven't, I would advise avoiding all radio transmissions until my letter writing campaign is successful.

The phone number for this presumably noble organization is first sung by a guileless boy's voice - not one of those airbrushed child-star singers, but an actual kid. "Sure," you think. "Maybe he's the producer's nephew, or perhaps he's one of the little tots who really needs my used or unwanted car." But just as the first chorus trails off, the second one begins, intoned joylessly by a man who sounds like Hank Williams on sodium pentathol. You can almost hear him sweating as he squeezes all three syllables out of the word "kids." This is either a vanity exercise for someone at the ad agency, or AN INSIDIOUS PLOT TO HYPNOTIZE US INTO SURRENDERING OUR BELOVED AUTOMOBILES. Regardless, it's enough to make you swear off charity for good.

This new trend has not escaped the record industry, long known for changing course with the speed and grace of the Andrea Doria. In fact, R&B superstar Chris Brown's new single "Forever" is actually an extended version of a jingle he was commissioned to write for Doublemint gum. Is this a harbinger of the new music business model? If you see Christina Aguilera at Subway, you'll know something is afoot.