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Needle Drop: Six Songs That Apple Commercials Taught Us to Love

When iPods and MacBooks were popular enough to create pop stars.
  • Photo: Apple
    Photo: Apple

    Welcome to Needle Drop, our ongoing series about crucial pop music moments on TV. It's brought to you by Mark Blankenship, Primetimer's Reviews Editor and the co-host of the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    For almost as long as there have been TV commercials, there have been hit songs that got their start in advertisements. Back in 1969, "We've Only Just Begun" was in a bank commercial before the Carpenters made it into a smash. In 1971, Coca-Cola's feel-good hippie spot "Buy the World a Coke" featured the first version of the song that became "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." That tune was so popular that two different versions reached the top 20 just a few months apart, and years later it inspired the final moment of Mad Men.

    But when it comes to making hit singles through advertising, no company compares to Apple. In the late Aughts, their commercials for iPods and MacBooks briefly became one of the defining factors in popular music. When Coldplay launched their massive song "Viva La Vida," they started the buzz with an iTunes ad. Even Bob Dylan promoted his album Modern Times by singing "Someday Baby" in a spot for the iPod.

    But even more impressive than Apple's ability to land A-list musicians was their brief prowess at turning unknown artists into stars. For a few years there, the company's spots were powerful enough to give obscure artists a serious career.

    This makes sense. In 2007, we were still in the aftermath of Napster, the music streaming service that upended the music business and made almost every song ever recorded freely available to anyone on the internet. Listeners quickly became accustomed to having limitless choices, so when Apple introduced both the iTunes store and, more importantly, the iPod music player, they turned that freedom into a business model. As record companies got illegal uploads of their music yanked off sharing sites, iTunes became the most reliable place to have a Napsterlike experience. And the iPod, because it could hold thousands of tracks, let us carry those choices with us wherever we went.

    In the process, a new culture of discovery took hold among music fans, and by putting unknown songs into many of their ads, Apple suddenly became a mass-market purveyer of what was coming next. This didn't last forever, of course; eventually iPods got phased out in favor the iPhone, streaming services like Spotify emerged, and outlets like Netflix made it easy to avoid commercials altogether. But for a while, Apple's spots birthed some of the most unusual hits to find their way to the charts.

    Here are six songs that Apple commercials taught us to love.

    1. "1234" by Feist

    She was alraedy a respected indie rocker, but when Feist ended up in a cool ad for the iPod Nano, she suddenly became a very big deal. Her song "1234" reached number eight on the Hot 100, and in a sure sign of its popularity, it got her invited to Sesame Street. She also landed a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.

    2. "New Soul" by Yael Naim

    American radio doesn't provide much space for an artist like Yael Naim, a French-born Israeli-raised singer-songwriter whose sonically adventurous music is instantly catchy but not easy to categorize. But after her peppy ditty "New Soul" turned up in a commercial for the MacBook Air, it landed at #7 on the Hot 100. This is one of the coolest parts of Apple's brief reign: They used their cachet to push music that not only sold their products, but also offered something different. The fact that many of these songs were by women was an added bonus that helped level the playing field in a traditionally what was then still a male-dominated business.

    3. "Flathead" by The Fratellis

    This one is an outlier for several reasons: 1) The Fratellis are an all-male rock band, and the Apple ads tended to break songs by women, and 2) Their garage rock music is more akin to The White Stripes or The Strokes than the dreamier indie sounds of Feist. Still, thanks to appearing in one of the first iPod ads to use the signature "sillhouettes of people dancing" trope, their song "Flathead" became the band's only U.S. hit. (They're still doing well in their native U.K.)

    4. "Music is My Hot Hot Sex" by CSS

    In case you needed further proof that the iPod won the "Mp3 player" wars, this stomping rock anthem was featured in a 2006 ad for Microsoft's Zune, but it wasn't until Apple picked it up the following year for an iPod Touch commercial that it reached the Hot 100. That made CSS the first Brazilian band to ever appear on the chart.

    5. "Bruises" by Chairlift

    Chairlift didn't quite reach the stratosphere after their catchy ditty "Bruises" landed in an iPod Nano spot, but they are on record as saying it changed their career all the same. The song "bubbled under" the Hot 100, meaning it peaked around 101 or 102, but this writer can attest that the exposure granted by the ad made them popular enough to get booked at some of the cooler indie music joints in New York City. Band member Patrick Wemberly would later that wave of success to become a composer for film and TV, including HBO's "High Maintenance."

    6. "Shut Up and Let Me Go" by The Ting Tings

    After an iTunes commercial helped send their raucous rocker "Shut Up and Let Me Go" onto the chart, the Tings Tings followed it up with "That's Not My Name," which also hit the Hot 100. That makes them the only act on this list to land a second hit single (although Feist has continued to do well as an albums artist.) Like Feist, the band also got a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. They lost to the Zac Brown Band, whose involvement with a recent Applebee's commercial wasn't nearly as beneficial to their careers as a MacBook spot might have been.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Apple, commercials