Strummm-ba-dumm-ba dum-ba (diiink-dink-dink-dink-diiiink)
May 10, 2016 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Where and when did the trend of ukulele-and-xylophone music for commercials come from?

I understand that the ukulele has been a pretty popular instrument for a while now, mostly due to the fact that they are not too hard to learn to play (but as I understand it, hard to learn to play well).

And yes, I remember-- Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I am more wondering where the Pinterest-flavored uke-and-xylophone mix comes from (as parodied here, and seen for real here, {however with piano}, and here).

I have heard this type of music used in wedding videos sent to me by friends, in countrified and Southern-style FoodTV shows, and in tampon commercials. It seems, to me, to signal "female and craftsy."

I am just wondering where it all started. And maybe when, if anyone has an idea.
posted by oflinkey to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I actually think Israel Kamakawiwo'ole is probably the origin of the trend. I remember hearing "Over The Rainbow" on the soundtrack of my yoga studio probably 10 years ago, where it was used to strike exactly the uplifting and whimsical note that commercials use it for today. I had heard the song before then, but that's the first time I heard it in sort of a "commodified" space, for lack of a better term.

According to Wikipedia, "Over The Rainbow" was used in a toy commercial in 1999 and was featured on several movie and TV soundtracks in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Stuff like this definitely trickles down, from an episode of Grey's Anatomy to a kid on youtube to a yogurt commercial to Ubiquitous Canned Uke Music used to evoke a pinterest/etsy sort of vibe in general.
posted by Sara C. at 4:23 PM on May 10, 2016

There are probably some other things to take into account, like the fact that these are cheap instruments, and music production has been "democratized" over the last decade (at least) with the introduction of extremely budget-friendly music software like GarageBand. Which itself is part of a wider DIY thing, but I can't really speak to how that unfolded. Maybe the corporate history of Etsy has some clues.

This applies to the whistling & hand clapping stuff too.
posted by circular at 4:28 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the huge popularity of the Juno soundtrack played a role as well - for a few years after, I would hear various songs from it in commercials and I think the general "strummy/twee" style got appropriated for other commercials and then stock music sites.
posted by lunasol at 4:51 PM on May 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

I was thinking about making the same comparison. It's not a Uke/Xylophone song, but the use of "Anyone Else But You" by the Moldy Peaches (which also has a homespun feel and was represented in the movie by an acoustic guitar duet) sprung up in commercials right around Peak Uke.
posted by Sara C. at 5:07 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Stuff like this definitely trickles down

Yes, definitely this. I can't be sure what the Patient Zero is for the uke&xylophones trend, but my gut feeling is a critically acclaimed indie film about 10 years ago using a similar track at a heartwarming point, or in the trailer.

I still hear stock music in currently produced TV that I'm 95% sure is a bad reworking of the American Beauty soundtrack. That spawned literally thousands of cheaper imitators. Yes, that was due to its success and catchiness, but I'm sure it's also partially due to it's stripped down minimalism and ease of recreation with Logic Pro and and handful of sample libraries.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:23 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lunasol, I was thinking of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine too.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:24 PM on May 10, 2016

There may well be a rights-free music track in this style included in one of the Free Music Libraries that are used by a lot of creators who are making Pinteresty content for YouTube or iMovie, which would also make that sound more popular.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:13 PM on May 10, 2016

Best answer: Okay. This is one of my pet peeves. You're not hearing a xylophone, you're hearing a glockenspiel. If it's a metallic bell sound, it's a glockenspiel. A xylophone is always wooden; that's what the "xylo-" part means. Some of these examples might have xylophone (or synth bells) but typically you hear glockenspiel.

I actually made my own parody of the genre and posted it to Mefi Music about five years ago; I give you "Sad Glockenspiel Song."
posted by daisystomper at 6:13 PM on May 10, 2016 [14 favorites]

The iconic Apple "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads had music very much in that style. Some of their other ads had similar original compositions, IIRC. The style also has some resemblance to the AOR slightly reggae styled music of Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz.

The ukulele aspect came at least partially out of the manic dream pixie girl/indie woman trope, with Garfunkle and Oates, Zooey Deschanel, and Amanda Palmer sticking out as using them. Jake Shimabukuro also played a part in them become trendy. The Magnetic Fields might have had some influence on the trend, though 69 Love Songs came out some time before I remember them becoming popular.
posted by Candleman at 6:18 PM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yep, just checked and there are lots of pleasant ukulele tracks in the free YouTube Creator Studio music library. I'm listening to one now and it's making me want to paint everything a tasteful-but-fun aqua and then cover it with small succulents.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:21 PM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

"It's Arrested Development."
posted by Room 641-A at 6:23 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's the twee pop aesthetic, which originated in the 80s and flourished in the 90s. In the early 2000s , "indie" started going mainstream in a big way after the Postal Service record in '03, and the Garden State soundtrack (ft. The Shins) in '04 and Arcade Fire's Funeral, both in '04. Now the "indie" sound is thoroughly assimilated and you hear twee stuff in commercials (composed and recorded by people who came up listening to those bands).
posted by ludwig_van at 7:06 PM on May 10, 2016

Best answer: I was just going to suggest the Garden State soundtrack as an influence, but there isn't a specific song that actually has either of the instruments mentioned on it. The Shins' "New Slang" does have this feel to it, with light acoustic rhythm guitar (possibly with a capo) and tambourine, though it doesn't actually make me want to vomit. There is also a Simon & Garfunkel song on there, "The Only Living Boy in New York," and something about this sound is rather Simon & Garfunkel Lite. Iron & Wine's "Such Great Heights" is another offender on that soundtrack in terms of twee acoustic bullshit.

But yeah, then ukulele was a trend—there are still dudes in my neighborhood like every day busking on ukulele—and something about ukulele plus glockenspiel seems to be reassuring enough in some way to new parents that it's used in like every kid-friendly or family-friendly anything commercial, including for cars, insurance, and banks. It's like a call to millennials or Gen Xers or something. (Sorry, ukulele in commercials has actually become mildly triggering to me now. It feels nauseatingly manipulative and derivative. Just two seconds of the Nest video linked in this article about production clichés makes me shudder.)

I think Candleman's onto something with the manic pixie dream girl connection, too. I think a lot of people associate that sound with fresh-faced innocent youth blossoming into inspirational adulthood. See also: I Believe in Unicorns, a movie currently on Netflix that simultaneously grossly exploits and tragically underplays the notion of innocence lost to domestic violence—and is rife with glockenspiel. The internet is also apparently full of people tabbing out ukulele versions of John Mayer's "No Such Thing" and reliving the lost days of running through the halls of their high school.

So those are some examples of the genre. This thread also has some really great (nauseating) examples of this trend and a lot of good discussion regarding its origins and names for it.
posted by limeonaire at 7:58 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, I blame Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach for including this twee indie bullshit in all their movies' soundtracks. I have so much hate in my heart for them.
posted by limeonaire at 8:03 PM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Strummm-ba-dumm-ba dum-ba (diiink-dink-dink-dink-diiiink)

It says a lot that just reading that was enough to summon every single telecoms provider ad on Australian television into my unwilling brain.

See also Ben Lee, Catch My Disease from 2006.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:50 PM on May 11, 2016

Coming in late to say this may be twee as hell, but it's not twee pop's fault! Musically--like, the chords and melody and stuff--it's very similar, but the instrumentation is Twee pop does not use glockenspiels and ukuleles. Twee pop is an outcrop of punk rock. It uses guitars and drums. Often loud ones. The Jesus & Mary Chain are seminal twee pop, and they hold the Guinness record for loudest band ever.

For the roots of this aesthetic, you have to go way further back than the eighties, through Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters singing "Tonight You Belong to Me" in The Jerk (which I would posit is probably patient zero for the sickly sweet ukulele love song in the movies) to '60s acts like the Beach Boys (whence sprung chamber pop, which sees a lot of glockenspieling) and Tiny Tim (godfather of the ironic hipster ukulele) right back to the likes of George Formby et al. The Arrested Development theme in particular is especially Formbyesque.

Another thing to consider is that ukuleles and glockenspiels are really common instruments to learn in grade school, so advertisers might be deliberately pushing the nostalgia buttons not just by using music that is light and playful but also that actually reminds people of their own childhoods. Mind you, you don't hear a lot of recorder in ads...
posted by Sys Rq at 12:36 AM on July 22, 2016

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